Jakarta. Completed in 1857, "The Arrest of Pangeran Diponegoro" is one of Raden Saleh’s most famous paintings that now belongs to the Presidential Palace’s collection. It has been hailed by both art historians and politicians as "anti-colonial," "revolutionary" or "proto-nationalistic."
However, others are more skeptical of the courtly Javanese artist's motives in painting the harrowing scene of Prince Diponegoro being tricked by the Dutch to surrender during a peace negotiation to end the Java War (1825-1830) that killed 200,000 people including 8,000 Dutchmen.
The Dutch General Hendrik Markus de Kock betrayed Diponegoro and captured him in March 1830, before sending him into exile to Manado and then Makassar, where he died in 1855.
The story of Diponegoro's capture has inspired at least two major paintings, "The Submission of Prince Dipenegoro to General De Kock" by the Dutch painter Nicolaas Pieneman – painted between 1830 and 1835 – that depicted a forlorn Diponegoro surrendering to Dutch military officers, and Raden Saleh's masterpiece, where the Javanese Muslim prince is painted with his chin up, looking both defiant and indignant.
Different interpretations of the painting by Raden Saleh have been put forward by many art historians since the painting was completed. The issue of whether the princely painter was a proto-patriot or a social climber in the pay of the Dutch has been hotly debated.
One of the more complete accounts of this debate is German art historian Werner Kraus' article in Archipel, an art journal published in 2005: "Raden Saleh’s Interpretation of the Arrest of Diponegoro: an Example of Indonesian 'proto-nationalist' Modernism." It includes many opposing views from historians who refuse to associate the painting with any sort of patriotism.
One of them, Harsja Bachtiar, pointed out in his 1976 article, "Raden Saleh: Aristocrat, Painter and Scientist," that Raden Saleh had actually gifted the painting to King Willem III. Harsja called this "a very un-nationalistic gesture, but very much in accord with the relationship of a grateful artist and his aristocratic patron, the relationship of a courtier and his King."
Harsja also mentioned the fact that Raden Saleh was given a regular allowance by the Dutch when he lived in luxury in Europe in the first half of the 19th century.
Another art historian, Astri Wright, meanwhile put forward the possibility that the painting could actually have been commissioned by the colonial Dutch East Indies government.
Kraus himself is a Raden Saleh apologist. The art historian believed the painting depicted genuine anti-colonial sentiment. Moreover, he saw it as a thinly veiled criticism of Nicolaas Pieneman’s earlier painting.
He argued that even the paintings' titles already show different attitudes toward Diponegoro and his band of guerilla fighters.
"Raden Saleh's Diponegoro is not a subjugated warrior; he is a cheated man, a victim to the Dutch's treacherous action. The painting is a caricature, a bitter comment on Dutch colonial rule," Kraus said.
According to Kraus, this much is clear if one looks at the differences between the two paintings.
Pieneman painted Diponegoro as a submissive figure in front of de Kock. Diponegoro also stands on a step lower than the general. The painting, Kraus said, is "a tribute to Dutch glory."
In Raden Saleh’s version, Diponegoro is angry and defiant, and struggles to keep his feelings at bay. Both Diponegoro and de Kock stand on the same level in the picture and the heads of the Dutch officers appear larger and out of proportion, as if they are drawn as "raksasa" (demon giants).
Kraus is well aware of Raden Saleh’s upper-class background, including his Western-style education, his European mentors and further apprenticeships and travels in the Netherlands, Germany and France.
Kraus said the prince's success proved only that "a Javanese man could excel in skills that were manifestly though of as European."
In Kraus' eyes, though historical painting is a genre that began in Europe, Raden Saleh's Diponegoro showed that we should not judge a painter's intention from his style. Just because the subject is painted in the European style, it doesn’t mean the idea conveyed in it is necessarily pro-European or pro-colonial.
"[Raden Saleh's painting] is the first representation, interpretation, comment on 'real' history [in Indonesia]. For the first time a local artist left anonymity to proclaim that it is his job to comment on the world," Kraus said.
Nationalistic or Not?
The art community in Indonesia is also divided on the question of Raden Saleh's real allegiance: was he a real proto-patriot – does he deserve the "nationalist" tag – or was he, like many other Indonesian aristocrats of his time – even Diponegoro himself before he launched his guerilla war – a pampered darling of the Dutch?
