raden saleh exhibition

Raden Saleh dan Awal Seni Lukis Modern Indonesia
Galeri Nasional
3-17 June 2012





Raden Saleh was a very famous painter from 19th century Indonesia, the first painter with a style of European romantic paintings. Born in 1811 from a noble Javanese family, Raden Saleh was first taught by Belgian artist A.J. Payen. Realising Saleh’s talent, Payen sent him to the Netherlands, where he studied painting under Cornelius Kruseman and Andries Schelfhout.He lived in Europe for 20 years, travelling from one city to another to develop his skills. However, I learnt from the video shown during the exhibition that Raden Saleh was rather spoiled, probably because he was raised as a nobleman in Java and was used to be served and respected.

In 1851 he returned to Indonesia, where he worked as a conservator and taught drawing at schools. His lithographs for the study were also displayed at the exhibition.

I was really interested in these lithographs. They were really nice and humble, all accompanied by a caption in four languages (Indonesian, Dutch, Javanese, and Arabic)

The famous (and also controversial) painting of “Capture of Prince Diponegoro” was displayed in the main hall, and it seemed to attract a lot of people (mostly artists) to take photos with the painting. Yes, not only to take photos of, but also with. This painting, in my point of view, is the crown jewel of the collection. For Indonesians, whose photographical history didn’t include that capture, the painting was a genuine symbol of the historic event. Loosely based on my memory (from the history books I read during my primary school years), Prince Diponegoro was cunningly deceived by the Dutch in an agreement and imprisoned.

It was that same painting that put my blood to boil when I read the caption at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, as it said (more or less): “Prince Diponegoro surrendered to the Dutch after losing in an agreement”. Of course, since the museum is Dutch-owned, it would not say “Prince Diponegoro was cunningly deceived by the Dutch government”. Well, we still have no idea which version was true, since at that time there’s no such thing as CCTV or voice recorders. So who knows?

The wikipedia is on our side thou ;-)

The exhibition also displayed the sketch of this painting, which I found it much more interesting than the whole painting itself, as it was still very well preserved.

More of his great paintings were the action paintings involving wild animals, mostly lions. This sort of paintings include lions attacking a pack of Arabs in horses, a lion eating a horse, and a portrait of the great lion itself. I found the lion portrait very mesmerising, also the sketches of this hairy mammal.

I was wondering why he actually chose Arabs as the fighting soldiers in his paintings, instead of Indonesians. Well, maybe because lions don’t really live in Indonesia (it’s not our indigenous animal), and probably because Raden Saleh himself was an Arab descent (from his father’s side). But then I started to realise (or subjectively conclude) that the Arabs depicted in Raden Saleh’s paintings were not from the Gulf, but from the Maghreb. Moreover, Raden Saleh went to Algeria in 1846 where he got his inspiration to paint wild animals.

However, in my personal point of view, these paintings are rather ironic. Lions are famous for being symbols of Western countries (the Netherlands, England), and were depicted attacking a group of non-Europeans. The people in horses looked very afraid as they saw the lions, as if non-Europeans were afraid to the occupation of European countries.

Anyway, this sort of paintings greatly interested art collectors in Europe at that time, probably because there were not a lot of paintings where the subjects were in action. Even the awkward poses of the Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq (or known as The Nightwatch) by Rembrandt was considered a masterpiece (although I think it was more because of the how the light was painted, instead of the strange poses), as it was the first portrait painting where the subjects were in action.

I like more of his tigers than his lions btw ;-)

And of course there were his famous portrait and landscape paintings. My favourite was the “Drinking Tiger”, and I think the portraits were similar to the style of Jan Steen, Frans Hals, and Rembrandt. Looking at his landscape paintings was also like looking at paintings done by Dutch painters during the golden era, those heavily displayed in Rijksmuseum and Mauritshuis.


The paintings depicting Indonesia’s landscapes were of course highly favoured by Europeans. After all, it showed them the other side of the world, the world they had never seen before. Just like the role of photography in the modern world, I guess.

Another favourites were some watercolour paintings, displayed near the lithographs. I really love this tea set painting — I love still life, basically.

Anyway, I went to visit this exhibition with Titing, on a pretty busy Saturday, a week after the exhibition started running. Luckily not on the very final day of the exhibition, because the queue was insane – almost like queuing for Louvre in the summer.

Raden Saleh’s paintings were not really my sort of genre, and I guess I overexpected his greatness. Don’t get me wrong, his paintings were great, but I thought it would be far greater. Again, maybe because realism is not really my favourite genre.

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