Arts |

Affandi’s London Escapades

Arts | 18 June 2019

While it is not discussed enough, London has actually been an important hub in introducing early Indonesian art globally. In 1952, an exhibition of Affandi’s paintings was held at the Indonesian embassy there, featuring 59 oil on canvas and aquarelle paintings plus 25 pen and ink drawings. Reviews even appeared in Australian papers. An article titled Genius From the Jungle appeared in the Saturday, 9 February 1952 edition of The Mail (published in Adelaide), discussing the exhibition. Later on, another article about the show appeared in the Sunday, 24 February 1952 edition of The Sun (published in Sydney).

Trees, pen and ink drawing

Perhaps the most important note was the one that came from no less than John Berger, the art critic who later became famous for his BBC TV series and book Ways of Seeing. In the 16 February 1952 edition of The New Statesman and Nation, he wrote, “Last week at the Indonesian embassy, there was a one-day show of the Indonesian painter, Affandi. His work is more exciting and moving than any new work I have seen for a long time, and must certainly be exhibited more publicly.”

It is likely that this brief comment was what led the Indonesian embassy organise two follow-up exhibitions: first in May at the Army Navy store, and then in June at the imperial institute. Although it was called Exhibition of Indonesia, it showcased 58 of Affandi’s paintings and his 25 pen and ink drawings, as well as 37 paintings by 13 other Indonesian artists: Mochtar Apin, Hendra, Sudjana Kerton, Baharudin, Agus Djaya, Oesman Effendi, Otto Djaya, Salim, Suromo, Soedibio, Soedarso, Henk Ngantung, Trubus, Barli, Sapto Hudoyo and Sudiardjo. The show was accompanied by a simple catalogue which included an introduction to Indonesian art written by Ms. Hurustiati Subandrio, the wife of Indonesian Ambassador to Great Britain, Subandrio. The essay was a revised version of her essay published in the second edition (1948) of Asian Horizon, a journal published in London.

Donkey, pen and ink drawing

The 31 May 1952 edition of The New Statesman and Nation published Berger’s extended review about Affandi’s show at the Army and Navy store. While calling Affandi “a painter of genius”, he commented the poor condition and presentation of some of the exhibited paintings, which explained, were due to having been previously unstretched and unframed. Nevertheless, Affandi’s paintings seemed to impress the critic. About the way the artist works, he writes “the magnetic process appears to work both ways: the tension of the paintings is dependent on the lines and colours both attracting and being attracted by the development of the presented forms. Or, again to put it in an abstract way: the form and the content of these works are indivisible. Their colour is bright but violent and dignified rather than gay.”

Viewing Affandi’s art seemed to be a call for introspection about the state of Western Art, which “has become inflated at the expense of life”, because aesthetics have triumphed over vitality”. Affandi paintings to him seemed to have redressed the balance. “They are concerned with the continuity of life, the necessary continuity of being able to risk achievements.” Affandi’s attitude, as an artist coming from “the new emerging culture of Asia” does not feel obliged to be responsible to “those who may happen to look at his paintings”. Rather his responsibility is to those who form and shape his subjects. Berger feels that “we in Europe will finally have to learn from that attitude.”.

Snowstrom, London, 1952
The painting painted during a snowstromin London, was done in forty-five minutes.It was purchased in the 1950 by a dignified Indonesia admiral and ambassador. Unfortunately, it was stolen from the family's estate over a decade ago.

Affandi’s 1952 exhibition in London featured paintings that exposed his universe: his family, his friends, people, animals, and landscapes around him. Of course, some of the paintings also depicted what he experienced in London: people watching the funeral of King George VI, the Lambeth Bridge in London and a political speech in Hyde Park. When he was painting in Hyde Park he was almost arrested, and he expressed his feelings in a self-portrait titled I am Disappointed by a Policeman. He also painted London during a snowstorm, one of the largest pieces, which was done in forty-five minutes, a news article in The Observer reported. There is also another mention of the exhibition in The Listener, which was written by Eric Newton, a senior art critic who was already known for his 1935 BBC radio lecture series The Artist and his Public. Apparently, it was Newton who opened the exhibition at the Imperial Institute Gallery.

The 12 January 1953 edition of Time magazine included a review of Affandi’s exhibition at the Palais de Beaux-Arts in Brussels. This spread the artist’s fame in America and other parts of the world. The following year he was invited to participate in the Biennale di Venezia. The artist later went on to exhibit all over the world, including Sao Paulo and Washington, DC. Yet, there is no doubt that the three London exhibitions and the gathering of prominent British art critics, writers and journalists and Indonesian diplomats and intellectuals in the city at the time that played the most pivotal role in placing Affandi’s name in the world map of art.