The Diponegoro painting was not the only painting that Raden Saleh gifted to the Dutch. He often gave his paintings away to his Dutch friends and superiors.
In 1847, when he was living in Europe, he gifted his largest work, "Forest Fire," to King Willem III of the Netherlands. The next year, the king bestowed on him the title of "Schilder des Konings" (the King’s Painter).
Syed Muhamad Hafiz, the assistant curator for National Gallery Singapore’s "Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna" exhibition, said Raden Saleh was an opportunistic man who did all he could to make a successful career in Europe.
"To him, the ultimate recognition was for his paintings to end up in the royal collections," Hafiz said.
Prince Among Men, Hero Among Painters
The dandy prince's determination to "please" the Europeans, particularly the Dutch who had provided him allowances and protection, has for a long time puzzled critics and his artistic successors – if not turn them against each other.
This is part of the reason why curator Amir Sidharta wrote his "Indonesian Views of Raden Saleh," a chapter in the companion book to the Between Worlds exhibition – to weigh up the evidence whether Raden Saleh deserves to be regarded as a national hero.
Amir recalled that another legendary painter from the Revolutionary War era, S. Sudjojono, had criticized Raden Saleh in an essay in the famous 1946 anthology, "Seni Loekis, Kesenian dan Seniman" (Painting, the Arts and the Artists), for his conformist attitude to the Dutch.
But in another essay, Sudjojono said the Japanese military government during the Second World War had done a fine thing to rename the then Jakarta Zoo (present day Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural center) as "Raden Saleh Park."
Sudjojono said the rechristening of the park and zoo should inspire local artists to "reach the pinnacle of Indonesian painting."
Art critic Trisno Sumardjo, according to Amir, was another Raden Saleh skeptic. In his "Kedudukan Seni Rupa Kita" (The State of Our Fine Art) essay, published in 1957, he argued that Raden Saleh was the typical product of a Western education, "a personality that never searches to benefit his country, and was only too happy to produce representations of an exotic Indonesia."
To Trisno, Raden Saleh was only revolutionary for the fact that he was the first Javanese painter to use and master Western techniques and methods.
Amir also mentioned Harsja, who according to him did admit that Raden Saleh was a successful artist, but believed that the painter was not "a nationalist, a revolutionary or even a radical man."
Affandi, one of Indonesia's greatest abstract-expressionist painters, said in a catalog for his 1948 exhibition that one thing that counted against Raden Saleh was that he never shared his talents with other artists, which meant he had no followers.
But Affandi said this was only to be expected since the concept of a united Indonesia did not exist when Raden Saleh was alive.
The painter said Raden Saleh should at least be acknowledged as the first local artist to introduce Indonesia to the art world.
Third Culture Prince
Raden Saleh's successors who look up to him with pride included the naturalist painter Basoeki Abdullah – who seemed happy to copy his master's style, Srihadi Soedarsono and Heri Dono.
In the 1980s, Srihadi painted his classic "Raden Saleh in His New Uniform," turning the courtly painter into a symbol of protest against artistic oppression in Suharto's New Order.
Then in 2011, Heri held his "Homage to Raden Saleh" solo exhibition in Schloss Maxen, Germany.
According to Amir, critics have been judging Raden Saleh's contribution to Indonesian art "far too politically."
He said Raden Saleh’s painterly skills in the Western style and his achievements in Europe, including his recognition in the royal courts there, should not stop him from being considered as an Indonesian national hero.
Though he "may not have inspired much in terms of artistic movements," Amir said Raden Saleh’s success is still inspirational.
We may never know where Raden Saleh’s real loyalty lies. His biography seems to suggest a man who lived in-between two worlds, but who genuinely rejoiced flourishing in both of them, as shown by this quote from his own 1849 autobiography manuscript:
"Between these two worlds, my heart is split. And I feel urged to offer both sides my loving thanks. I believe that I can do that best by portraying for my friends in Europe the simple, innocent life and happiness of my people at home, and by outlining for my countrymen a picture of the wonders of Europe and nobility of the human spirit."
In another age, Raden Saleh might be a prime example of what we now call a "third culture kid," a man who grew up outside his own culture and who struggled with his identity all his life (even after his death, that question is still up for debate) – a real "citizen of everywhere and nowhere."