Although Hendra Gunawan’s enthusiasm for making art began early in life, his determination to make painting his vocation was catalyzed by a chance meeting at age 20, in 1939 with the master Affandi who would later become his contemporary. Shortly after this meeting, Hendra Gunawan became active in Sanggar Pelukis Rakyat (Peoples’ Artists’ Studio). Eventually, together with Affandi and S. Sudjojono, Hendra Gunawan pioneered Indonesian modernism with a unique amalgam of Western techniques and Indonesian imagery. These three, all living and working in Yogyakarta, Central Java, led the modernist artistic movement under the shadow of one of the most tumultuous eras in Indonesian history. They lived through the Japanese invasion of Indonesia, saw the conclusion of World War II, witnessed the country’s fight against Dutch occupation and the achievement of independence. This success was followed soon thereafter by internal political turmoil under Sukarno’s “New Order” regime. It was during this latter period that Hendra Gunawan suffered the most of the three modern luminaries. The artist was caught up in an anti-communist purge and incarcerated for thirteen years from 1965 as punishment for his involvement in the communist-sponsored Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat (known as LEKRA, or the People’s Cultural Association).
Predictably, there is a marked difference between the works produced before, during and after his incarceration. However, throughout his painting career the artist’s participation in the complex politics of the time was contrasted by his return to themes of Indonesian rural life. It was his own humble upbringing in a remote village near Bandung, West Java that drew him back to such subject matter. His oeuvre immortalizes some of the most memorable and varied scenes of everyday Indonesian life. As art historian Astri Wright remarks, “From the beginning, it seems, Hendra was painting people in contexts of work and play, in celebration, struggle and death.”
Painted in 1958 prior to his incarceration, Melasti is exemplary of the style demonstrated during the 1950s and 60s in which the artist explored the relationship between people and their surrounding environment. Bearing the title of the ceremony it masterfully depicts, Melasti presents both Hendra Gunawan’s nationalism as well as his outsider status as a Javanese native observing Balinese tradition. It is this binary that makes this work a rich, tender anthropological study of Balinese Hinduism, a religion practiced exclusively on the island. The Melasti ritual is held on the evening of a full moon closest to the spring equinox, and serves to cleanse both the Bhuana Ali (small world) and the Bhuana Agung (universe). The elaborate ceremony seeks to restore the balance of good and evil in anticipation of the new Balinese Calendar Year, Nyepi, which takes place several days later.
Given that it depicts a ceremony seeking to purify multiple worlds, it is both fitting and emblematic of his style at the time that the worshippers gathering on the beach are reduced to small figures in the context of the larger all-encompassing environment. In the foreground the figures stream towards the shoreline, pushing against the sea breeze and emerging from between two ancient banyan trees—as sacred are (this bit sounds wrong) they are immense—that arch over the scene like gatekeepers to the ocean. Thick, sparse brushstrokes capture a dancer in motion, young men drumming, feet shuffling beneath the elaborate lion-like Barong costume and children playing alongside the procession as it propels against the winds that bend the tedung, traditional Balinese parasol, towards land. A seemingly endless march of women move diagonally across the canvas, each one balancing elaborate fruit and flower offerings upon their heads, their elongated limbs typical of the artist’s silhouettes, dressed in vibrant kebaya and traditional batik sarong. Though distinguished by different colored dress, the faces of the female troop are all finished with just a few quick brushstrokes rendering them even more subsidiary to the landscape in which they wander. In combination with the diagonal composition of the piece, this use of spontaneous brushstroke Hendra Gunawan evokes a Fauvist sensibility and conveys the dynamism of the parade. One can almost hear the rhythmic sounds of the procession, the chatter of women and the rustling of the trees. The warm tones of the lively scene are set in exquisite contrast to the stillness and cool hues of a near-cloudless sky and unmoving ocean. This energetic contrast exemplifies Hendra Gunawan’s natural acuity for colour and the vitality of life itself.
Once Hendra Gunawan’s composition has pulled viewers gaze across the canvas, one is inclined to cast their eyes towards the horizon beyond. There, in the distance along the expansive beach, another ceremony takes place signifying the commonality of the Melasti ritual. As all ceremony-goers seek balance, Hendra Gunawan also strikes it superbly with tight composition, visual cohesiveness and a strong colour palette that successfully conveys the complex, ongoing dialogue that the Balinese have with the tangible and the visible and the worlds of the intangible and the hidden.