Bali Christian Art Association - Exhibition 2003

Agus Dermawan T, art critic

"A prophet is assigned to oppose a king. And even greater than that, a prophet is born to contradict history." Martin Burber, 1878-1965

The theological approach to the existence of the Prophet must be interpreted as zest. And zest, in the end, connotes a spirit which stimulates passionate living, encourages people to think about the essence of life and urges people to face the truth of life. Therefore when a prophet is born and his birth is proclaimed throughout the world, the thought of him actually is not about his looks, neither his body, nor his physical appearance, but about his spirit. Indeed a prophet is born with the purpose to bring a new light while at the same time to extinguish the old (history) and false light, as quoted above by Martin Buber, an Israeli philosopher originally from Austria.

We therefore can understand why Muhammad in Islamic belief that it is not required to appear in person. This prophet presents himself as a ray of light or a flame that pours out the spirit. In this particular context there is no difference between Sidharta Gautama, neither Kong Hu Chu, nor Jesus Christ. Practically speaking, these three individuals warrant being the subject of artwork. Sidharta Gautama and Kong Hu Chu are often depicted in sculpture or in two-dimensional forms. And so is Jesus. In fact the story about the end of Jesus' life has been depicted aesthetically and even artistically by many artists around the world. Jesus has become a continual source of inspiration for the fine arts. The result is that many artists interpreted the figure of Jesus according to their cultural perceptions, religion, ethnicity and through their artistic area of specialty.

Transforming the figure and spirit of Jesus in art is a form of ad majorem dei gloriam, or an act of more deeply glorifying God. From various artistic works we observe how the artist, with freedom, can express their perceptions and devotions regarding the life and deity of Jesus. All are created based on subjectivity of thought and feeling. And from the gathering of these, we see a body of parables.

Salvador Dali's Saint John of the Cross reminds us of the suffering of Jesus. This work is the crucifixion as if seen through God's eyes. It depicts a humiliated man on the cross viewed from the sky above. Spread out underneath is the world, beautiful and peaceful, along with clear lakes and an elegant ark.

Saint John of the Cross is an example of Dali's Christian surrealistic imagination. It is composed through an artistic sublimation that is capable of receiving divine revelation, mens divina, from the world afar. Dali's sense of belief began to change when this great artist came to a point of "questioning life". The devoted heart of Dali also produced the lithography Temptation of Anthony. This painting describes a horse and three noisy long-legged elephants bearing a castle on their backs. Ahead of these staggering animals (of moeritherium descent), destitute and hopeless humanity holds out the cross. A symbolic work that suggests satire to the viewer and a caricaturizing of humanity, faith and its God.

Thousands of classic works of art that originated in Europe show the figure of Jesus interpreted anthropologically. (Refer to Bernini's sculptural work or Caravaggio paintings of the 17th century). Here Jesus is depicted in a Jew profile, which is the case in some paintings of El Greco. This artist, in fact, depicts Jesus as a powerful Jew with a Rambo-like physique. In Greco's mind, Jesus is a perfect man and is glorified as "the beloved man of all humanity", or deliciae generis humani. This is like the vision Michelangelo had when he was describing the figure of God in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

If we believe in the depiction of Jesus from El Greco's work, we may be shocked to see Paul Gauguin's Jesus. This artist, who was a close friend of Vincent van Gogh, in 1889 painted The Yellow Christ. His version of Jesus is not that of a typical Jew with long hair; to the contrary, Jesus has a neat haircut more like an office staff person. The bold vision of Gauguin is further clarified in another of his paintings in which he places Jesus and Mary in Tahitian costumes and background. Generally, the viewer does not notice the occurrence of the nimbus (light that encircles a holy person) in Gauguin's depictions.

Isa, or Jesus Christ, is a spirit. The body is an apparent medium which sometimes stands for the incarnation and phenomenon and functions as a form of communication between humanity and God. In Javanese terms, this is known as an act of "manunggaling kawula lan Gusti".

In this framework we can understand why American painters paint Jesus without a moustache or beard and not infrequently as a black man. Further we can understand why, for example, the character of Jesus in the film Jesus of Jesus of Nazareth played by Robert Powell is different than Ted Nelly's portrayal of Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. In Yesus Sang Penebus, Remy Silado's Jesus is a Malay (with a Javanese face) and travels in a becak. Remy has a reason for this spiritualistic interpretation: "After the resurrection and ascension, Jesus Christ must be viewed theologically, not anthropologically".

