This folk subject is in line with Hendra's desire to be a people's artist. It is a deliberate attempt on his part to choose a commonplace subject - a person very much like the Everyman, someone every Indonesian would know, recognize and identify with.
The choice of the humble fish-vendor as the inspiration behind this lot does not, however, warrant a conventional treatment. Hendra manipulates the canvas to present an alternative way of regarding the theme.
Reading the painting with no reference to its title, one can easily attribute princely characteristics to the figure. Striking a wide, bold pose, he is a figure of strength and purpose. The theatrical aspect of the character is unmistakable. His pose is reminiscent of the Indonesian folk art that so inspired Hendra in his earlier days such as the kuda kepang (a trance dance where a male performer dances with a hobby-horse made of plaited grass) and ketoprak (a form of popular theatre performed in open air). It is very dramatic and almost heroic; tinged with a sense of self-consciousness, as though the man is performing in front of an audience, or is aware of a hidden viewer. His white-and-black-swirl cape, painted on a near translucent fabric (amidst an entire canvas of opaque hues) emphasizes the width of his shoulders and adds a supernatural, larger than life aspect to his mien.
Fusing the heroic element with his depiction of the common fish-vendor reminds us again of the theatricality of the piece. However, the extravagances and artificiality associated with the theatre belie Hendra's passion for politics and social issues. By allowing the humble fish-vendor to rise above his lot in life to that of an epic hero, he expresses a desire for the people to take charge and no longer be victims of oppression by others.
Characteristic of Hendra's works is his vivid use of colour to express intensity of emotion and atmosphere. Painting the torso and legs of the fish-vendor red, but making his arms brown and black do little to make it more realistic, but the use of such saturated hues to highlight different parts of the body imparts a hyper-sensitivity to the painting. The eye is drawn instinctively towards each part almost systematically, but this does not detract away from the unity of the piece aided by the clever use of rounded forms.
There is nary a straight line in Hendra's Fish Vendor. The brushstrokes are fluid and organic, swirling freely across the canvas. There is an almost Art Nouveau feel to the painting, with the curved lines and heavy use of patterns and shapes. Small squiggles of green and yellow are flushed against the red of the fish-vendor's calf, juxtaposed with the red on brown polka dots on his feet. Even the various colourful fish that flank the man are like an exercise in design more than anything else. The effect is almost caricature-like, yet one cannot help but feel that Hendra is merely using these decorative patterns as metaphors for less-than palatable things - like the spider-veins on the man's tired legs, or the onslaught of disease. The artist seems almost reluctant to deface his hero, but realizes that he cannot paint an overly idealized portrait either. A compromise is the best he can offer to his viewer.