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Aduh! Pasar Baru: The Rediscovery of a Painting

 

Wenny Achdiat, whose story is told in Daughter of Independence, was the model for the woman in this painting. Aduh! Pasar Baru is the work of Indonesian Presidential Painter, Basoeki Abdullah. Wenny last saw the painting in 1954, when it was included in an exhibition. Recently, we found out what happened to this artwork, thanks to Amir Sidharta. Wenny now has a photo of the painting and is very happy!

Basoeki Abdullah and his wife Maya Michel (known as Riet) were friends of Wenny’s parents. Wenny was 15 and attending Santa Ursula High School when Basoeki painted her. Aduh! means Wow! or Alas! Pasar Baru is an old shopping district in Jakarta.

The story of the painting is told by Wenny in this extract from Daughter of Independence.

One day at Santa Ursula, the Principal called me from class and asked me to follow her to her office. This only happened when I was in trouble. We had to walk from one end of the school to the other and all the way I was thinking, ‘What have I done?’ When we arrived at the office Basoeki Abdullah and Tante Riet were there.

‘Wenny, I’m going to paint you,’ Basoeki said. Apparently he had suddenly felt that he must paint my portrait and needed to act before the inspiration was lost, and knowing the painter’s fame, the Principal let me go with Basoeki and Riet.

At his studio, he sketched me and then began to paint. At the end of the session I tried to look but he stopped me. ‘You must not see it until it’s finished,’ he said.

I was disappointed but I soon forgot about the painting because Tante Riet had prepared European snacks of poffertjes, small Dutch pancakes, with kaastengels, cheese shortbread, and spekkoek, layer cake. How lucky, I thought, to always eat such nice food.

Basoeki needed three more sittings to complete the painting. Each time he barred my way when I tried to look. Each time Tante Riet prepared more treats, sometimes sweet snacks, sometimes a meal such as huzarensla, Dutch meat and potato salad.

When Basoeki showed me the finished painting I cried, ‘That’s not me. She’s too beautiful.’

He had painted not only my portrait, but also background images of young men and the buildings of Pasar Baru, the historic market in central Jakarta. As I studied the painting I fell in love with it. Basoeki was known as a realist painter but it seemed that people became more beautiful when he portrayed them.

The catalogue for Basoeki Abdullah’s exhibition at Hotel Des Indes, Nov 1954

The painting was hung in Basoeki’s solo exhibition at Hotel Des Indes. The artist offered my parents the first option to purchase the painting but they could not afford it. Instead, the First Lady, Fatmawati Sukarno, bought it.

Basoeki later became the Court Painter to King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit of Thailand. My father visited him when he lived in Bangkok and again when he had returned to Jakarta. Bapak’s last visit was in October 1993 and a few weeks later, Basoeki was dead, murdered by robbers who broke into his home to steal his collection of wrist watches. His house in South Jakarta would be made into a museum honouring his work, with his bedroom left as it was the night he died. Pasar Baru is not among the paintings now hung in the museum, and I have always regretted that it was lost to me.

What Happened to the Painting?

Many years ago, the painting was purchased by the collector Dr Oei Hong Djien at an auction in Singapore, and it is now in his gallery, the OHD Museum in Magelang, a city in Central Java. During its journey, it lost its original name, and is titled Strolling in the Museum catalogue.

Here is Amir Sidharta’s story of how he established the provenance of the painting.

In the archives of a Dutch museum exists a catalog of Basoeki Abdullah’s exhibition held at the Hotel des Indes from 12-19 November 1954. During a search into another subject, I found a story told by a certain Wenny Achdiat, who mentioned about the day she was called into the principal’s office at her school Santa Ursula in the 1950s. The whole time she was walking over towards the office she was worried and wondered she could have done wrong. When she reached office she was surprised to see Basoeki Abdullah, the painter who was her father’s friend, there. Apparently he had been strolling around the Pasar Baru shopping district, and became inspired to work on a painting and wanted her, whom he knew went to school nearby, to be portrayed as the main subject in the painting. She described at the final image of the painting depicted her and some young men in the vicinity of the Pasar Baru shopping district. This description immediately brought to mind the image of a painting I remember the infamous (and considered by some even notorious) collector dr. Oei Hong Djien purchased many years ago in an auction in Singapore. Dr. Oei confirmed that the painting dates from 1954 and indeed, the 1954 exhibition catalogs a painting entitled Aduh, Pasar Baru (“Alas, Pasar Baru”). The painting’s provenance is established!

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