Young Balinese Girl with Hibiscus is a striking portrait of a Balinese nymph captured in the glorious flushes of blossoming adolescence. Executed in 1939, this work is one of Italian painter Romualdo Locatelli's first portraits in the mythical island of Bali and a truly outstanding example from the artist's short but prolific Balinese oeuvre.
From as early as the 16th century onwards, European travelers to Bali have been impressed and spellbound by the beauty and cultural richness of Bali, which has remained through time a Hindu-dominant culture in Islamic Indonesia. At the beginning of the 20th century, Bali came under the control of Dutch colonial authorities. It was from this period of political control that Bali was markedly open to the outside world. Painter-travellers, ethnographers, tourists came in droves to appreciate and document the natural as well as sociological beauty of Balinese life. Artists such as Locatelli, Belgian Adrien Jean Le Mayeur de Merpres, Williem Hofker and Rudolf Bonnet arrived in Bali and painted from life, each one of them making large and significant bodies of work revolving around typically Balinese subjects and pictorial interests.
Like many early European travelers to Bali, Locatelli had landed in Bali in the 1930s. He had arrived in the Indonesian archipelago in 1939 together with his wife on a working voyage from Rome, Italy in the same year. They had traveled and met members of the colonial society in Bandung and Batavia (present-day Jakarta) en route to Bali. In Bali, the atmosphere that greeted Locatelli and his wife was markedly different and positively spellbinding.
Locatelli's experience in visually narrating the fabled beauty of Balinese women is noted in an biographical account by his wife, Ermina Locatelli Rogers. She remembers and recounts vividly an painting session involving the model Tigah -
"In the middle of the spacious year, near the pavilliom, there was a large banyan tree which served as the backdrop for several portraits of TIgah, and the other models. The strong, dark shadows, contrasted violently with the brilliant sunlight which gave each painting a heightened sense of dynamism. Aldo (nickname of the artist) set up his studio close to the tree With charcoal sticks in his hand, he began to draw Tigah nude on a very large canvas set on an easel. The model was standing erect, holding a long piece of brocade, trying to keep it high on her head. Her adolescent body resembled the beautiful statue of Tanagra
It was a joy to look at Tigah pose. To see her small but well developed body of a peculiar anatomical structure similar to Egyptians or the famous sculpted statues from Mycenian times. Her wide shoulders tapering down in broken lines, a strong back, small head and firm full breasts, was reminiscent of a full rose bud
The painter surely senses the model's beauty and the surrounding harmony because he was drawing with ease and pleasure. His mood was cheerful and amiable. Around the model there were several bushes of hibiscus flowers, their vivid red colour added to the background of the painting."
(Ermina Locatelli Rogers, Romualdo Locatelli: The Ultimate Voyage Of An Italian Artist In The Far East, Darga Fine Arts Editions, Jakarta, 1994, pg. 42-43)
Young Balinese Girl with Hibiscus bears out both broad and detailed similarities to the scene described. As a trained academic painter plunged into the tropics with its intense sunlight, one assumes Locatelli's sensitivity to the contrasting interplay of light and shadow became especially heightened. This is amply demonstrated in the rich and velvety brown palette the painter used and the nuanced distribution of lighter shades and darker recesses on the subject's anatomy.
The reputed beauty of Balinese womenfolk was what Locatelli sought to paint. In his painted world, the Balinese nymph is a symbol of eternal beauty, exuding the perfumed air of the orient.
As Dutch critic, V. N. De Javabode notes, "For Locatelli there are no problems beyond the beauty of the abundance of life. One will find no depth and metaphysical ideas in his work. In a spontaneous manner he reveals the beauty of the body and nature."