One of the most individualistic artists to have travelled and painted in the Dutch East Indies in the first half of the 20th century, Dutchman Rudolf Bonnet stood out amongst his European painter-traveller peers for the steadfastness in which his training in drawing and painting in the Rijksacademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam stayed with him through his numerous years spent outside of his native Holland in the rest of Europe and the island of Bali.
Rudolf Bonnet was first introduced to the tropical island of Bali through its representation in artworks by artists such as the Dutch artist W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp, and the German artist Walter Spies. Chasing the myth of the untouched, unspoiled land and its alluring inhabitants, Bonnet arrived in Bali in 1929 and settled in Ubud, its artistic and cultural locus. His aim was to immerse himself in the island's culture and landscape. For Bonnet, Bali was a grand stage and its people the enigmatic performers that he would capture again and again in his expressive drawings on paper.
Drawing inspiration from the masters of the Italian Renaissance, Bonnet was particularly interested in the study of portraiture. Carrying with him the spirit of the renaissance painters, and a romantic notion of the pure human form, Bonnet was keenly aware of the fragility of indigenous cultures in the colonial Dutch East Indies in the rapidly modernising world of the early 20th century.
Although Bonnet returned to the Netherlands in 1958, life in the Dutch East Indies, particularly Bali, remained the central pictorial subject in his work. Back in the Netherlands, Bonnet was very much dedicated to the preservation of the indigenous life style of the Balinese, which he felt was constantly eroded by Western missionaries and tourism. He made four trips back to Indonesia, and extended an oeuvre centred on portraiture of Balinese subjects.
Dressing Up for the Performance is an unusual and striking portraiture of a ritual dancer readying for a performance. His headdress is clearly the pièce de résistance in the painting, articulated wonderfully by Bonnet in all its intricate fretwork details, from the arching crown, beaked front shape extending to leaf shapes on the sides. Bonnet delighted in painting these accoutrements of culture; it is through these aspects of material culture that reveal the Balinese pride and rootedness in their unique culture, and it is through Bonnet's artistic vision and steady hand that they are elevated to the highest standards of classical beauty.
Bonnet’s expert shading and articulation of the drapery of the figure is completed with a technical precision that recalls the idealization of the male nude in classical Greek art. His dancer is painted in juxtaposition to a man, who is simply dressed without any adornments, assisting the former to get ready for his performance. Bonnet lovingly and expertly frames this moment in the backstage preparation ritual of a traditional dance, bringing together contrasts to dramatic effect, like the sinuous curve of the dancer’s body and his raised arm against the flat frontal facing assistant. Like the Greek Doryphoros created during the high classical period, Bonnet explored the notion of an ideal man. Instead of the young athlete with his chiseled muscles and a naturalistic pose, Bonnet’s ideal Balinese man embraces the artifice of the performative world, and is, from the initial till the very end, a manifestation of culture. The present painting precedes another portrait of the dancer, Ida Bagus Made Diatasura in a N’amir pose, that reveals the dancer in a striking pose in his complete regal accoutrements.
Observing and promoting cultural aspects in the lives of Balinese was something that Bonnet spent much effort on. Alongside his contemporaries, Rudolf Bonnet led the formation of the Pita Maha organisation in Bali in 1936 that was primarily concerned with recognizing and developing the quality of indigenous Balinese painting. Proof of his immense dedication to understanding and preserving the essence of Balinese life and culture, the Pita Maha organisation was also a means to increase awareness within a wider audience, and create a market for these local artists. Bonnet helped encourage an atmosphere of artistic excitement and production in Bali that recalled Europe's own renaissance and sparked what is referred to as the golden age of Balinese painting. Alongside his contemporaries Theo Meier, Willem Gerard Hofker and Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès sought to capture the emotions and expressions of Balinese life as perceived through European eyes that had come to care deeply for the tremendous vibrancy of life the island had to offer.