Amongst the European artists who travelled through the Dutch East Indies and painted in Bali, the Italian Romualdo Locatelli stands out for the brevity of time spent in Bali and the few but well-finished portraits of young Balinese girls he made in Bali. Tigah, the Balinese Goddess, is the largest-sized and arguably the most striking of his Balinese works.
From as early as the 16th century, European travelers to Bali have been impressed and spellbound by the beauty and cultural richness of Bali, which has remained through time a Hindu-dominant culture in Islamic Indonesia. At the beginning of the 20th century, Bali came under the control of Dutch colonial authorities. It was from this period of political control that Bali was markedly open to the outside world. Painter-travellers, ethnographers, and tourists came in droves to appreciate and document the natural as well as sociological beauty of Balinese life. Artists such as Locatelli, Belgian Adrien Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès, Williem Hofker and Rudolf Bonnet arrived in Bali and painted from life, each one of them making large and significant bodies of work revolving around typically Balinese subjects and pictorial interests.
Like many early European travelers to Bali, Locatelli arrived in Bali in the 1930s. He arrived in the Indonesian archipelago in 1939 with his wife on a working voyage from Rome, Italy in the same year. They traveled and met members of the colonial society in Bandung and Batavia (present-day Jakarta) en route to Bali. In Bali, the atmosphere that greeted Locatelli and his wife was one that encouraged his artistic creativity.
Locatelli's experience in visually narrating the fabled beauty of Balinese women is noted in a biographical account by his wife, Ermina Locatelli Rogers. In her memoirs accounting for the years 1938 to 1946 which she and Locatelli spent in Asia, she remembers and recounts vividly an painting session involving the model Tigah -
"In the middle of the spacious year, near the pavillion, there was a large banyan tree which served as the backdrop for several portraits of Tigah, and the other models. The strong, dark shadows, contrasted violently with the brilliant sunlight which gave each painting a heightened sense of dynamism. Aldo (nickname of the artist) set up his studio close to the tree With charcoal sticks in his hand, he began to draw Tigah nude on a very large canvas set on an easel. The model was standing erect, holding a long piece of brocade, trying to keep it high on her head. Her adolescent body resembled the beautiful statue of Tanagra.
It was a joy to look at Tigah pose. To see her small but well developed body of a peculiar anatomical structure similar to Egyptians or the famous sculpted statues from Mycenian times. Her wide shoulders tapering down in broken lines, a strong back, small head and firm full breasts, was reminiscent of a full rose bud.
The painter surely senses the model's beauty and the surrounding harmony because he was drawing with ease and pleasure. His mood was cheerful and amiable. Around the model there were several bushes of hibiscus flowers, their vivid red colour added to the background of the painting."
Locatelli’s portrait of Tigah, evident in the present lot, Tigah, the Balinese Goddess, is a masterful portrait that reveals how the very best modern painters of the 20th century captured the blossoming beauty and soulfulness of their chosen painting subjects. Like Gustav Klimt, Locatelli sought to paint a character and personage, not merely a portrait. Klimt’s Mäda Primavesi expresses a certain rebellion and defiance to the world, revealing a young person coming into her own, her young mind rich in conviction, and determined to make her own mark in society. By contrast, Locatelli’s Tigah is a piercingly clear revelation of the deference and mild-mannered nature of the Balinese people who are content in their own splendidly lavish and self-contained culture. Tigah exudes grace and pure innocence.
The reputed beauty of Balinese womenfolk was what Locatelli sought to paint. In his painted world, the Balinese nymph is a symbol of eternal beauty, exuding the perfumed air of the orient.
As Dutch critic, V. N. De Javabode notes: "For Locatelli there are no problems beyond the beauty of the abundance of life. One will find no depth and metaphysical ideas in his work. In a spontaneous manner he reveals the beauty of the body and nature."
The account of the artist’s widow of the present lot is particularly memorable:
“I asked Aldo about the large nude painting of Tigah. “How would you describe TIgah’s beauty?”
“It’s easy,” he replied, “just look at her slender arms and long legs, her delicate hands and feet, her body so glamorous like that of one used to dance training. Her expressive eyes small nose a full mouth, her hair so thick and glossy, she is like a Goddess. Her golden brown skin, so tanned by the sun, looks like velvet. I would call her very beautiful.”