There is a small, but lively tradition of painting and figures on Java, even though the tropical climate in Indonesia is not favorable for European-style easel painting on canvas or paper. We've collected Javanese folk art paintings and figures in three forms: screens, reverse paintings on glass and paired figures.
Dealers in small towns in Indonesia collect pieces from the surrounding area to sell to bigger dealers in Jakarta or overseas. These businesses are usually in the owner's home on a back street and include a workshop to repair pieces before they are sold. In the early 1980s we bought window shutters set into beautifully carved frames and a few years later, mirrors in the same type of frame, often with shutters opening out to reveal the mirror.
It wasn't until later that we realized that these frames were originally freestanding room dividers in sets of two or three with paintings filling the space where there was now shutters or mirrors. Screens are used in tropical Indonesia to divide rooms into public and private spaces while still allowing breezes to circulate freely throughout the house.
Apparently, screens weren't selling well to overseas cliental, so the paintings were knocked out, the bracing feet knocked off and the enterprising dealers turned them into something else. New shutter and mirror combinations are now produced in all sizes and colors for the export market.
Unfortunately, a lot of interesting artwork was lost this way. After we realized there were paintings, we started asking for them. Some dealers thought it was funny that we wanted this old, unfashionable artwork. Screen paintings are usually done on a thin sheet of metal or less often on wood, often painted on both sides. One side, or set of sides, might have scenes from the Ramayana or other classical epic, while the opposite side might have a more contemporary story from the original owner's life or town.
We first noticed paintings on glass for sale in central Java around Semarang. Paint is applied in a thin layer to the back of the glass and the finished work is viewed from the front. Oil and more recently acrylic paints are used along with metallic leaf. Typically, the figures are outlined, interior finer details are added, and finally the brighter fill colors put down over these.
Glass painting probably derived from European colonial influences and declined after the 1930s until a recent revival. Originally, the artists were itinerant painters who went from village to village, but today's painters are studio artists in the city workshops of Çirebon, Yogyakarta and Solo (Surakarta).
Subjects include stylized portraits recalling the European colonial era. There were about a dozen paintings of the three sisters in colonial dress in one shop, so someone has a studio that turns out multiple copies of popular themes. There are also erotic paintings, usually set in one of the Indian epic sagas.
Joseph Fisher's The Folk Art of Java in our booklist has an excellent discussion of the history of glass paintings, contemporary artists working on glass, and the numerous traditional characters used in Javanese folk art. Fisher writes that the Jesuits brought glass painting to Guangzhou (Canton) and that Chinese painters probably worked in the courts of India in the 18th century. Later, Indian painters painted both Hindu and Islamic stories for their cliental. The Javanese painters also work with this combination of themes and Çirebon painters use Chinese style motifs in their landscapes.
Free-standing "marriage figures"are placed in the bedroom of the husband and wife or on either side of the entry way to the home. The loro blonyo (inseparable couple) are Dewi Sri, Hindu goddess of agricultural fertility and her consort, Sadono. The traditional Javanese wedding is considered to be a re-enactment of the birth of the universe. Figures of this pair are placed in front of the canopied marriage bed and as the ceremony begins, they are replaced by the bride and groom. Happiness, children and prosperity are secured when they are in the home. They may be represented in traditional or contemporary Javanese dress. Although the loro blonyo are most common, we have also collected other pairs, like the clown-servants, Gareng and Petruk.
Figures and scenes come from the many rich story-telling traditions of Javanese culture. The Indonesian versions of the Indian Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are loved throughout Java. Many of the paintings depict scenes from these two classics, often portrayed in the flat, elaborately detailed style of the wayang kulit shadow puppets.
The Ramayana tells of the long contest between the hero, Rama, and his half-brother, Bharata, for their father's throne. The most popular part is when Sita, Rama's bride, is captured by Rawana, the evil king of Ceylon. She is finally rescued with the help of Hanuman, the white monkey soldier and Rawana is killed. Although she is banished when she returns to the court, Rama finally succeeds in both defeating his rival and restoring Sita's good name and making her his queen.
The Mahabharata tells of the conflict between the Pandewa brothers and their jealous cousins, the Kurewas, who drive them away from the kingdom to wander in the wilderness. There the Pandewa build the kingdom of Amarta. Their popular clown-servants are the Punakawans. One of them, Semar the wise, is thought to descend from an pre-Hindu Javanese god. Although the clowns are funny, they are also philosophical and often represent the point of view of the ordinary villager.
In the glass paintings, the Punakawans sometimes appear in contemporary dress in a variety of humorous situations: driving trucks, taxis or motorbikes, getting chased by traffic policeman against a backdrop of city streets and high-rises. These scenes are painted in a bold, brightly colored, 2-dimensional style.
Another source is indigenous folklore. A popular story is that of Joko Tarub, the farmer who stole the shawl (selendang) of the goddess, Dewi Nawang Wulan, when she flew down with her friends to bathe in a spring near his fields. He hid her shawl under the rice in the bottom of his granary. Without it, she could not fly back.
She agreed to stay with him and they had a child. Her only condition was that he not watch her preparing rice. Because she was a goddess, she made their meals using only a single grain, so the rice in his granary never went down. Joko was curious about this and one day he peeked in the rice pot. Immediately, she lost her magical power and had to begin using the rice from the granary for their meals. When she got to the bottom of the granary, she found her shawl and flew back to heaven.
More recent stories come from an Islamic story cycle (Menak), the tales of Muhammand's uncle, who is involved in all sorts of adventures in exotic places to promote good against evil and protect the weak from the strong. Also from Islam comes the graceful script of Arabic calligraphy with sayings from the Koran and other religious texts and symbols such as the crescent and star.
If a man makes the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina on the hadj, he may commission a screen showing one of the famous mosques. Local mosques and the pendopo, the village audience hall for secular ceremonies and government meetings, are also illustrated.
Sometimes there is a contemporary, perhaps personal story. For example, a three panel wood divider from Madura Island shows scenes from a war, probably WWII or the following war for independence from the Dutch. The center panel is topped with a carved man on horseback accompanied by two dogs, below that is a mirror.
Under the mirror is a panel showing sailing ships and planes dropping bombs into the harbor. The two lower panels on the adjacent sides each depict a tiger in the countryside. The top left panel shows a soldier dressed in khaki and a helmet firing into the distance. The top right panel shows a loaded military-style truck going up a hill, two soldiers or police on a motorbike have stopped and are talking to a white figure farther up the hill. The inscription reads "Supormin - RB, AD 24 - 12 - 1960"
Figure painting is not historically important in Indonesia compared to other art forms, but it reflects the multiple cultural influences that have arrived in Java and been transformed by the Javanese into art that is distinctly their own.
Batik painters on Java and Bali use some of these same themes and styles. There is also a Balinese school of easel painting dating from before WWII, as well as contemporary modern painters in major cities like Yogyakarta and Jakarta.
For further reading:
Folk Art of Java from the Asia Collection
by Joseph Fischer, James Danandjaja, Clare B. Fischer
published by Oxford University Press, 1994, ISBN 967-65-3041-7
NY, NY, USA
Includes seldom illustrated crafts such as folk art painting on glass.
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Artifacts on this site are collected in the field by my husband, Ron Perry. I take the photographs, do the html, text and maps. More background in Who We Are. Art-Pacific has been on the WWW since 1996. We hope you enjoy our New Guinea tribal art and Indonesian folk art as much as we do. Carolyn Leigh, P.O. Box 85284, Tucson, AZ 85754-5284 USA, Art-Pacific at http://www.art-pacific.com/