A Tribute to Indonesia's Prince Diponegoro

JANUARY 22, 2015

Prince Diponegoro is a famous figure in Indonesia's history of independence. Between 1825 and 1830, the Javanese prince united the people of Central Java and waged the fearsome Java War against the Dutch colonialists.

The war became so severe and widespread that it resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides. The Java War almost bankrupted the colonial government of the time.

The prince's heroic struggles are recorded in many history books across the country. His name graces many important streets, schools and institutions.

Sadly for most of us, this is where his significance ends.

In these modern times, Diponegoro has become a faded figure of the distant past: still admirable, yet having little, if any, importance in today's life. The story of his life, as well as his brave deeds, has receded to some dusty old books on the corner shelves.

And yet there remains so much to learn from this 19th-century Javanese prince. The prince's courage, as well as visionary outlook, is exemplary for people of any era. And we can all learn from his indomitable spirit in times of danger and oppression.

The Goethe-Institut, in collaboration with the Indonesian Education and Culture Ministry, the German Embassy and many other partners will present a special exhibition on Prince Diponegoro at the Indonesian National Gallery from Feb. 5 to March 8.

"A Prince for All Seasons: Diponegoro in the Memory of the Nation, from Raden Saleh to the Present," the exhibition presents hundreds of classical and contemporary art objects, as well as priceless historical artifacts -- some of which have never been displayed for the public.

Art experts and historians Dr. Werner Kraus, Jim Supangkat and Dr. Peter Carey have curated the exhibition.

"The exhibition 'A Prince for All Seasons: Diponegoro in the Memory of the Nation' sees itself as a tribute to a great Indonesian national hero, to the ongoing evolution of Indonesian history and the inexhaustible creativity and artistic genius of the Indonesian people," German art expert Kraus writes in his curatorial note.

The upcoming exhibition complements the highly successful exhibition "Raden Saleh and the Beginning of Modern Indonesian Painting," presented by the National Gallery in June 2012 -- attracting more than 20,000 visitors in just two weeks.

Raden Saleh was an Indonesian Romantic painter who studied art and spent more than 20 years of his life in Europe.

His paintings, which often portray life-and-death struggles, have long been interpreted as a protest against the colonial government.

One of Raden Saleh's paintings, displayed in the previous exhibition at the National Gallery, was titled " Penangkapan Diponegoro " ("The Capture of Diponegoro").

The painting portrays the treacherous arrest of Prince Diponegoro during a negotiation for peace with the colonial army in Magelang, Central Java, on March 28, 1830.

In the painting, the Javanese prince appears bold and defiant, even though he is surrounded by colonial soldiers.

The painting was given as a present to King Willem III of the Netherlands in 1857. It was later returned by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands to Indonesia in 1978.

"The painting will be one of the main artworks in this exhibition," said co-curator Jim Supangkat.

Since its return, the painting has been displayed in the State Secretariat office on Jalan Medan Merdeka Selatan, Central Jakarta. But the painting, over a century old, quickly deteriorated.

In some parts of the painting, the colors have faded, making the details of some of the subjects unrecognizable. The precious painting was also brittle around the edges and threatening to disintegrate.

In 2012, GRUPPE Koeln, an art restoration company based in Cologne, Germany, worked on the painting to bring it back to its former glory.

"The restoration project has saved one of the most valuable artifacts in Indonesia," Jim said.

According to the 66-year-old curator, there are many things we can learn from this painting.

"This painting has multiple layers, as well as an incredible political meaning," he said.

He added that Raden Saleh was subtly protesting against the colonial government through this painting.

"There are many people depicted in the painting," he noted, "and if we carefully examine each one of them, their expressions add a new, interesting dimension to the message carried in the painting."

Through the painting, Raden Saleh hinted that he and Prince Diponegoro, in spite of living worlds apart, were contemporaries fighting for the same cause.

"Through Raden Saleh and Diponegoro, we can better view the global turmoils in the 19th century," Jim said. "It was the oppressed that brought about major changes in the governmental systems at that time and gave birth to the democracy we know today."

The exhibition is divided into three sections, presenting classical portraits, contemporary arts and "low arts" that are connected with Diponegoro.

The latter are interesting everyday objects that have special meaningful values.

"The exhibition will combine art and anthropology [objects], which portray how the general public views Diponegoro today," Jim said.

"This is in line with today's development in the international world of art."

The first section will feature "The Capture of Diponegoro," as well as classical pseudo portraits of Prince Diponegoro by renowned Indonesian artists such as Soedjono Abdullah, Harijadi Sumodidjojo and Sudjojono.

Another notable artwork in the first section of the exhibition is an oil painting by Indonesian painter Basuki Abdullah, titled " Diponegoro Memimpin Pertempuran " (Diponegoro Leading an Attack).

In the portrait, the prince, dressed in white, sits astride a prancing black horse. His face looks determined and his arm is outstretched, pointing toward his enemies.

"This is probably the most reproduced, as well as most memorable image of Prince Diponegoro," said British historian Dr. Peter Carey. "Most people would see Diponegoro as a military man. But actually there are many other facets of his personality that would be interesting for us to study."

Carey himself, bewitched by the prince's charisma, has spent more than 40 years studying Diponegoro. He is now considered one of the leading experts on the history of Diponegoro.

The second section of the exhibition displays works from contemporary Indonesian artists such as Eldwin Pradipta, Entang Wiharso and Srihadi Soedarsono.

"These artists have a special interest in Indonesia's history," Jim said.

Some 20 artworks are featured in this section, including paintings, photographs, installations and videos related to Diponegoro.

"They represent how Indonesian contemporary artists see Diponegoro today," Jim said.

The third section will display everyday objects, such as bank notes, comic books, T-shirts and wayang that all carry unique depictions of the national hero.

These objects were discovered through an open call to the public to loan and showcase their unique objects in the exhibition.

In addition to these sections, the exhibition includes a "Pusaka [Heirloom] Room" displaying personal belongings of the prince.

Among the priceless artifacts are the prince's own saddle and stirrups, and his sacred weapon, a spear called " Kanjeng Kyai Rhondan " ("The Night Watchman").

These objects were seized by the colonial army during an attack in 1829.

"The prince was especially sad when he lost the spear," Carey said.

"It was said that the spear could whisper to the prince what was going to happen in a battle and who would betray him."

The objects were returned by Queen Juliana to Indonesia in 1978. Since then, they have been kept on display at the National Museum on Jalan Medan Merdeka Barat, Central Jakarta.

In addition to these historical finds, the Diponegoro Museum in the prince's hometown of Magelang will also loan the chairs and table used in the final negotiation between Diponegoro and the colonial army to the exhibition.

"The chair used by Diponegoro still retains the angry scratches made with his fingernails, when he found he had been tricked in the negotiation," Carey said.

The exhibition also features the prince's iconic white tabard and turban, which he often wore to battle.

"We see this room as the spiritual center of the exhibition, and not more than 20 visitors will be allowed to enter it at any one time," said Kraus.

Sukana Djaja, a veteran graphic artist from Jakarta, said he was very enthusiastic about seeing the upcoming exhibition in National Gallery.

"Diponegoro is a great figure in Indonesia's history," Sukana said. "I believe this exhibition can revive the memories of him and perhaps also impart his tough and invincible spirit to the Indonesian people of today."

The Goethe-Institut has also prepared an app for both Android and iOS to give a virtual guide of the exhibition.

"We cannot bring this exhibition to any other city, it's a huge effort," said Katrin Sohns, head of cultural programs at the Goethe-Institut. "So we try to focus this exhibition more on the digital platform."

For more information, check out akudiponegoro.com.