A few weeks back, I attended a conference at the George Kahin Center on the Cornell campus, campus hosted by the Cornell Modern Indonesia Project (CMIP). The title of the conference was The State of Indonesian Studies.
My attention for the conference waxed and waned a bit, but I did attend several panels. Not part of the inner circle of this world at Cornell, I felt like an interloper. Perhaps most interesting to me, however, was a discussion on Art History, which included contributions by Astri Wright, Kaja McGowan, and others, including an interesting archeologist from the South Pacific. One thing came up repeatedly, a discussion of a seminal body of work by Claire Holt, Art in Indonesia: Continuities and Change.
This book has been eye-opening for me.
Published in 1967, Holt’s text remains as rich today as when first published. Since 1992, I’ve been engaged in an on-and-off study of Indonesian music and art (really Balinese and Javanese, and mostly gamelan); this text is really the most stimulating and interesting work I’ve read on the creative and cultural developments of islands.
An ambitious undertaking, Holt attempts to document and analysis patterns and developments in Indonesian visual cultural beginning with prehistoric cave paintings in Irian Jaya, and concluding with the schools of modernist painting that emerged after World War II and the Indonesian revolt against Dutch occupation and colonial rule in the 1950’s. While the bulk of the text discusses developments in Java and Bali, she does address discoveries and cultural achievements from across the archipelago.
Perhaps of greatest interest to me are the chapters on the Hindu-Buddhist empires, and their architectural and culture achievements. Before the coming of Islam, Hindu-Buddhist empires emanated from Central Java between the 8th-14th centuries., with the Majapahit rule (1293-1527) stretching the farthest across the archipelago. Boasting incredible power and wealth, these empires constructed some of the greatest Hindu and Buddhist monuments in the world, evidence of which is scattered across Central and East Java.
Also of interest are her discussions on the wayang traditions, including both the shadow puppets and wayang wong, as well as other dance/drama traditions in Bali and Java.
Additionally, of interest are the chapters on Modernism in Indonesian Art. Holt addresses the emergence of Indonesian Nationalism, as the islands freed themselves from Japanese, Dutch, and Portuguese occupation. With the emergence of Indonesia and Modernist art, schools of creative thinking developed around artists educated by Western and Japanese artists and their techniques, and yet sought to create images unique to the Indonesian experience. The artists developed collaborations and collectives to support this new identity and their creative pursuits.
Also discussed in these chapters is the beginning of art education in Indonesia. Holt details the development of State funded art academies, specifically in Bandung and Yogjakarta.
I’ve been struck enough by Holt’s work, that I’ve contacted the Rare Manuscript division at the Cornell University Library in attempt to see some of her original notes, photographs, and documents.