Complex, contradictory and politically brilliant, Engineer Sukarno, the first president of the Republic of Indonesia, was a renowned lover of the arts and women. For the most part his eclectic collection of paintings and sculptures now belong to the Indonesian State. Like the man who put the collection together, it has been a source of inspiration, controversy and intrigue.
Sukarno’s attraction to art was multifaceted. Like most great collectors, the urge to possess beautiful art, like women, was innate. As an aspiring young intellectual and dedicated nationalist he grasped early on that art was one of the foundations of culture and society. He also understood that art was a powerful tool of communication and identity, not only for individuals but also societies and nations.
Art is a unifier. It destroys false boundaries and allows peoples of different backgrounds, social class and culture to come together. This quality fit his greatest dream – to wield the diverse ethnic groups speaking multiple languages and embracing different religions to unite under one flag against the colonial oppressor.
Born revolutionaries who dared to dream, Sukarno gathered the greatest Indonesian artists of the era around him and urged them to support the struggle for independence by raising the consciousness of the Indonesian masses by creating a truly pan-Indonesian art. The list who answered his call – S. Sudjojono, Hendra Gunawan, Basoeki Abdullah and even the apolitical Affandi – are now the A-list of Indonesian art.
In a deeply religious country with a strong sense of morality, Sukarno’s penchant for nude portraits and sculptures of voluptuous women was shocking to many. The snootier denounced them as little more than big bosomed tawdry pin ups. Others spoke of immorality and sin. Europeans snickered that the man lacked taste.
In the political chaos that surrounded his political demise and exile, there are many stories of malfeasance as many of the more valuable works in the collection disappeared into the hands of a new elite. The Suharto regime were not art lovers and except for some of the major works by Raden Saleh, the Javanese- Arab who claimed he was a prince, most of the works were hidden away in storage rooms often under disastrous conditions. This would change with Megawati Soekarnoputri when the first inventory and assessment of the collection was made in over 30 years.
Perhaps the remarkable observation of one who had the pleasure of seeing it first hand was the number of great paintings not only by Indonesian but also foreign artists including Diego Riviera, Tamayo and Miguel Covarubbias of Mexico. There are also the five exquisite oils of Indonesian historical scenes by Walter Spies as well as the best work from Willem Hofker, Rudolf Bonnet, Theo Meier and Antonio Blanco. While some of the naked women are dated, every collection in the world has problems and should not be judged by its mistakes, but rather its triumphs.
Before falling into negative stereotypes, take a look at the art decorating your own apartments and consider why, in a nation filled with so many incredible collectables, you are still hanging junk on your walls. Learn to dare like Sukarno.