May 23, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Soul painting

Published: Sep 30, 2007

A book that testifies to the burgeoning of the arts in Indonesia over the last thirty years.

Astri Wright, Soul, Spirit and Mountain: Preoccupations of contemporary Indonesian painters, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1994, RRP: AU$120.-.


Not since Claire Holt's exposition of the arts in Indonesia published in 1967 has there been anything as comprehensive as 'Soul, Spirit and Mountain'.Unlike Holt's book which embraced two- and three-dimensional art, Wright's thesis addresses only the two-dimensional arts of drawing and painting.This testifies to the burgeoning of these arts in Indonesia over the last thirty years.

There is information about well-known painters such as Affandi, his daughter Kartika, and the earlier revolutionaries such as Hendra and Srihadi, now a painter of ethereal, kinetic women.


Islamic painters' abstract works are well represented.These rely heavily on the elements of art - colour, texture, line, shape and tone.Artists such as Sadall, Amri Yahya and Pirous delight in exploring the beauty of the Arabic script.They faithfully adhere to the Islamic edict to exclude representation of natural forms in the imagery they create in praise of their God.

Wright poses the notion of the mountain as 'a metaphor for the spiritual'.She explores its persistence and significance in architectural and sculptural forms throughout Indonesia.She examines the impact of mysticism on modern painters.While acknowledging the range of religious expression throughout the archipelago, it is most commonly embodied in the Javanese practice of kebatinan, based on the 'essential oneness of all existence'.

Wright gathered much of her material through ethnographic research, engaging in dialogue with many of the artists represented, and delving deeply in search of the essence that drives an artist.

'Soul, Spirit and Mountain' is not the sort of book one reads from cover to cover.It is a most welcome resource for art historians, students and those seeking more than postcard-like reproductions of the works of specific artists.


My only concern about the text is that Wright seems to abandon her exploration of the metaphors by the time she reaches the conclusion.Given the significance of 'soul', 'spirit' and 'mountain' at the beginning of the thesis, it is puzzling why these metaphors are not alluded to in the conclusion.She ponders the aesthetic rather than the symbolic nature of modern Indonesian painting.

It is a pleasure to browse through this book, to discover the quirkiness of Ivan Satigo's visions; the hallucinogenic surrealism of Lucia Hartini's powerful images; the disturbing juxtapositions of old and new, traditional and modern, in Dede Eri Supria's steely observations; as well as the host of other painters represented in this comprehensive publication.

The choice of Nyoman Erawan's mixed media work 'Ancient Time' for the cover is commendable.His manipulation of traditional materials acknowledges and redefines those items deemed 'art' or 'craft' by Westerners, but held sacred yet impermanent over the centuries by Indonesians.The impermanence and fragility of these textiles are clearly demonstrated.But they have taken on new meaning in a twentieth century context, preserved and admired in this work for aesthetic rather than religious reasons.This book is a treasure, and long overdue.

Alison Taylor is a writer living in Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 48: Oct-Dec 1996

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