Affandi: The existentialist self-portrait [1] (1994)

Excerpt from Astri Wright’s book Soul, spirit and mountain: Preoccupations of contemporary Indonesian painters.

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 30 March 2012
This essay was previously published in the above-mentioned book, by Oxford University Press (1994), pp. 109-14, in the section "Affandi: The existentialist self-portrait" in chapter 5: "Transition from ’soul’ to ’psyche’".


Affandi (1907?-90) is among the first Indonesian painters to become preoccupied with the human condition and to probe the depths of human emotional experience in all its diversity, from birth to death.

Variously referred to as the father of modern Indonesian painting, Indonesia’s first modernist and sang empu, Venerable Master, Affandi painted without stop, with the frenzy of a man possessed, for nearly sixty years, winning national as well as international fame, awards, and patrons. [2] Besides being firmly rooted in the local worlds of Java— West, Central, and East Java— as well as Bali, he travelled extensively, living and painting in India, the Netherlands, Italy, and the USA. Affandi always cultivated the image of a simple, unsophisticated man, driven above all by the need to paint what moved him, likening this need to the hunger the body feels when going without food for a period of time. Affandi’s unusual personality and choice of vocation combined with his enigmatic but undeniable charisma to create a life which took on the stature of legend even in his own time. The widespread attention he received in the media caused people of all walks of life, urban and rural, Indonesian and foreign, to recognize his name and face and to make the pilgrimage to his colourful, self-built museum in Yogyakarta.

So much has been written about Affandi and his enormous oeuvre that he will not be discussed at length here (Sumaatmadja, 1975; Popo Iskandar, 1977; Sudarmadji, 1978; Umar and Raka, 1987; Supangkat, 1990a). However, no account of the 1980s can be representative without some mention of him as he, along with his artistic family, continued to occupy the imagination of the Indonesian and wider Asian art community, even after 1987 when he could no longer paint much, and through his long illness before he finally passed away in 1990. [3] Furthermore, Affandi’s emphasis on the self-portrait and his interest in probing his own psychological and emotional depths, set him apart from both his contemporaries and most Indonesian artists since— an aspect of his work that has not commanded much attention.

In November 1987, reclining on a bamboo bench in the middle of the Affandi gallery, the frail painter gave one of his last interviews. He spoke in heavily accented but fluent English, stroking a few white hairs on his chin, his voice very weak and occasionally disappearing altogether as he chuckled soundlessly.

My first memory of painting... ? Well, I was a very small boy and it was a very, very hot day in Cirebon.... I went to the kitchen and asked my mother for one cent to buy ice-cream. Can you imagine— only one cent!— but my mother didn’t even have one cent to give me. I could not accept that— I got so angry, I screamed and cried and screamed and cried, until my mother took a bucket of cold water and threw the water over my head!

So there I was sitting on the kitchen floor, dripping wet ... and then I started to draw with my fingers in the mud that had formed on the dirt floor. THAT is my first memory of painting! [4]

Several of Affandi’s brothers and sisters died young. Affandi remembers that the children used to sleep in a row; one day he woke up to find that the siblings on either side of him were dead from typhoid. Feeling that he owed his own life to tenuous chance or fate, he would commission wayang kulit to be performed at his home on his birthday every year, as an offering and for continued protection. "No one knows when my real birthday is, so we celebrate it whenever I feel like it!" he said. This feeling generally arose three or four times a year.

In the interview, Affandi talked about how hard it was to make a living during the Japanese Occupation and the war and, later, during the struggle for independence. Sukarno’s interest in, and support of, artists had been crucial, mainly psychologically but also at times materially. Affandi also talked of how difficult it was, even after better days had arrived, to keep everyone in such a large extended family as his happy. About his work, he said:

I have never been satisfied with a painting. I have not yet painted a good one. There is always something wrong. If I can see what is wrong with a painting, sometimes I can repair it, but often nothing can be done. That is why I still have to work very hard, trying to learn how to paint well.

I am old now. Who knows? Tomorrow I may be dead. So I must work very hard while I still can. And when I die, I want to die here in the gallery, surrounded by my wife and children and grandchildren and all my paintings.

During the interview, Affandi exuded a peaceful detachment from the ticking of the clock and the business of life.

"I am the luckiest man in the world," Affandi suddenly said in his wavering voice. "Because when I paint, I am completely happy. When I paint, the only things that exist are God, the subject, and myself."

His eyes crinkled as he glanced over: "And these paintings are my money! I don’t have to keep my money in the bank! I just hang it on the walls! Who else do you know who can hang all their money on the walls like this? Heh-heh-heh...."

Against the wall near us, up on a ledge, the canvas he had painted that very morning sat drying. It depicted a man selling balloons, a playful cloud of coloured spheres above his head. Affandi had seen him at the Sekaten night fair and had become so enamoured with the sight that he had asked this man to come to the gallery the next day. After spending a couple of hours painting him, he had bought all his balloons as recompense for the trouble.

