For years Bandung’s academic art scene has been labeled as the “western laboratory”. The accusation seemed pertinent considering the founding fathers of the visual art department were Dutch and the art principles of the school was reflected upon art style such as formalism that originally emerged from the west. When cold war broke out in the 1950s, cities with prominent art scenes such as Bandung and Yogyakarta were divided into two opposing ideologies that mirrored the polarizing powers of the west and the east. Critics such as Trisno Soemardjo once wrote in Mingguan Siasat, calling out Bandung painters whose works were nothing but just feast to the eye, with no traces of Indonesian identity can be found in their arts. Yogyakarta’s art scenes were hefty with works that often portray the social realism and the spirit of revolution, in contrast to Bandung School which works put forward elements of form, such as color, shape, line, and other perceptual aspects –hence the name formalism, leaving out historical and social context.
To celebrate its 70th anniversary the Visual Art Department of Bandung Institute of Technology arranged an art exhibition that tells the story of one of its founders, namely “Another Way of Telling Simon Admiraal, and The Story of Bandung School”. The exhibition itself purportedly disproves the allegation of the school being a western lab that art critics and academics at that time often point out, by showing a different side of how the art school was first contrived. Furthermore, the exhibition sheds a light on Simon Admiraal, a figure that often forgotten compared to another founder, Ries Mulder, who was more eminent in most historical texts.
Works of Simon Admiraal as well as his disciples are shown in the gallery. Two dimensional works such as sketches, paintings, and illustrations were displayed in various corners of the space. There’s a large diagram that depicts Admiraal’s life timeline that is spread in the wall of Galeri Soemardja. The curator of the exhibition, Aminudin TH Siregar and Danuh Tyas, also brought in an interview with Simon Admiraal’s daughter in a form of video installed to the premises. She disclosed Simon Admiraal’s personal life and struggles. During World War II when Japan came to Indonesia, the Dutch were held captive. Simon Admiraal and his family were put into camp in Cimahi. Later his wife and daughter were separated from him, both were brought to camp in Jakarta. In the Cimahi camp, he and his colleagues made an art studio called Kale Koppen Kampement Studio (The Bald Head Camp Studio), as he and various inmates were forced to shave their head. There he and his friends made illustrations and various artworks, even further arranging exhibitions for other inmates to see. There’s an assumption that the idea of establishing an art school in Bandung was first conceived during his captive.
Simon Admiraal became the key figure of the curriculum proposal for Universitaire Leergang Voor de Opleiding van Tekenleraren (The Academy of Art Teacher), later known as Art and Design Faculty of Bandung Institute of Technology. His ideas competed with another curriculum that J.M. Hopman, an art teacher and historian, proposed. But later Simon Admiraal’s curriculum design was chosen, because it defined what Indonesian art academy needed at that time, “….The progress of free painting on the one hand and craft on the other, by the way of experimenting and investigating which western modern art streams can be adapted to the notion of art here (according to Indonesian value and culture)”. In his curatorial writing, Aminudin TH Siregar argued that the Indonesian art critics of that period fell into the pit of prejudice against colonialism, and Simon Admiraal’s curriculum proposal played a huge role to refute the critics’ allegations. Too bad, most historians have accepted the notion of Bandung School being heavily influenced by the west without further investigating the matter.
The exhibition not only serves as a rebuttal from what was known as Bandung Art School to its opposers, but also offers another side of the school that critics and art historians had overlooked, hopefully evoking the search for truth in spite of the disputable nature of the “western laboratory”. In the grand scheme of things, the Bandung Art School had done its job to lay the foundation of today’s Indonesian art scene.
Text by Nadzifa.