On writing about Raden Saleh for National Geographic Indonesia

In May 2012, National Geographic Indonesia publishes an article I did, about Indonesia’s first modern painter Raden Saleh.
(Read the article here in Bahasa Indonesia; see the the photographs here with captions in Bahasa Indonesia.)

I proposed the story in mid-2011 as an inspired reader of old copies of National Geographic magazine. I have editions that feature the lives and works of great artists like the American painter Winslow Homer, the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, the American painter Andrew Wyeth and his family, the Russian poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, the American poet Walt Whitman, and many more. Indonesia also has many great artists but I had never seen one featured in the Indonesian edition of National Geographic.

So I proposed to them to do a story about Indonesian artist; any artist. I remember I suggested to them either poet Chairil Anwar, painter Affandi, poet W.S. Rendra, or painter Raden Saleh, among others. Few days later the editors replied me with good news: they accepted my idea. They wanted to do Raden Saleh, as they had planned to do it few years back, but it had never materialized into print. I actually proposed the story as a photographer, as I knew many experts and researchers had chronicled the painter’s life in writing (articles, book chapters, even whole books), but I have never seen one in pictures. But then as my research began, the editors decided to assign me to also do the writing.

I started my research by flipping through art books that mention anything about the painter Raden Saleh Syarif Bustaman. I remember I read one at Aisyah Hilal’s house, so I went there again to re-read the book. She suggested me to find more books on the subject at Indonesian Visual Art Archive, where she once worked few years ago. I asked its current director Farah Wardani, and she helped me finding the books in its library. I also asked for suggestions from Nuraini Juliastuti and Antariksa of Kunci Cultural Studies Center as they both have more experiences in doing research on art and history, among other topics.

The list of names to interview, books to read, places to visit grew from there. It really was not easy. Almost every books that I read have their own versions—different dates, different years, different stories, different names. In order to get confirmation, I needed to get to the original sources, or at least people who really know the original sources. Grace Samboh introduced me to Hélène Feillard, who then introduced me to Marie-Odette Scalliet, a French scholar who chronicled the biography of Antoine Payen, Raden Saleh’s teacher. Enin Supriyanto introduced me to Werner Kraus, a German scholar who then told me that he has researched on Raden Saleh for more than twenty years.

It was a coincidence that when I was doing my research on Raden Saleh, Werner Kraus was preparing (as the curator) Raden Saleh’s first ever solo exhibition—the painter died at 69 in 1880 and never had a solo exhibition until now. It was a coincidence that when I contacted Werner Kraus, he told me that he was coming to Jakarta in few weeks so I could meet him. It was also a coincidence that the exhibition, planned for February 2012, was then rescheduled to June 2012, in time for the publication of my article in May 2012.

I began my research in April 2011—technically a year ago—and since then the assignment had taken me from Yogyakarta to Magelang and Semarang in Central Java, Bogor and Bandung in West Java, and Jakarta, among other places. Unfortunately I could not go to Dresden in Germany, where Raden Saleh is believed to have transformed into a real artist; not just a man who could make good portraits on commission, but an artist who painted what was on his mind. I read numerous books, most notably the biographies of Raden Saleh by Sukondo Bustaman (1951, published 1981) and by Harsja Bachtiar (1976, published 2010), numerous papers in foreign languages, either in print or on screen, among many other readings, also interviewed a dozen experts.

Yogyakarta, the city I live in, has long been known as one of the centres of art activities in Indonesia, both traditional and contemporary arts. This proved to be beneficial in doing my research, as I could easily meet many artists and curators who live here or frequently visit the city to ask for their opinions or to discuss about Raden Saleh, his art, or the art in his time. It was also really helpful for me as I already make friends and often hang out with people in the Yogyakarta art scene, so I didn’t need much introduction. They even helped me establishing contacts with other artists, curators, collectors, and researchers from other cities.