Affandi would spend a long time looking for painting subjects, and then a long time studying the subject, probing into its being, until he felt he had become part of it. Only then would he start squeezing and smearing paint from the tubes on to the canvas, working it with his fingers, palms, wrists, and the back of his hands. Painting for Affandi was a process of fixing into colour and form the storm of energy from his emotions which had arisen through concentrating on something which had initially inspired him.

Throughout his long painting career, self-portraits remained an important theme in his work. These offer an unrivalled chronicle of images of self in Indonesian art, produced over a period of fifty years. They show the life progress of a highly original man, who wanted to see nothing but what was there, before his eyes, in its most essential form. Affandi’s style has been called expressionistic but to him his works were more true to the subject than any degree of photo-realism could have been— an honesty which had more to do with emotional experience than with intellectual analysis. As he said in the 1982 film by Yasir Marzuki, Hungry to paint, Affandi did not see himself as a clever man, "not like Picasso". He was more like Van Gogh— a man of strong emotion, which in turn gave rise to works of art; the stylistic similarity between himself and Van Gogh that people always point to was a matter of emotional affinity. In all of Affandi’s work, including his self-portraits, his aim was to capture the very essence of the life-force which suffuses the universe. This caused him to identify with and repeatedly attempt to capture the sun in paint, thick and dynamic swirls in blue, or orange, or red, or— as in Solar eclipse— black. Here, we see him sorrowfully embracing the black ball of the eclipsed sun, the disappearance of which to Affandi meant the death of everything in the universe, hence of all meaningfulness. One of Affandi’s favourite signatures was a kind of cartoon figure pictogram with paw-like hands and feet and the sun (or sunflower) for a head.

In other self-portraits we see Affandi as the intensely concentrating young painter in the 1940s, seated naked before his easel, brows knit as he studies the play of light and shadow on his own body. We see him rising with elation up into the star-filled night sky, holding his first grandchild, both of them naked. We see images of Affandi approaching middle age, a strong, somewhat heavy face depicted in authoritative thick strokes of dark green, red, or black; we see him age and soften, the colours becoming brighter and warmer in tone. As his strength ebbed and he no longer could fill the entire canvas, his paintings acquired a lighter feeling; here emerged a late style different from the stronger style of the 1960s and early 1970s, with the ageing painter not afraid to rise to new challenges. "It is much more difficult to paint with bright colours than with dark," Affandi said. "I must try very hard if I am going to succeed."

Affandi was convinced that 1987 was the year he would die. By 1987, his two friends and fellow pioneers of socially rooted modern Indonesian painting— S. Sudjojono and Hendra Gunawan— had gone. That year Affandi painted the canvas entitled Unsuccessful. Apart from a whisk of bamboo and a red sun crowning his portrait signature pictogram, he painted a sketchy image of himself against the background of the primed canvas, in light oil-colours, almost disappearing into the background. The effect lies more in the relief of thick impasto than in any outline or colour, and in the contrast between the more realistic image of himself, fading away, and the still vital pictogram.

The same year Affandi painted another self-portrait entitled Dead. In darker greys mixed with whites and yellow, the form of a dead fighting cock hangs upside down in the centre of the canvas; below it to the right, the face of Affandi emerges from the shadows, a ghost-like apparition, seemingly severed from any bodily context. This dislocation is emphasized by the presence of a foot in the upper left of the canvas. Placing his face on the ground, below where the feet of the living tread, makes Affandi’s identification with the dead cock and with death complete.

However, 1987 slipped quietly by and Affandi was still alive, but the life was indeed ebbing out of his paintings and, to all purposes, Affandi the painter was gone, in his physical manifestation, even before his spirit had quite given up.

Looking at Affandi’s self-portraits as a group, it is hard to agree with the prevailing view, held by most Indonesian artists and collectors, that Affandi’s art was in decline during the last decade of his life. Preferring the work which spans the mid-1960s and 1970s, which is predominantly in darker, greenish hues, they see no merit in the later, more sketchy and light-coloured work. However, this judgement may be a failure to let go of the old image of "Affandi" and follow him into a new phase: the later works, which speak of different things, can only be dismissed from a perspective that desires a successful formula to remain the same over time, and a point of view that disregards the peculiar insights that change, ageing, physical weakening, and the awareness of approaching death may bring.

The canvases produced in the last two years of his life bear eloquent testimony to a man beginning to disappear, step by step becoming a shadow of his former self; the attempts at self-portraits are shadows of a physical presence which more and more becomes a disembodied psychological one. The head that we can barely discern in the last pictures Affandi painted with the help of his daughter Kartika, is like that of an unborn child. With the last remnants of physical power, combined by the force of his will with the strength of his closest child, Affandi was until the end trying to record, with characteristic honesty, and in a way unprecedented in the history of Indonesian art, the closing of a life cycle that began in Cirebon some eighty odd years earlier.