Affandi (1907-1990): The setting of a warming sun (1990)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 16 January 2012
This article was previously published in the Jakarta Post, on 25 May 1990, p. 9.

It was November 1987 and I was standing in the half-light, in the middle of the old Affandi gallery (the new museum was not finished yet), when there was a flourish of activity by the door. The museum attendants all gathered there, and even I felt some kind of anticipation, though I did not know for what. Suddenly the crowd by the door divided and in came a man holding on to an old, bent white-haired figure dressed in a T-shirt and a plaid sarong. Slowly the pair— one middle-aged and strong, one pale, frail and ancient-looking— moved together over to the sofa, where the old man was down and made comfortable.

I was filled with awe— this was Affandi himself, the legend of modern Indonesian painting alive, and although I as a researcher of contemporary Indonesian art had hoped to have a chance to talk to him some time, I now found myself unable to move near him or utter a single word.

But by the door was another flourish, less venerating, less quiet, of more energy and speed: In came Affandi’s wife Maryati and daughter Kartika. They both called out warm greetings to me and after pressing me to their various and motherly bosoms, insisted that I had to meet "Papi". My shy protestations were of no use: Before I knew it, I found myself squeezing his old, dry hand and saying my name.

Affandi looked confused. Maryati heaved herself down next to him on the sofa and shouted into his ear: "A friend from America! She is studying about Indonesian painting!" After she repeated it a second time, he nodded and started moving his mouth; Maryati drew me down on the sofa next to him, "So you better hear each other better!"— and left.

With the weakest of voices Affandi proclaimed in fluent but somewhat eccentric English that his English was very poor; then we proceeded to talk for almost two hours.

Affandi’s memories
"My first memory of painting?— Well, I was a very small boy and it was a very, very hot day in Cirebon, and 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!" He chuckled soundlessly, stroking a few white hairs on his chin.

"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! And all because my mother did not have one cent to give me for ice cream!" He laughed silently again and fell into reverie.

Affandi talked about how several of his siblings had died young, which is why he has a wayang performed at his home three or four times a year ("No one knows when my real birthday is, so we celebrate [it] whenever I feel like it!"); he talked about how hard it was to make a living back in the days of the war and the struggle for independence, and how important Sukarno’s interest and support had been, he talked of the difficulty of keeping everyone in such a large extended family as his happy, even after better days had arrived.

Talking about the creative process and his paintings, 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."

He turned his head to me and his small watery eyes held mine with a strong gaze: "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."

We sat for [awhile] in peaceful silence, looking around at the canvases filling the gallery walls and drinking hot, sweet ginger tea.

Affandi [exuded] such peace and quiet, such detachment from the clock and the myriad details that we younger generations live our lives by that I found myself enveloped by a new sensation, as if I had entered another time zone or had gained a different perspective on gravity. He was like an immortal floating on a cloud high above the earth and all its matter large and small, already embarked on that voyage between [dimensions] that poets and philosophers say takes place between one birth-death cycle and the next.

He said: "I am the luckiest man in the world. 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 at me: "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 colored spheres above his head. Affandi had seen him at the Sekaten night fair and had become so enamored 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 for the trouble.

He talked of how he usually spent a long time looking for painting subjects, and then a long time studying the subject, probing into its being, until he felt he became part of it— only then would he start squeezing and smearing paint from the tubes onto the canvas, working it with his fingers, palms, wrists and the back of his hands. Painting for Affandi was a process of fixing into color and form the storm of energy from his emotions which had arisen through concentrating on something which had initially inspired him.

Affandi turned to me again: "Who knows? Tomorrow I may be dead. That is why I must continue to paint and paint and paint."

And that was the tragedy of Affandi’s final year, that he could not paint. His body became so weakened that his attempts to do [so] were frustrated— he was no longer strong enough to squeeze the tubes and his daughter Kartika would squeeze them for him while he guided her hand; then he was no longer [strong] enough to lift his arm and his assistant lifted his arm and squeezed the tube, moving in the way the weak old voice directed him to. Affandi was often angry and depressed at this state of affairs. He would still ask to be taken for long drives, day or night— to Kota Gede, to Prambanan, or to Solo. But these trips, which had always been in search of those telling motifs of life which he wanted to paint, now seemed without meaning.

Affandi had always been "hungry to paint", as he expressed it in the brilliant video that Yasir Marzuki made of him in 1982, and not being able to was like starvation.

The canvases produced in the last year 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 and spiritual one. The head that we can barely discern in these last pictures is like that of an unborn child; with the last remnants of physical power, no longer equal to the strength of his will, Affandi was recording the closing of the cycle that opened when he was born in Cirebon some eighty-old years ago.

Affandi’s self-portraits
Throughout his life the self-portraits remained an important theme in his work, and it is these which have been hanging in the old gallery, waiting for the master’s final return. Here is an unrivalled chronicle of images of self, produced over a period of fifty years, showing the life progress of a highly original man, who never wanted to see anything but what was there, in front of his eyes, in its most honest and truthful form, depicted in a form that to him was more than any degree of photo-realism [could] be.

We see him as the intensely concentrating young painter in the 1940s, seated naked before his easel, with knitted brows studying the play of light and shade on the human anatomy. We see him rising up into the star-filled night sky, as he with elation and care holds his first grandchild, the man and the child both as naked as nature itself. We see images of him approaching middle age, a strong, somewhat heavy face depicted in authoritative thick strokes of dark green and black; we see him age and soften, the colors becoming softer as well, and brighter and warmer in tone. As his strength ebbs, his paintings become lighter, as he no longer can fill the entire canvas; here emerges a late style different from the stronger style of the 60s and early 70s, with the ageing painter not afraid to rise to new challenges. "It is much more difficult to paint with bright colors than with dark", he has said, "so I must try very hard if I am going to succeed."

We see a close-up of Affandi in his car, his pipe hanging out the open window— the title is Going to work in Bali. He always made long excursions with empty canvases to that fascinating microcosm within the Indonesian archipelago. We see him holding the blackened ball of the sun, his face a contortion of expressive, abstract lines of grief and his old, wispy sage-locks flowing. The title is Solar eclipse.

In 1987, Affandi painted a self-portrait where, apart from a whisk of bamboo and a pale sun, he is painted in the most sketchy of manners and in light, light oils, almost disappearing into the background. The effect lies more in the relief of thick impasto than in any outline or color. The same year he painted the canvas entitled Dead. In darker greys mixed with whites and yellow, the form of a dead fighting cock hangs upside down in the center of the canvas; below it to the right, the face of Affandi emerges from the shadows.

He was convinced he knew that calendar year of his death. However, the calendar year slipped quietly by and he was still here. But the life had gone out of his paintings: The sun— source of all energy and life and the element Affandi most identified with— no longer glowed in them; his playful life-symbol consisting of a kind of cartoon-figure with paw-like hands and feet and the sun (or sunflower) for a head, was no longer there. To all purposes Affandi the painter was gone, in his physical manifestation, even before his body had given up.

And now the process is complete. Affandi has taken the final leap and has returned to become one with the energetic curls, coils and strings of oils that capture the combustive energy of the world; an energy he himself had in abundance throughout most his long life, along with the inner drive to let it drive him, so that it could be given form and thus be given back into this world of energy and of life from whence it came.