Bagong Kussudiardja at Bentara Budaya, Yogyakarta (1988)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 28 December 2011
This article was previously published in the Jakarta Post on 25 August 1988, p. 6, with the title "Bagong translates rhythm into line and color". Please note, Bagong’s second name is also spelled with an "o", Kussudiardjo.

Bagong Kussudiardja at Bentara Budaya

Rhythms is the title given to Bagong Kussudiardja’s solo exhibition at present showing at the Bentara Budaya [in Yogyakarta]. And in the exhibition-pamphlet, Bagong writes a personal hymn to the rhythm of life, stressing the ever-present, playful drama of sound, form, line and color, [of] which everything is made. Bagong experiences this essential rhythm as much in concrete cities, with their bustling traffic, highways weaving over and under each other, mushrooming construction and clothing-fashions, as in the leaves of trees and the fibres of plant-life, the shapes of traditional houses and the ornaments in places of worship. The act of grasping this rhythm and translating it into "line, color and the interplay of space" is what Bagong defines as "freedom of expression and creativity".

Bagong Kussudiardja’s new style
The 30 semi-abstract, symbolic-evocative paintings exhibited constitute a departure from the wayang paintings Bagong Kussudiardja is known for, but they are not the products of an artist who has not yet found himself and dabbles soon in this style, soon in that. These paintings are clearly the result of a mature mind, heart and hand at work, of a mature artist who is not afraid of exploring new parts of himself and of the world. This is the type of maturity where the purity of child-vision has not been lost.

These new paintings show Bagong Kussudiardja’s continued preoccupation with themes of mythology, mystical [spirituality] and cultural dramas as metaphors for life and the universe.

In the first instance, the paintings evoke sheer delight. The colors harmonize in an almost physically tangible way, each canvas seeming to emit varying rays of heat and light as we stand before it. This effect is heightened by the use of gold, laid on in thick, texture smears, which echo the traditional use of gold on wayang-puppets, the use of gold to symbolize the sacral in Byzantine and Russian art, and the modernist devotional work of the late Ahmad Sadali and A.D. Pirous in Bandung.

Bagong Kussudiardja’s paintings— in strong pure colors as well as a range of pastels— are made up of thick pasty lines of paint, playing against occasional flat fields of color. The major shapes he works with are triangles and squares. The [triangle] is a primal, resonant symbol in many historical epochs and religions. To Bagong, a Catholic, the Christian symbolism of the Trinity must be significant, but clearly the triangle plays on many other levels in his work. In Java, the triangle captures the shape of volcanoes, abode of spirits and important sites for royal and other meditations. The shape of the volcano is echoed in the roof-shapes of traditional houses and in the cones of yellow-colored rice shared at ceremonies. On a schematic level, the triangle is also a depiction of the structure of a traditional, hierarchical society.

Squares in Bagong Kussudiardja’s work are symbols of rooted-ness, earth organized by man’s work— harking back to Western medieval as well as Chinese symbolism, where the square is the material world and the triangle is the spiritual. Bagong uses squares to depict the ground-plan of the Borobudur of the Yogya Kraton. In other paintings, the square functions as a framing device.

These two abstract symbols, the triangle and the square, also symbolize two different types of perspective: The triangle is seen in vertical perspective, while the square is seen in horizontal perspective. Before the painting Mount Merapi, we stand at the baseline of the triangle, looking up towards the tip, but when we see the Borobudur as seen in Bagong Kussudiardja’s painting, we are hovering in the air above it, looking down. In some of his paintings, such as Kraton, [Bagong] works with both kinds of perspective simultaneously. This kind of mixing of signals and levels of meaning is typical of Bagong’s work: It echoes his mixing of colors, interplaying levels of purely visual with increasingly symbolic elements; the fusion of an emotional-expressive energy with focused, rational reflection. In addition, Bagong also works consciously with the verbal dimension, choosing concise titles for each canvas that direct and complete associations embedded in the work.

Sri Yunnah, an established painter who paints Javanese village life in a semi-naive idiom, exclaimed at the opening: "Bagong paints just the way he dances! Pure, strong, lively movement..." A younger artist commented: "Even working in a new style like this, Bagong’s genuineness and pureness is still evident."