In Semarang, I searched for the whereabouts of the painter’s childhood home, where he was born in (maybe) 1811. In northern Semarang, near Kota Lama area (the old city of Semarang) I found a small alley that bears his family name, Bustaman. It is within Jalan Pekojan, now one of the main entries to the city’s Chinatown but was once inhabited by the Khojas (Moslem people from India) and the Arabs. It seemed to fit, as Saleh was an Arab descent, according to the genealogy compiled by a historian. But I found no trace of his great name. Nobody there knows him; an elder I met told me that he was only told that the name of the kampong is related to the name of the painter, but he does not know about the painter at all. Historians mention that Saleh was brought up in nearby Terbaya by his uncle who at that time was the bupati (regent) of Semarang. Yet there is hardly an old building in the present-day Terbaya.

In Jakarta, I went to Raden Saleh’s old mansion in Cikini, which is now a hospital owned by a Christian foundation. When Saleh moved to Bogor in late 1860s, the mansion was then owned by an Arab trader, from whom a Christian humanitarian organization bought it in 1897 and turned it into a hospital a year later. Located next to Ciliwung River, he designed it himself after the Callenberg castle where he used to stay during his visits in Dresden. He built the house in 1852, soon after he returned from his long stay in Europe. The big mansion was so famous that the street in front of it was called Raden Saleh Street since then, until now. The mansion is still standing there. The current management of the hospital used it for their offices, but had to abandon it in 2004 as the original wood floor rotted. The rehabilitation was only being carried out in early 2012 as my article was being edited for publication, so no mention of the rehabilitation in it. The rehabilitation is probably undertaken by the Jakarta government, not the hospital management, as the mansion is a protected cultural heritage.

Interview with Oei Hong Djien at his private art museum in Magelang, Central Java. Photo: Riksa Afiaty

In Magelang, I went to interview a private art collector to get insights on how collectors view Raden Saleh and his paintings. Interestingly, this collector told me that he is not really interested in collecting Raden Saleh since the generation gap is too far (almost two hundred years). He prefers to collect the works of Indonesian masters of his time (20th century), some of whom he actually knew in person before they died. But as he built a private museum for his rich collections, historical aspect became important, and Raden Saleh could not be forgotten as Indonesia’s first modern painter. So he bought one Raden Saleh a few years ago, a wonderful portrait but in really poor condition, which had just been rehabilitated few weeks before my visit. I also visited the former house of the Resident of Kedu, not far from the collector’s home. It was where the Dutch General Hendrik Merkus de Kock arrested the legendary Java War leader Prince Dipanagara in March 1830 thus ending the war, a scene that became Saleh’s most important painting in 1857.

In Bandung, I searched for places Saleh might have set his foot on. Bandung is rarely mentioned in any Raden Saleh biographies but a researcher told me Saleh once lived there with his teacher Payen in 1820s. I decided to try to find out more, so I went to Bandung. I met a researcher who told me about a book that mentions Payen’s house. The book also mentions Raden Saleh, but the information is really different from other biographies. I tried my luck to search the indicated location of the house, though the book says it was already demolished in the 1980s for road construction. But anyway I found its whereabouts—it is now a warehouse of a hardware store. I also tried to crosscheck it to an art curator, who turned out to refer the same book. Curious and in doubt, I asked to see the book to check its references. He told me the book does not have references. Ah, okay then.

I also went to Bogor, the city where, other than Bandung, Saleh also spent his childhood practicing the art of Western painting and where he spent his later life with his wife until their death in 1880. Raden Saleh sold his Cikini mansion and moved to Bogor in 1868, where he rented a house next to a hotel named Belle Vue, near to Ciliwung River. The hotel is now a shopping mall, and the house is now a government office. In 1870s he made a second journey to Europe with his wife, but unfortunately his wife got ill and was never fully recovered. Saleh died 23 April 1880 due to thrombosis, and was buried two days later in a land he actually bought for his wife’s grave not far from their house. His wife died of her illness three months later and was buried next to him.