As far as this is concerned, in the scope of the fine arts, Jesus is considered a divine inspiration. Divine inspiration in due course must be understood according to the level of comprehension, background and creative capacity of each artist. Therefore Jesus is portrayed through a variety of perceptions and points of view. Velazquez paints Jesus having passed away and in peace on the cross as if he experienced no suffering. Albrecht Burer, on the other hand, describes Jesus in unbearable pain.

The surrealist artist Gustave Courbet in Burial at Ornans features Jesus' crucifixion not at Golgotha, but in Ornans, a place near the border between Switzerland and France. The painter (and illustrator) Hildebrandt painted the torture and crucifixion of Jesus in the middle of a main road in the 20th century with technological waste, plastic trash and wheel rims of Mercedes scattered everywhere.

The spirit of Jesus in the fine arts is apparent in the works which appear in the exhibition Variations on the Theme of Independence. Initially this exhibition was to celebrate the fifty eighth year of the independence of the Republic of Indonesia. However, artwork has been exhibited from Christian themes. (I personally think this exhibition is rather unique because it confronts the tradition that allows only patriotic themes to be exhibited.)

Here we can see paintings from I Ketut Lasia, a senior Balinese traditional Christian artist. Lasia is known by his Biblical works using traditional forms and styles. Some of Lasia's paintings, which are done in black and white, utilize idioms from the Ubud style of painting. Back in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Ida Bagus Made Poleng and colleagues, under the supervision of Rudolf Bonnet and Walter Spies, developed this style. Bonnet and Spies taught that paintings need not feature only Hindu religious mythological themes which feature wayang puppet narratives or the gods. The result was that the art of Ubud was broadened to include depictions of everyday life, including farmers in the rice fields and women selling at the market.

Lasia, who often participates in exhibitions abroad, has returned the use of religious themes to Balinese traditional painting. But the only difference here is that 'religious' is not Hindu, but Christian. His paintings include many episodes of the life of God's children and of the majesty of Jesus. In one painting Jesus preaches to the masses from a hilltop. In another Jesus is in a boat fishing with his disciples. He also paints Jesus' crucifixion and his washing the feet of his disciples.

In another instance we are drawn to the work of I Nyoman Darsane, another popular Balinese Christian artist. Darsane began with a traditional orientation. However, he then began working in more modern styles. As this developed much was written about the presence of traditional elements in his art. Darsane's work came to be described as 'contemporary.' Darsane utilizes a principle of realism in his paintings to create mythological figures or wayang that are usually seen in the Hindu world. However, these mythological figures he makes as characters from stories whose inspiration and substance is taken from the Gospel. And so emerge symbolic realist paintings like Sang pembebas (The deliverer), Sepuluh Anak Dara (the ten virgins) or the narrative of Mary and Martha.

The same spirit of realism is seen in the paintings of Ni Ketut Ayu Sri Wardani. The difference, however, is that while Darsane's work may be classified as decorative, Wardani's paintings are essentially expressionistic. Every figure moves with deep feeling and is transformed as a record of the event. The despairing face in Jeritan Ibu (A Mother's Scream) grasps the viewer. In a similar fashion Eloi Eloi Lamasabakhtani shows the face of Jesus at his death. Wardani often references the passion narrative Jesus'. One of the most interesting to observe is Golgotha.

If Darsane and Wardani move from obedience to realism, then Komang Wahyu, Gede Sukana Kariana, I Gede Yosef C. Darsane and Tina Bailey are walking towards efforts to dissolve forms. Accordingly their paintings serve impressions only, the beauty of colours dominate the whole canvas such as in Josef's painting, Kebimbangan Maria (Mary's Hesitation) and Kebangkitan (Resurrection). Beautiful ornamentation leads the paintings of Komang Wahyu: Yesus Memberkati Anak-Anak (Jesus Blesses the Children), Baptisan di Sungai Yordan (Baptism in the River Jordan). Abstract elements dominate Gede Sukana's Pengharapan (Hope) and Tina Bailey's Tidak Dapat Hidup dalam Kesendirian (We do not live in Isolation).

In the artists' work, Jesus often appears indistinctly as light. Jesus is not to understood in physical terms; rather he has become ultimate reality and knowing no barriers of space or time. Having reflected on these images, we see that Jesus has been made visible through symbols placed in aesthetic frames.

Karl Rahner, a principle German theologian, commented that by being sensitive to the symbols of religion one can comprehend life teachings better which are crystallized in the Holy Bible, the Vedas, the Koran and other teachings. Human efforts to be sensitive to aesthetic symbols are an interesting way to go deeper into religion. Therefore, to appreciate and understand aesthetic works that describe religious symbols at once encompass two ways to come to God.

(this article is presented at the second exhibition of BCAA, on August 16 to September 16, 2003)


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