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Diponegoro, Incarcerated

In honour of this week’s opening of Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna, we thought it would be timely to talk a bit about the definitive Raden Saleh work – The Arrest of Diponegoro (1857).

The work is generally regarded as the first and only history painting by Raden Saleh, an Indonesian aristocratic artist who spent decades in Europe in the early-mid 1800s. Saleh cut a stylish figure in the salons and royal courts of Europe, wearing traditional Javanese dress, and adopting what has been described as a kind of “inverted Orientalism.” (“Orientalism” being the term coined by Edward Said to describe the way in which Western powers created diminished stereotypes of the Orient, so as to cement their own superiority and justify colonial practices). Saleh, as a result, has sometimes been criticised for parading himself in the manner of such stereotypes, prostituting his native roots and making a spectacle of himself, for the benefit of his European audience.

And yet, he also produced this work, one which has been lauded as a clever critique of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia:

Raden Saleh, The Arrest of Diponegoro (1857) Source: Asienreisender
Raden Saleh, The Arrest of Diponegoro (1857) Source: Asienreisender

At first glance, the work appears to be a realistic depiction of a historical event, i.e. the 1830 arrest of Javanese Pangeran (Prince) Diponegoro by Dutch colonial General Hendrik Merkus de Kock. Diponegoro was an Indonesian national hero who led the Java War (1825-1830), one of the last important anti-colonial battles in Java. He remains a key figure in Indonesian nationhood, even till today.

Take a closer look, however, and subversive little anti-colonial details emerge. Werner Kraus  – who, incidentally, will be in Singapore later this week – has made several interesting observations about this painting, which we would love to share with you.

First, he notes that De Kock and Diponegoro are painted as being at eye-level with each other. This suggests that they are equals (look at this version of the same event for example, which shows Dutch dominance – the Dutch flag flutters above, and a beaten Diponegoro walks away).

Saleh’s Diponegoro looks defiant and challenging as though he is fighting back his anger, while his Dutch assailants “frozen in static gazes, do not meet anyone’s eyes.” The heads of the Dutch soldiers are exaggeratedly large; something which has been interpreted as having the effect of making the soldiers look dull-witted, as well as demonic (in Javanese folklore, demons have disproportionately large heads).  Diponegoro is also placed to the right of De Kock which Kraus notes is the “female side,” or side of lesser importance in the “Javanese system of spatial order.”

Kraus also observes that the “solution of the dramatic event appears.. in the upper right space” of the work i.e. the dawning of a new morning over Java (the actual arrest happened in the afternoon). Accordingly, Diponegoro’s struggle was to be understood as the beginning of the end of Dutch rule over Java.

In what might have been the ultimate act of subversive rebellion, Raden Saleh gifted The Arrest of Diponegoro to (an ostensibly clueless) King Willem III of the Netherlands, with the work eventually being returned to the Republic of Indonesia in the late 1970s.

As art historian John Clark has suggested (bear with us, it’s a long quote, but a good one) : Saleh’s work here is perhaps best described as the craft of the colonial artist, who “masters the forms of the coloniser and then uses them to represent local myths, historical events, or even events taken from the coloniser’s own history, whose interpretation implicitly works against the coloniser’s legitimacy to rule.”

(Featured Image: Statue of Prince Diponegoro riding a horse, Jakarta, Indonesia)

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