Researching, photographing, and writing are three really different things. The latter proved to be the most difficult in this case (well okay, each has its own difficulties, of course). Having a long list of readings was good and enriching, but on the other hand, it means the topic is not new. The first question that many people I met for this research asked me was almost always the same: What else do you want to write about Raden Saleh? It really hit me and made me think really hard. My original idea to retrace the footsteps of the painter and make photographs out of it has also changed since then—in fact, the magazine printed my long writing but only four photographs (though they published more online), combined with old photographs of Raden Saleh and lithographs of his paintings.

In doing my research and writing the feature, I owe these people so much for their help (in no particular order):
Aisyah Hilal and Dwi Oblo; Farah Wardani, Melisa Angela, Pitra Ayu Hutomo, also Santosa at Indonesian Visual Art Archive; Nuraini Juliastuti, Ferdiansyah Thajib, Syafiatudina, also Brigitta Isabella at Kunci Cultural Studies Center; Antariksa who shared a lot of his knowledge and experiences; J.J. Rizal of Komunitas Bambu; Gustaff H. Iskandar of Common Room Networks Foundation; Amir Sidharta of Museum Universitas Pelita Harapan; Aminudin T.H. Siregar of Institut Teknologi Bandung’s Galeri Soemardja; Titarubi of Indonesia Contemporary Art Network; Peter B.R. Carey of Oxford University; Sardono W. Kusumo of Institut Kesenian Jakarta; Werner Kraus and his assistant Irina Vogelsang; Marie-Odette Scalliet of Leiden University; Hélène Feillard; Grace Samboh; Enin Supriyanto; Heri Pemad; Sunario Sampoerna; James Riady; Oei Hong Djien; Angki Purbandono; Wimo Ambala Bayang; Iwan Effendi and Ria Tri Sulistyani; Yong Yen Nie who shared her insights on writing; Agung Kurniawan and Yustina Neni; Suwarno Wisetrotomo and Mikke Susanto of Institut Seni Indonesia Yogyakarta; Layung Buworo; Mia Maria of Linggar Seni who introduced conservator Selina Halim to me; Jim Supangkat; Rosiana K.S. of R.S. P.G.I. Cikini; Lenny Ratnasari Weichert of Kersan Art Space who hosted Jutta Tronicke’s presentation; Nindityo Adipurnomo and Mella Jaarsma, also Sita Sari Trikusumawardhani and Theodora Agni of Cemeti Art House; Ikun Sri Kuncoro, Irfanuddien Ghozali, Galatia Puspa Sani Nugraha, also Muhammad Anis Baasyin of Kandang Jaran; Gading Paksi; Fakhri Zakaria; Riksa Afiaty; Sandi Sanjaya Putra; Rinda Maria Panjaitan; Dito Yuwono and Mira Asriningtyas, also Kurniadi Widodo; Herlambang Jatmiko; Tarlen Handayani; Beawiharta who took me out from Jakarta in his car; last but not least, editors at National Geographic Indonesia, Didi Kasim, Firman Firdaus, Reynold Sumayku, and Mahandis Yoanata Thamrin. I thank you all those who helped, mentioned or unmentioned here.

The editors made my article the cover story for May 2012 edition of National Geographic Indonesia, which to be honest, really is a great honor but at the same time burdening me. I am not someone who has been researching and writing art history for many years. I am a photographer who enjoys good friendship with artists, writers, researchers, curators, apart of other photographers; which then proves an old saying: Friends are treasure. Now, I really look forward for Raden Saleh’s solo exhibition next month. ∎

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3 thoughts on “On writing about Raden Saleh for National Geographic Indonesia

  1. Pingback: Raden Saleh exhibition and talkshow « Budi N.D. Dharmawan

  2. Pingback: Raden Saleh exhibition and talk show | Budi N.D. Dharmawan

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