Dr Oei Hong Djien:

An Addiction to Art

by Michelle Chin

Entang Wiharso
Birth in the City, 1997

Be warned! This is one book you will not be taking to bed to read. This large-format volume has 312 pages, is lavishly illustrated with about 150 colour plates, and it weighs just under 3 kilograms. Some might be tempted to describe it as a coffee-table book, but when I started to read it I had to shift from the coffee table to a desk and chair, and quite soon after that I moved to an armchair with a footrest so that I could comfortably hold the book open on my lap. Unfortunately, against my usual preferences, I could not take Dr Oei Hong Djien to bed, and had to settle down in the armchair for a few hours.

Exploring Modern Indonesian Art: The Collection of Dr Oei Hong Djien gives a fabulous overview of Indonesian art throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. Dr Oei Hong Djien admits that he is addicted to art: he has acquired about 1,200 works of art over the past twenty years (an average of at least 60 paintings and sculptures per year). He compares the urge to collect art to an addiction to narcotics – gradually one wants more and more and more. As far as I know, there is no-one offering art addiction therapy in Indonesia yet, but it may be a business worth starting!

Born in Magelang, Indonesia in 1939, Dr Oei Hong Djien is a retired physician. He graduated from the medical faculty of Universitas Indonesia in 1964 and did his postgraduate study in pathological anatomy at the Catholic University in Nijmegen, Netherlands in 1966-68. He worked as a volunteer physician in Magelang and Temanggung, Central Java, Indonesia (1964-66, 1968-91). He is also a tobacco expert and a business partner, since 1979, of Djarum, one of the leading clove cigarette companies in Indonesia. His art collecting has in fact been funded by tobacco rather than his medical profession. He started collecting paintings more than twenty years ago and soon broadened his interest to sculpture. Dr Oei has served as a curator of Museum H. Widayat since its opening in 1994, and he is currently also honorary adviser to the Singapore Art Museum. He has written numerous essays and forewords for exhibition catalogues and art books. In 1997 he opened a private museum in Magelang to showcase his art collection.

Because he lives in Magelang in Central Java, his collection is “Jogja-centric” in that most of the paintings and sculptures he has acquired are by artists who live in Yogyakarta or who studied at ISI Yogyakarta. While he was still working as a physician, Dr Oei found it very easy to jump in his car in the evenings to visit artists’ studios in Yogyakarta. The 45-minute drive was of course much easier for him than travelling to Bali or Bandung where there are also many artists. Luckily for him, over the past two decades most of the best Indonesian artists spent many years living in Yogyakarta, especially while they were studying at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts.

Dr Oei’s collection includes many paintings by several of Indonesia’s best known modern artists such as Affandi (1907-1990), Sindudarsono Sudjojono (1913-86), Hendra Gunawan (1918-83) and Widayat (1919-2002). Highly respected both in Indonesia and overseas, the paintings of Affandi and Hendra Gunawan in particular are now fiercely sought-after at the various art auctions held in Singapore, Jakarta and Hong Kong, regularly fetching hammer prices of half a million Singapore dollars (approx. US$275,000) or more.

Kwan Kong, the Legendary General, 1965

Hendra Gunawan
Me, Dasamuka / Ten-Headed, c.1968

When I asked Dr Oei which of the Affandi paintings illustrated in his book are favourites, he replied, “Actually all the Affandi’s in my collection are favourites! I have not only one favourite, I have several favourites. I like the one that was exhibited at the Venice Biennial in 1954, the Bistro in Paris (1953). It is rather Western-looking but I think that painting can compete with a Van Gogh, it is not less than a Van Gogh. Another strong painting by Affandi is Chinese Temple in Yogya (1966) and also of course Kwan Kong, The Legendary General (1965) – the subject matter is something unique – it is a rarity.” Dr Oei told me that when he started collecting, he learnt a lot from Affandi about how to understand and appreciate paintings, but in the end it all boiled down to Affandi’s essential advice, “If the colour is good then it’s okay.” Affandi also taught him to look at paintings with his eyes and his heart, rather than with his brain.

Affandi, , Chinese Temple in Yogya, 1966


The other artist based in the Yogyakarta area from whom Dr Oei Hong Djien learnt a lot was Widayat. Every time he and his wife went to Jogja they went to visit Widayat in Mungkid. They got to know Widayat very well and later, when the Museum H. Widayat was erected, they became even closer. Widayat appointed Dr Oei as one of the curators of the museum. Dr Oei’s friendship with Widayat was so close that Widayat painted Dr Oei’s wife’s coffin when she died in 1992. He relates that, “My wife had been in hospital in Germany – she had cancer – and of course she was transported to Indonesia in a very simple coffin. We asked Widayat whether he would like to paint it, and Widayat was very glad because at the time he was also thinking what he could do for us. He was very enthusiastic so he came to my house and immediately did the painting. It was so beautiful and maybe the most expensive coffin, painted on all sides, each side was different. Because he lived so close to us, Widayat was the painter who visited our collection more than any other artist, and also we visited him more than any other artist.”

