Let’s talk about the movie Mencuri Raden Saleh. The heist of the summer in the Indonesian cinematic scene. And not just any heist, the makeshift thieves aren’t trying to steal the arts of da Vinci, Rembrandt, or any of the good ol’ Western art maestros, but of Raden Saleh, who was widely considered as Java’s first and foremost modern artist until today.
The public seems to respond very well to the film. As of now, Mencuri Raden Saleh (tr. “Stealing Raden Saleh”) has garnered more than two million moviegoers. The story tells about a group of six adolescents thrown together into a situation where they must steal Penangkapan Pangeran Diponegoro (The Arrest of Prince Diponegoro, 1857), a historical painting by Raden Saleh kept in the Presidential Palace.
What was so valuable and significant about this painting? One scene from the film explains it. The lead character, an art student named Piko (Iqbaal Ramadhan) who forges paintings for a living, narrates: the tableau was made in response to an earlier work called the Submission of Prince Dipo Negoro to General de Kock by Nicolas Pienemaan, a Dutch artist.
In his depiction, Pienemaan painted Diponegoro who stands a level below de Kock, heading to the carriage that will take him to his exile as the flag of the Netherlands overlooks the scene. Saleh painted the same scene, but this time Diponegoro’s back is arched, his expression is determined as he walks to the carriage, and the flag is removed. Piko simply wraps up by saying that Saleh’s Arrest of Prince Diponegoro is not just a painting, “it’s also a symbol of resistance.”
But what really caught my attention is how Mencuri Raden Saleh, despite my initial assumptions, doesn’t attempt to philosophize on the meaning of the painting and why Saleh painted it in relation to our nation’s fight for independence. Maybe I came in with such an expectation since the film was released in the month of Indonesia’s Independence Day and has a historical figure in its title. So, it was a joy to find out that rather than falling into clichés that promote nationalism, the film instead focuses on youth getting around rules, struggling to make ends meet, and being used by a (fictional) former president for his political scheme.
Also, perhaps a heist film wouldn’t have been a suitable medium to even attempt a view of Raden Saleh’s enigmatic life as a man born into a Javanese-Arabic noble family who got to taste the high society of Europe. From Christopher Reinhart’s article on the Indonesian news site Tirto, Saleh sailed to the Netherlands in 1829 as Financial Inspector Jean Baptiste de Linge’s employee. An opportunity that was given due to Saleh’s artistic talent and his connections to the Dutch officials.
His journey to Europe was supposed to end at the same time as de Linge’s, but Saleh requested to stay longer. Granted by the Dutch Indies government, he went on living in Europe for nearly two decades, studying art even deeper. During this time, Saleh gained recognition in the European art world through idiosyncrasy, to put it lightly. Werner Krauss (2005, p. 275) pointed out that “no one expected an oriental prince to paint like a 19th century Dutchman”. Aspiring art historian Sheryl Gwee made an observation on art magazine Plural about Saleh’s orientalist images with Perburuan Banteng (The Wild Bull Hunting, 1855) as the case study:
“[…] Raden Saleh paints warriors with batik clothing, turbans, and straw hats battling a wild bull against a sunlit tropical landscape. But despite these markers of ‘Javanese-ness,’ Raden Saleh relies on the same visual tropes that we see in Eugène Delacroix and Horace Vernet’s Orientalist […] where man and beast mingle in a tableau of apparent exoticism and savagery.”
Years after his arrival with de Linge, the Dutch government grew even more reluctant to let him go back to Java, suspecting that his time and education in Europe had rooted ideas that are ruinous to colonial rule. Although upon his return to Java, Cees van Dijk thought that the suspicion was baseless as Saleh himself apparently expressed, “After 23 years of being in Europe, why would I put myself in the same position as these bandits and troublemakers and whatever else they are […] to rebel against the government that until now has given me so much cordiality?” (2008, p. 16, own translation).
Then, is Piko justified in thinking that Saleh’s most celebrated painting is a symbol of resistance?
Reading more into his life, I reckon it’s only fair to look at his seemingly lukewarm view on colonial government in context. It must have been lonely for Saleh to be among the first people to receive education in Europe, then having to return to his people who did not understand him, nor did he. To enter Colonial European society was not an option, either. And Saleh was no fighter. Growing up in an environment that was secure and comfortable would not automatically equip a person with the drive to fight openly for what is right. Art, for Saleh, might have been the only medium for a noble-born, Europe-educated man like him to live and survive in a nation colonized.
That is to say, we can still perceive his reinterpretation of Prince Diponegoro’s arrest as anti-colonial, and Saleh himself perhaps also knew very well the cruelty of European racism, but it’s highly doubtful that any of his actions were driven by nationalism.
Inadvertently, Mencuri Raden Saleh mirrors the maestro in this way. There are still remnants of romanticizing Saleh, shown in Piko’s admiration for him and how this film is marketed—but script-wise, none of the characters have ever tried to question the morality and cultural ramifications of forging or stealing Saleh’s painting. Even the end scene shows them rejoicing over the fact that a buyer in America is eyeing the painting they just stole at an exorbitant price.
It’s self-interest—or in the film’s case, the group’s interest—that stands out here. Saleh chose art to save himself, while the characters chose to steal the painting to save themselves. This could seem controversial, but by putting themselves first, they are avoiding the risks and dangers set up by much stronger forces. But with all that said about Piko and his friends, all of this could change since the blockbuster leaves space for a sequel at the end.