Abstract Expressionism Painting: Balinese Barong Dance by Affandi Koesoema

Abstract expressionism is referred to a term of a painting art genre that was applied to new forms of abstract art and developed by American painters in post-World War II art movement period in American painting. This genre began in the late 1940 and flourished in New York City after 1945s, and then became a dominant trend and influence on artists both in America and abroad throughout the 1950s. Abstract expressionism is considered as means to emphasize the artists in conveying emotions and attitudes liberally through non-traditional and non-representational means. Abstract expressionist painters usually executed the images on their works with mischievous, chaotic, highly eccentric, and nihilistic format and composition rather than the recognizable images that had emerged since the Renaissance period. The abstract expressionist artists usually use the techniques, such as dripping, smearing, slathering, and flinging the varieties of paint on to the canvas.

The abstract expressionism genre penetrated the painters in Indonesia, and one of the best-known and greatest abstract expressionist painters from Indonesia is Affandi Koesoema (1907 – 1990). As a painter of Indonesia adhering to abstract expressionism genre, Affandi also developed a radical new technique that was never done by his contemporaneous artists.

Abstract Expressionism Painting: Balinese Barong Dance by Affandi Koesoema
Abstract Expressionism Painting: Balinese Barong Dance by Affandi Koesoema

Born in 1907 in Cirebon – West Java, Affandi Koesoema is a renowned Indonesian painter in the worldwide painting art. He visited, studied, painted, exhibited his works in Asia, Europe, North and South America, and Australia. Thus, Affandi was not only as a painter, but also a traveler both in geographical and cultural space.  As Southeast Asia’s foremost abstract expressionist and adventurous painter of the mid-20th century, Affandi was celebrated for his idiosyncratic, unorthodox style and bold subject matter. Affandi also applied the delicious dense pigments and rich with vibrations representing the enthusiasm and encouragement of his works trademark.

The present work exemplifies the abstract expressionism style painted in Affandi’s newfound style that is known as “squeezing the tube”. Instead of traditional methods of painting in which pigment is applied by brush to primed, stretched canvas ground, Affandi developed a radical new technique, which the artist directly squeezed the pigments out its tube on canvas. As the artist never painted by using a palette and he disliked brushes, the subject on present piece was executed by squeezing with pigments, and then the pigments on canvas surface was smeared directly by his powerful and dexterously fingers in its pattern ribbon-like shape to fashion a Barong dance performance theme with dramatically energetic movement and lively moods.

Painted predominantly in dark black and yellow with rosy against yellow-orange, green and beige tones, the present work is ranked among his abstracted works style that echoes a deep spirit of culture around his biosphere on Balinese culture. It is truly splendid in execution rendering energetic involvement and composition, and the colors are applied in vibrant hue exploring more dynamic mood on the vibrant Balinese tradition identity in the artist’s country. The subject also proves that Affandi possesses the unique talent and is a bridge connecting the best aesthetic Indonesian art exhibiting a vibrant Balinese culture to the worldwide audience.

The cultural and ritual “Barong Dance” subject on the present piece is one of his most iconic pieces.  It portrays a classic and mythological story of Balinese folklore narrating the battle between Barong and Rangda. Barong is represented as a king of spirit, while Rangga, Airlangga’s mother, is described as a demon queen of the ‘leaks’ after she was widowed and condemned by Airlangga’s father for practising black magic. Thus, Barong and Rangda represent the eternal battle between good (Dharma) and evil (Adharma). It is believed that Airlangga King, reigning in 10th century, came together with his troops to quarrel with Rangga (Adharma). Rangda casted a spell that made all Airlangga’s troops want to suicide by pointing their poisonous keris weapon into their own stomachs. Meanwhile, Barong, because of Airlangga’s supplication, also casted a spell which caused Airlangga’s soldiers’ bodies invulnerable from the sharp keris. At the end, Barong won in the battle, and Rangda absconded.

Relied on the composition of images on the present work, Affandi portrays the folkloric Barong dance team demonstrating superior skills with a remarkable Barong mascot to this celebrate mythological story. Its head is adorned with a lion’s head resembling a mythical beast showing sharp-fangs with long undulating body, all are depicted with densely layered cloth trimmed with exotic fur along with complicated ornaments rendering vigour, passion and life of Barong. Seeing four legs moving swiftly on the present piece, the Barong dance is played by two acrobatic dancers, one at the head and another at the tail of Barong. Affandi successfully tried to enshrine the Barong dance on the present piece by exhibiting that Barong mercurially waddles and jumps with charming spirit. Barong dance is shown as if it flows to the rhythm and sync with traditional Balinese musicians who play the ritualistic tunes with ‘gamelan’ instruments behind the scenes, typically when the dance is used to celebrate Galungan festival day in Hindu-Bali.

Throughout his career, Affandi was not interested in politics, but he was an active, committed and democratic humanist who made a positive impact on people dedicated to the work of improving the world for everybody. Unlike other twentieth-century Indonesian painters involving themselves in political practice and emerging the Moo-Indie paintings style, Affandi revolutionized Indonesian art genres without leaving the imagery of popular and folk art. Here, by his abstract expressionism work, Affandi expressed that the present work is not merely exotic visual art enjoyed by the eyes, but this work is for a public art all over the world. “Here, in a foreign land, Affandi was completely at ease working in public, out in the world, not behind studio walls; this was the way he had always worked and always would. One could say that Affandi’s art was always a “public art”, until purchased by a collector and secluded away in private homes all over the world. Yet on these walls, his work was and remains truly public both in form and intent, as it speaks to anyone who ventures into the building, telling of intersections between specific histories as well as the greater energies that pervade the universe.1)

In 1973, Affandi was appointed by Indonesia Government to represent Indonesia at the Biennial Exhibition in Sydney, Australia. The present work was painted in 1973, and it is one of his works that was not carried for exhibition in Australia as it was acquired by the owner’s father at that time. In 1970s, Affandi painted several works promoting rich Balinese culture on “Barong Dance” subjects for gift and exchange. For example, Affandi executed the piece with subject “Barong” painted in 1972, and the piece is included in Lestari Budaya Foundation, Jakarta.2) (see fig. 1).

The aesthetic Affandi’s artworks price keep on increasing and soaring in the art market for several decades. The auction set a new record for Affandi in different levels but it would not be far different significantly among his works in the market. Compare with simpler abstracted expressionism style of his work entitled to “Barong” (Dimension: 98.70 x 151.70 cm) dated to 1972 that was sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 4th October 2015, lot. 1069, for HK$3,440,000 or equivalent to US$443,760 (see fig. 2). Also, compare with his other work entitled to “Barong Dance” (110.5 x 181.5 cm) and painted in 1970 but in slightly different style to the present piece, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 26th November 2011, lot. 1014, for HK$4,220,000; or equivalent to US$541,426 (see fig. 3).

Bibliography

  1. Astri Wright discusses on “Soul, Spirit, and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters”, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 178

  2. Affandi, Vol. II, Sardjana Sumichan, Lestari Budaya Foundation, Singapore Art Museum, Jakarta, Singapore, 2007, p. 219

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