The Spirit of Legong

The Spirit of Legong
signed and dated 'SRIHADI S. 2000' (upper right of rightmost panel)
acrylic on canvas
each: 130 x 100 cm. (51 1/8 x 39 3/8 in.) (3)
overall: 130 x 300 cm. (51 1/8 x 118 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2000
Acquired directly from the artist
Private Collection, Indonesia
Jean Couteau, Lontar Foundation, Srihadi Soedarsono: The Path of the Soul, Jakarta, Indonesia, 2003 (illustrated, p. 118-119).

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Annie Lee
Annie Lee

Lot Essay

Srihadi Soedarsono’s works are the truest reflections of the things he appreciates the most in life – the art and culture of Indonesia. It is essential to acknowledge that Soedarsono’s grandfather played a key role in his understanding and appreciation of the arts in his country, as he introduced him to the many traditional art forms of Javanese culture including wayang, keris, and batik-making. He is interested not only in the object of the craft, but the process of its creation. Beyond the labour and technique involved in each art form, art in Javanese culture is connected to kejawen, a spiritual belief that promotes a way of life which is harmonious with all living and non-living things in the universe and is an absolute submission to a higher power. It is the spirit of the people that Soedarsono strives to capture in his paintings of his lively dancers.

Similar to the Javanese, the Balinese people hold their culture close to their hearts. Every act of daily life is deeply rooted in their traditions and conventions. Fascinated by the spiritual aspects of Balinese culture during his frequent travels to the island, Bali has been a significant part of the artist’s oeuvre since the 1950s. Yet, while fellow artist Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merpres expressed his awe of the beauty of Bali through his compositions of lithe Balinese dancers amidst the island’s idyllic tropical landscape, Srihadi Soedarsono eliminated the backdrop to focus single-mindedly on capturing the energy of the dancers, representative of the island and its people. With their graceful forms and intricate traditional garb that situates them in a time and place, the dancers of Bali quickly took position as one of the artist’s most favoured subjects, and he continues to return to this motif even to this day.

The Spirit of Legong (Lot 14) is considered a noteworthy masterpiece not least for its monumental size, comprising three separate canvas panels, each with differing background colours. The rarity and contrast of these colours accentuates the grace and flow of the dancers. The triptych features a trio of dancers, each given the honour of their own canvas as they enter the stage. On the rightmost canvas, a lively condong dancer appears, gesturing towards her companions to our left. The two other dancers are in a similar pose, with their arms raised chest height, expressing an engagement of the upper body as they move towards the first dancer. Soedarsono uses a striking orange shade, bordering on neon, as the background for the first dancer. His choice of colour highlights her quick and agile movements caught in time, with the intensity of the orange almost pushing her to the fore. For the two remaining dancers, he chose a deep blue and a bright canary yellow. The contrast is unique, and such usage of bold colours harks back to his oeuvre in the 1960s and 1970s, and serves as a bold statement and assertion of their presence in our space. Capturing the essence of traditional Legong dance which dramatises the narratives of traditional Balinese folklore, the dancers of the present painting make a grand performance against even apparent stasis.

Soedarsono’s dancers are the most iconic and easily recognisable motif in the artist’s oeuvre. In his works, the dancers are never identified as individuals as they never represent themselves, but they typify the spirit of the dance. In their elegant and poised positions, they embody the discipline of an art and the pride of a culture. The present lot immortalises the energy and movement of the dancers in harmony, unhindered by their separation across the three panels.

Soedarsono’s fascination with movement is clearly evident in this exceptional work. With the unblended white brushstrokes surrounding each figure, the artist breathes life into the otherwise stationary caption of a dancer, imbuing their figures with a dynamism unexpected of a two-dimensional figure. In some ways, Srihadi Soedarsono’s dancers are akin to the famed ballerinas by Edgar Degas in their reverence for the craft and their careful depiction of the female form. Both artists had a fundamental interest in capturing movement in their paintings, which led them to painting dancers as their subject. However, while Degas was primarily interested in the visual aspect of his dancers and focused on the accuracy of their proportions and precision of form, Soedarsono’s interest in movement was only as a vessel for his expression of the spirit and energy of the dance. It is in his rendering of the dancers mid-movement that he is able to express the essence of a culture – the strength and grace of a people with a deep reverence for their traditions.

It is without a doubt that Srihadi Soedarsono is the most significant living modern Indonesian painter. The Spirit of Legong is unlike any other work by the modern master as it showcases his abilities to unify the different elements of his practice on a majestic scale. Painted at the turn of the millennium, this impeccable painting is a true testament of the artist’s unwavering passion for his art and his dedication to preserve the culture of his beloved nation.

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