Bagong Kussudiardja: Synthesis
Bagong Kussudiardja is at once very Javanese and truly international. The titles of his works reflect a deep involvement with Javanese culture, both the traditional and the modern. He presents no snapshots of conflicting realities or cultural anachronisms. It seems that pulsating rhythms unify all potential conflict in Bagong’s eyes. Whether his subject-matter is "Real Estate", "Metropolis" or "Meditation", he approaches it in the same schematic, abstract-symbolist way, though with a large degree of variation within this idiom.

More often than not, however, Bagong Kussudiardja’s subject matter is spiritual, though in a universalist sense. Bagong seems to find the same essence behind all religions’ particulars. He graces Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Islamic, Javanese and Chinese religious themes with equal respect and reverence, illuminating them all with the luxurious otherworldly light of gold.

Alongside visual celebrations of specific religious themes, such as Imogiri, Borobudur, Besakih, Chinese temple and Bells, Bagong Kussudiardja makes a universalist statement in his Road to heaven, where no specific religious symbols are given greater weight than others. Typically composed around squares, here the golden square symbolizing the end of the road hovers within a square void of light, like a window beckoning at the end of a dark tunnel in which the viewers still find themselves. In the darkness, however, the way towards the light is indicated by golden streaks, and on the dark and difficult road are occasional patches of golden grass. This is an icon of the universal hope that propels mankind forward.

Bagong Kussudiardja also paints secular themes, such as Boats, Jungle or White sun, but painted in the same way as the spiritual themes, one feels that Bagong sees [spirituality] as infusing everything, as integral to life as the rhythm and movement he perceives everywhere.

Bagong Kussudiardja: Actor’s insight
Bagong Kussudiardja’s ability to create a successful synthesis of a large number of disparate elements may be characteristic of someone who approaches life as drama. An actor chooses a life-vocation and philosophy which renders all kinds of roles, psychological variations and life-situations accessible to him. Through the force of his imaginative identification with each new persona in its specific setting, and through a series of physical / psychological acting techniques, the actor becomes what he acts— reincarnates in the moment, as it were.

The cliché that the actor has no personality in and of himself is only one possible interpretation. Another interpretation more relevant to the Javanese setting with its Hindu-Buddhist overtones to younger, imported religions, is that the actor, through positive identification with his successive roles, incorporates more and more of life’s repertoire of possible experiences into his own personality thus ever widening the scope of his individual insight. In other worlds, rather than merely filling a vacuum with temporary flights of fancy, the actor is ever expanding himself, pushing his rational and emotional boundaries further and further, becoming a more universal kind of human being, increasingly free from the shuttered views of cultural specifics.

In the Asian tradition of cosmic role-playing, whether it be in a series of incarnations or within a single lifespan, each individual is free to take on a series of different roles. Thus, there is a stronger tradition of artist working in several media than in the West, where only the madmen and the geniuses dare risk being labeled "dabblers" of "dilettantes".

Bagong Kussudiardjo has not limited himself to one medium: For more than 30 years he has been known as a dancer, choreographer, film-actor and painter. His Center for Dance Training was established in a village Southwest of Yogya in 1958 and has since then taught a creative synthesis of classical Javanese and Modern Western dance. Bagong, classically trained in Yogya in his youth, later studies with Martha Graham in New York. Apart from individual dances, Bagong has also created several monumental dance-dramas based on historical Javanese as well as Christian themes.

This year Bagong Kussudiardjo is selected [to] choreograph the artistic performance at the Festival of World Sports at the Olympics in Seoul in September.

Thus, both as a dancer and as a painter, Bagong Kussudiardja has represented Indonesia abroad, exhibiting and performing in all the ASEAN countries, in the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union, the United States, as well as Europe and South America. Represented in royal, imperial and even a papal collection abroad, and in museums and galleries, internationally as well as nationally, it seems that only Africa and Australia are left on the world map for Bagong to conquer. Equally important, though, is the example he provides for Indonesian artists about creative synthesis and artistic identity in an era where copying is too facile and, alas, all too prevalent.