Rudolf Bonnet first came to Indonesia in 1928, visiting Bali and Nias. He finally settled in Bali. Together with the German artist, Walter Spies, they made a great impact on the development of Balinese painting and painters, with the formation of the Pita Maha organisation in 1936. This organisation functioned with a judging committee that involved both Balinese and foreign individuals sitting on a panel which aimed to maintain and ensure the quality of the Balinese paintings and to market their work. Selection would eventually be made followed with a selling exhibition. It was a time one would remember with fond memories and aptly described as the golden age of the Balinese paintings.
Before the Pita Maha, traditional Balinese artists were painting as they were trained for centuries, repeating the images as they were taught but not seen and felt. Though demonstrating great skills, these works were not considered Art by Western definition. Bonnet and Spies, however first introduced the idea of 'Art for Art sake' to the artist and taught them to use painting as a way to express one's own individuality. The result was astonishing, as elegantly described by Drs. Jop Ubbens "The story has by now become quite well-known, the idyllic anecdote of the island of the gods with a few Europeans and three villages with artistically-minded inhabitants. Simply put: a few hundred still very young but talented indigenous artists were supplied with better materials and introduced to alternative themes. And then, the magic started." (Drs Jop Ubbens, "Balinese Modernists: From anthropology via art-history to commerce" in Pre-War Balinese Modernists 1928-1942: An Additional Page in Art-History, Ars Et Animatio, The Netherlands, 1999, p. 9).
Sadly, the magic did not last. The Japanese occupation resulted in the death of Spies and internment of Bonnet. The Pita Maha was never the same again when the war ended. The spontaneous, original and meticulously painted Balinese works before the war never resumed their momentum of vibrant development.
Apart from his contribution to the Pita Maha, Bonnet's elegant and sublime portraitures of the Balinese people are both an artistic and historical documentation of a people that came from an island described by anthropologists as a 'living museum'.
Bonnet has created several versions of the elegant pose of the same sitter, as evidenced with a later work dated in 1968. The sitter in the present lot is identified in the later pastel work as Ida Made Bagus Djatasura (Djatasoera) who was a well known Gambuh dancer as well as an artist. Although Bonnet never had a chance to re-paint the sitter from life in 1968 as Djatasura passed away in 1947, the artist had painted the 1968 version based on his archive of photographs which Bonnet had meticulously kept over the years of his favourite works. This fact has rendered the rarity of the present lot as the original version of the portrait of the famed dancer.
Gambus is commonly regarded to be the source from which all Balinese dance-drama sprang; it contained all movements from which dance techniques developed, together with all the scales and melodies required of the gamelan. It is a sung drama, in which the language used is 14th century Javanese (Kawi), as are the costumes and gestures. The correlation with the dance form is confirmed with the artist's inscription on the present work 'N'mair' which could well be the corruption of Ngambir, a Balinese term referring to a pose when the dancer 'plays with the kain (the wearing cloth)'. This is the exact posture as seen in the present work with the dancer elegantly holding up the garment at shoulder height.
Apart from being a dancer, Djatasura was also a painter and was active in the pre-war Balinese period. Coming from the well known village of Batuan, the artist was noted in the book Images of power by Hildred Geertz (H. Geertz, Images of Power - Balinese Paintings made for Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, University of Hawaii Press, 1994) that discusses the pre-war Balinese collection by the renowned anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Batson. Clearly highly regarded by Bonnet as an artist and dancer that the artist has painted a few versions of him, Djatasura's spirituality is hauntingly portrayed in the present work.
History tells us that Bonnet returned to Bali after the Pacific war and was again forced to leave in 1958 when the country was born a young republic. He was allowed to return later but never managed to settle in the island again. Djatasura, the sitter of the work eventually participated in the Independence movement and was captured by the Dutch colonial government and passed away in the prison in 1947. In retrospect, the present work which was dated in 1935 is indeed an elegant 'pause' and theatrical 'comma' in the pages of history, belonging to a bygone era, a time when painter paints and dancers dance.
Research has shown that the present lot has been exhibited at Duttons, Inc. on 681 fifth avenue from the 2nd to 31st of December in the year 1938 or 39. The work was featured on the cover of the exhibition catalogue as illustrated. The significance of the work lies not just in the date of the work that clearly makes it one of the artist's early works in Bali, but in the sentiments of spontaneity and spirituality that Bonnet manages to express from the work. Such are the qualities which gradually became much rarer in the artist's later works.
Christie's is grateful to the comments of Mr. Leo Haks on the catalogue entry.