Sudjana Kerton fills canvases with scenes of daily life (1989)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 16 January 2012
This article was previously published in the Jakarta Post, on 20 January 1989, p. 9.

It is now 48 years since Sudjana Kerton set himself up in Bandung as a self-taught portrait painter, and 44 years since he joined the Indonesian struggle for independence from the Dutch.

In these days before photography was common in the media here, Sudjana Kerton worked as an artist-journalist for the newspaper Patriot. He sketched his pictures right on the battlefields, [amidst] charging soldiers who only recently had defined themselves as Indonesians, and amidst [putrefying] corpses and flying bullets.

Himself a passionate nationalist, Sudjana Kerton’s large oil paintings of revolutionary battles were seen by Sukarno who enthusiastically ordered them to be brought to the Republic of Yogyakarta, then under Dutch siege.

Thirty-eight years ago, Sudjana Kerton, ironically, got a Dutch scholarship to study art in Holland, which as a nation was divided on the Indonesian liberation issue but continued its cultural exchange activities even after the colony had been lost.

From studies in Holland and in Paris, Kerton’s thirst to learn more about the principles and practices of painting took him to the United States, where he in 1952 started a decade-long involvement with the Art Students League in New York.

Also his life took on yet another major commitment besides art and nationalism when he met Louise, an American nurse, whom he married and had three children with. Thereby, he settled in the United States for the next 30 years. Sudjana Kerton nonetheless remained very much an [ambassador] for Indonesia, working for the United Nations as well as selling Indonesian handicrafts, and even teaching Indonesian cooking.

Like so many immigrants to the U.S. and elsewhere, Sudjana Kerton always dreamed of his native country and never stopped planning to move back there one day. Even though personal and political circumstances kept this dream from being realized, he never gave up his Indonesian citizenship, nor gave up hoping. And in 1976 he succeeded in making the move.

It is now 12 years since Sudjana Kerton moved back to the city of his childhood and youth. Bandung, where he has built a unique studio and gallery-home for himself and his wife and daughter Chandra on top of a deserted hill [is] said to be haunted.

Since his return to Indonesia, Sudjana Kerton has continued painting the themes he always painted more than any other, whether in Europe or the States: the daily life of the Indonesian people. He has been active in both group as well as solo exhibitions, the last solo exhibition was in Jakarta’s Erasmus Huis last June.

Nobody likes everything; the same object or event will elicit opposite reactions from different people. Those who swear something is "priceless" will be laughed at by others who swear it is "garbage". In all matters of importance, especially where taste and subjectively based values are concerned, consensus is extremely rare; so also in art appreciation and art criticism.

Sudjana Kerton is the last person among Indonesian artists to bemoan this situation. In fact, a great part of his energies have been triggered by the kind of open, at times heated, but always lively argument that characterized the artist circles in New York, to the point where passions often ran high, because people were having to define and defend deeply held beliefs about art and society. The atmosphere in the studios and cafes of New York must on some level have echoed the ideals and struggle and sacrifice that made the young artists hearts burn here, during the battle for Indonesian Independence.

Hence, to Sudjana Kerton, art, criticism and society are closely intertwined, and he is tongue-tied neither on paper nor in person when the conversation veers in this direction.

"To seek knowledge of painting or of aesthetics in general is to examine the definition and transmission of culture in our society, as art is not only creation but communication. The decision-making processes learned by studying exhibitions and holding discussions among artists and informed critics, determine the manner in which culture shall be transmitted," Sudjana Kerton writes in one of his catalogs.

Culture to Sudjana Kerton is not something highbrow or remote; it is intimately connected with daily life. He was never interested in painting skyscrapers or cityscapes, nor even landscapes: people have always been the central theme in his work, both in his portraiture as well as his free compositions. And it has not been the glorified life of the rich, but real, tangible, struggling people, depicted with something in between satirical humor and a certain intimate monumentality, whether it be the black street musician in New York, the group of punks in SoHo, the Balinese duck herder heading home at sunset or the Javanese wife giving her husband a massage.

It has always been the daily life of Indonesians that captured Sudjana Kerton the most deeply. With humor, at times satirical, at times naive, and with sheer mischievous vitality, he presents a rich gallery of Indonesians in many scales, from wall-size oil studies for murals to smaller watercolors or silkscreens, people at work or at rest, performing everyday or ceremonial activities.

Sudjana Kerton never ceased to be an Indonesian at his core. At the same time, he has never ceased "being abroad", wherever he goes, always looking around him with sharp eyes— the eyes of an observer who doesn’t miss a single detail nor the dynamic of any given situation. With the recording eye of a camera, Kerton stores in his memory significant details— the way a becak driver stands when tired, the stance of a street singer, the motorbike loaded with a whole family of five, the hand positions of unemployed men gambling at cards— both those details gathered during his childhood as well as on his daily wanderings through the hillside kampungs on the outskirts of Bandung. Later these details are brought out, to be painted, when needed.

This does not mean he recreates those details with realistic accuracy: With the exaggeration of a caricaturist and the stylization of an expressionist, deceptively combined with the time and care of a perfectionist, he creates his own very personal version of what in reality is often a very spontaneous scene which the next minute will have evolved into something else: The throwing of money by the ceremonial chanter at a Javanese wedding; a bus overloaded with people roaring by as the kernet tries to convince us who knows better that "there is still room"; the man lighting up a cigarette in the front of the bus just as they are filling gas...

Sudjana Kerton’s style may look spontaneous, but it is nothing of the sort. An idea for a painting and its carefully determined composition may take as long as a month to be worked out in Kerton’s mind even before he touches brush to canvas. Furthermore, though his paintings seem simple in concept, they are deceptively so.

There are always many interactions between people as well as animals, all sorts of relationships being played out, and events happening in every part of the canvas. The problems of painting— of color, line, balance— occupy Sudjana Kerton as much as does the subject matter.

There are few other painters in Indonesia who are so preoccupied with depicting daily life and the people as Sudjana Kerton is. Maybe it is because he captures things that seem so essentially Indonesian, things not yet faded by the influence of Western modernity, that Kerton’s neighboring farmers will crack up in front of his paintings, saying: "Yes! That’s exactly the way it is!"

Maybe this is also the reason why so many foreigners buy Sudjana Kerton’s work: Aside from being executed in a style familiar to them, with strong, bold lines, daring compositions and an earthy humor, they capture something unique to Indonesia which many a visitor, especially those who collect art, would like to bring home.

And "home" is one of the catch-words of Sudjana Kerton’s life. Sanggar Luhur is his dream home which came true after 36 years. Here, with a magnificent view across the Bandung plain to blue mountains in all directions and an everchanging sky, he continues working with his close environment as inspiration while welcoming visitors from near and far, always eager to communicate.

Sudjana Kerton is undoubtedly one of Indonesia’s major senior painters. This generation saw the makings of a nation; a generation for whom art was no easy career to choose (there being virtually no tradition, galleries, school or collectors)— not a matter to be taken lightly.

It is unfortunate that Sudjana Kerton, with his vast teaching experience, his knowledge of modern art from an international perspective and his extremely active mind, has not been made more use of by the art institutions of Indonesia, but his gallery and home are already familiar and important stops on the travels of serious art lovers, foreign or Indonesians, who are always more than welcome on the top of the hill.