The Birth of New Expressionism and an Intermezzo

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The Birth of New Expressionism and an Intermezzo

Bambang Bujono

Award but Not the Grand Prix

Affandi was musing in front of Max Ernst’s painting, Polish Rider, which won the grand prix in Venice Biennale 1954. Max Ernst was one of Dadaist activists and surrealists whose works were deeply imaginative and fantastic, blurring the boundaries of near and far, the real and the imaginary. Max Ernst’s works, writes Paul Eluard, “[were] no far – through the bird – from cloud to the man; [were] not far – through the images – from man to his visions, from the nature of real things to the nature of imagined things.”[i]

Affandi, one of whose works won a prize in Biennale, though not the first one, did not say anything about the Polish Rider. A few years later he met Wing Kardjo, an Indonesian poet, in Paris. It was to him that he conveyed what he was pondering about before the Polish Rider. Had he been born in Europe, he said, he would have become a much greater painter on account of a mature tradition of the art of painting (in Europe).[ii]

Venice Biennale 1954 presented art works that represented the four mainstream styles considered as representative of the period, i.e. realism, expressionism, surrealism, and abstractism.[iii] This was the result of curacy led by Rodolfo Pallucini, a fine arts historian, who was also the director of Venice Biennale. He was said to be an expert in the history of the fine arts of the middle ages and the modern ones, whose accuracy in seeing attributions and artistic context of works of art was nearly unrivaled. This is why the invitation to Affandi to join Venice Biennale 1954 was an indirect appreciation from the world of mainstream fine arts for Affandi’s works in the early 1950s that had been made in India and Europe – and it turned out that one of several of his self-portrait paintings, i.e. Bistro in Paris and A Man in Bistro received an award. These were Affandi’s works, paintings created from lines as a result of squeezing paint from tube to canvas. The area of his painting was replete with curved lines that were spread out, short, long and winding, lines that captured the tempestuousness of his emotion than represented the essence of the painting.

Nonetheless, it was this mainstream which determined that Affandi had to be lost by Max Ernst. In the word of Herbert Read, an influential British art critic at that time, Affandi’s works were an expression of the “new expressionism,” which was exclusively Affandi’s. Unfortunately, expressionism then was very common,[iv] no longer considered the avant garde, and this was the reason that the value of Affaindi’s new expressionism did not deserve a grand prix. Another British fine arts critic, Eric Newton, was interested in Affaindi’s works as they reminded him of the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. Although, Newton stated further, the act of “reminding” should not be problematized, it did not mean that Affandi was influenced by Vincent van Gogh. Rather, both artists set out from the same humanity and vitality.[v]

Newton, the author of a book European Painting and Sculpture (Penguin Books, 1941), also wrote reviews in the weekly magazine The Listener (1929-1991), a prestigious magazine where literary writers and intellectuals had their writings published. According to Newton, Affandi, with his tube-squeezing technique and his attitude as an artist, had produced works that were “wilder than Kokoschka, as human and as passionate as van Gogh.” Newton added that “He is perfect example of the Expressionist.”[vi]

Needless to say, being considered a new or perfect expressionist for Affandi was a half-hearted compliment, arising from the modernist perspective that enveloped the mainstream fine arts. The history of the modern art of painting, Herbert Read argues, is a history of style. Indeed, style in fine arts could be so complex. However, Read believes that each complexity “has a unity of intention that completely distinguishes it from...
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