Ode to Affandi
I don't remember him coming or going, just being—
part madman, poet, dreamer?
hands like lightning,
exploding tubes of paint in front of crashing endless blue.
Today, for his fellow Indonesian countrymen, Affandi’s name needs no explanation. Despite his resistance to categorization and the intellectualization of his work, his work is firmly embedded in the 20th century global art canon and he is widely dubbed as ‘The Father of Indonesian Painting’. As a testament to the inextricable link between politics and art, he pioneered a new wave of Indonesian Modernist painting at the dawn of the country’s Independence in 1945 after many tumultuous years of struggle against Dutch occupation. From the 1950s, Affandi began to gain international recognition and worked, studied and exhibited throughout Asia, Europe, the United States, South America and Australia. Affandi left his mark in each of the places that he travelled to. Throughout his journeys he garnered recognition from statespeople, befriended collectors and artists alike, painted murals and unfamiliar vistas while exhibiting work produced at home in Indonesia.
Born in Cirebon, West Java, Affandi’s interest in painting began at a tender age. In his 20s he developed his artistic skills by serving as a model for an Italian artist working in Bandung in the 1930s. During this process the artist was privy to classical teachings on art history and anatomy that would help him hone his own artistic technique. Originally working primarily with pastels, Affandi’s creative impulses eventually led him to apply paint directly onto the canvas from the paint tube, or by using his palms and fingers. This method allowed for the development of a spontaneous expressionism and naturalist style that was instinctual to Affandi, and resulted in three-dimensional impasto works that echo the artist’s fundamental belief in the aliveness of all things. By the 1950s his mastery was such that the artist typically studied his subject for a week and then produced his rendition after furiously painting for no longer than 90 minutes.
As he developed a unique technical style Affandi also drew from his patriotic love of Indonesian arts and culture. Art historian, Astri Wright, even suggests his dynamic paint strokes “could be interpreted as a Java-raised Indonesian modernist’s revisioning of, or homage to, the Javanese ukel form seen in classical dancers’ hand-movements and in the patterns carved, painted, batiked or woven on traditional Javanese arts (e.g. wayang puppets and textiles).” The connection between the expressive strokes and shadow puppetry, or Wayang Kulit, makes sense when one considers that at the age of seven the artist was known to draw the whole pantheon of Cirebonese wayang from memory.
Although his swathe of self-portraits are often misconstrued as an obsession with the self, in actuality Affandi physically aligned his with the Wayang Kulit character, Sukrasana known for his ugliness, kind heart as well as his ability to bring the heavenly garden to earth. “When I paint, I always want to become one with the object I paint. I lose myself, and then there is a feeling as if I’m going to fight against something.” Affandi’s endeavor to merge himself, and thus the viewer, with the subjects he chose manifested in returns to self-portraiture. Each return to the theme yielded new spiritual revelations of the self and reached new psychological depths, as Affandi used his creative instincts and canvases to track his inner-journey. Affandi’s earliest self-portraits are dated to the 1940s when the artist was still exploring his skills and a realist style that would later evolve into the mature, emotive portraits such as the work presented today.
Painted in 1978 with magnificent articulation, Self- Portrait with Statue vividly captures the physical likeness of the elderly Affandi and is superimposed with the landscape of his inner-self through his signature use of flowing paint strokes. The wild lines of his whispy hair and beard soften his gaze that hauntingly fixes upon the viewer while asserting the vitality of his presence. The creases of his face come to life in thick, spirited lines of yellow, red and green, lighting his face upon a shadowy background of brown and beige hues. The addition of a statue to the image makes it a rarity among Affandi’s self-portraits, and the dark figure echoes the silhouette of the Wayang Golek figures. The visage of the artist becomes one with the statue, thereby reflecting his belief that life permeated all objects, both animate and inanimate. Overlaying the energetic face, a dark blue-brown outline of what appears to be a hand creates a double-vision of the artist as both creator and subject, evoking the physical and emotional process of painting the self.
Through its primary colours, anatomical semblance to the artist, gestural and vigorous strokes, the piece connects the audience with the artist’s inner-life. Affandi prioritized his emotions above all and let them lead both his practice and his personal life. A dynamic, mesmerizing piece Self-Portait with Statue forces the viewer to engage with the piece as poetically and emotively as Affandi created it.