Hendra Gunawan, Batik Sellers, 1954
It was truly an educational process when he got to know Affandi and then Widayat, eventually transforming into very pleasurable friendships because by that stage he had learnt a lot from both of them and they shared similar tastes and preferences. Dr Oei says that, “Widayat was also very simple in the way he judged paintings. He said, ‘If the painting appeals to you – he used the word greng - it is like getting an electric shock. Affandi and Widayat taught me the same method of appreciating a painting it is really a matter of using the heart rather the brain.” He adds that, “Now it is rather different, [artists] put more weight on the concept or the story behind the painting but if visually it cannot touch your heart or emotions then what is it for? Better you write a story!”

Dr Oei has an extensive collection of work by Widayat, and he is hard-pressed to name a few favourites, but these would include the woodcut print The Bull (1982) and Birds in the Trees (1989). Actually I suspect that his absolute favourite is an abstract painting hanging in his house which was not included in this book: he must love this painting so much that he does not even wish to share it with others through the book.

When Dr Oei started collecting, Sudjojono was living in Jakarta and Hendra Gunawan was in prison. After his release Hendra Gunawan lived in Bali and Bandung, and Dr Oei never met him personally. He prefers the paintings of Hendra Gunawan created in the 1940s and 1950s. Three favourites are Market Scene in Yogyakarta (1947), the Batik Sellers (1954), and from the later period when Hendra Gunawan was in prison, Dr Oei particularly loves the painting entitled Me, Dasa Muka / Ten-headed (c. 1968). He says, “This painting was done when Hendra Gunawan was first imprisoned – it is so strong - at the time he still felt revolt and could not accept the injustice done to him, he was angry and full of emotion. You can see that the figure is armed with various weapons, he felt that he was being attacked from all sides. He didn’t know what would happen to him. The feeling is very aggressive.”

Sudjojono, Perusing a Poster, c. 1956
One of Dr Oei’s favourite paintings by Sudjojono is Perusing a Poster (c. 1956). He says, “It is unsigned but it is so unique. I acquired it from a Surabaya collector who was a real connoisseur: he went to the first wife - Sudjojono was already dating the second wife - and the first wife said that it was not yet signed, so he retorted, ‘Never mind – if it is signed and Sudjojono sells it to me, maybe you will not get the money, the second wife will get the money.’ So the first wife agreed to sell it to him, and I eventually acquired it from him.”

Sudjojono, Me and Three Venuses, 1974

Regarding Sudjojono, Dr Oei continues, “Me and Three Venuses (1974) is also a very good one – that is the philosophy of Sudjojono – he always cared more about living people than his painting. If he was doing a painting and someone needed his help he would leave his work and give assistance first. This painting is very important because it depicts the time in the 1960s when he had to make a choice and he chose his wife. That saved him from prison, because he had to make a choice between LEKRA (the Communist Party-sponsored People’s Cultural Institute) and Rose, his second wife. If he had chosen LEKRA he would have ended up in prison like Hendra Gunawan. He left LEKRA just at the right moment. I heard from an old collector that Sudjojono said ‘LEKRA will still exist in 10 years, but Rose will already be old.’ So he had to make a choice. This is a very good painting. It is my favourite Sudjojono.”

Rampogan 1996
Of the younger generation artists, three of his favourite Jogja-based artists are graduates of ISI Yogyakarta: Nasirun (born 1965), Entang Wiharso (born 1967) and Rudi Mantovani (born 1973). He considers that, “Nasirun is very talented and he is also very intelligent. He has an extensive knowledge of the Javanese wayang stories and he is able to create large-format paintings with great ease. Creating big-sized works is not easy – it is not like enlarging a small picture to become a big picture – you have to be able to fill the spaces. Nasirun has that ability - he has the technical ability, the imagination, and the patience to work out very detailed composition.”

Entang Wiharso
Living with Art, 2000

Dr Oei considers that the paintings of Entang Wiharso are also very strong and consistent in quality, but because of their “scary” subject matter they are not in such great demand in Indonesia. He is particularly fond of the work of the young sculptor Rudi Mantovani, noting that, “He is still very young, but he is so creative, no two works are the same. He always comes up with something surprising. His work can be put anywhere – indoors, outdoors, East or West.” Dr Oei clearly sees the work of Nasirun, Entang and Mantovani as having international appeal, and these three artists could be said to be some of his predictions for the future. But, as he also says, when looking at art, use your eyes and heart not your brain: collect what appeals to you, what has greng – the works that give you a shiver up your spine and make your hair stand up on your head.

Exploring Modern Indonesian Art: the Collection of Dr Oei Hong Djien by Dr Helena Spanjaard. Singapore: SNP International, 2004. ISBN 981 248 010 2. Recommended retail price: S$150 / Rp 750,000 / US$85

Michelle Chin is a writer, translator and curator. Current projects include several contemporary Indonesian art exhibitions scheduled for Jakarta and Singapore in 2004. email: michellechin@pacific.net.sg

[published in Garuda Inflight Magazine, June 2004]