This auction season, Christie’s is pleased to present two vastly different works created in the 1950s and 60s by the iconic Indonesian painter Hendra Gunawan (1918-1983) in which he investigates the relationship between his fellow people and the landscape. Hendra Gunawan revolutionized Indonesian art alongside fellow modernists, Affandi and S. Sudjojono. Influenced by various waves of modernism as well as a deep understanding of Indonesian mythology and history, Hendra Gunawan formed a style that is now considered to be distinctly Indonesian. As scholars Esmeralda and Marc Bollansee remark, “Indonesian art draws its strength from its rich cultural past and from its preserved customs and sacred rituals. The best painters are not slaves of their old cultures, but use ancient representations and techniques, old myths and epics and recreate them.” Hendra Gunawan can be counted in the latter group.
Throughout his career Hendra Gunawan favored portrayals of women and brought forth otherwise ordinary nebulous moments of the everyday village life to masterfully capture the spirit of his archipelago home. Born to rural life himself in a small village outside of Bandung, West Java, it is no wonder that he drew time and time from his own humble beginnings and bestowed upon his protagonists an unmistakable sense of humanity.
After moving to Yogyakarta, Central Java, Hendra Gunawan became an active participant of the local art community as he founded the Pusaka Sundan (Sundanese Heritage) organization and became a member of Sanggar Pelukis Rakyat (People’s Artists’ Studio), which ultimately led to his involvement in the communist-affiliated Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat (LEKRA or People’s Cultural Association). For this he was sentenced to thirteen years of imprisonment without trial from 1965. Although Hendra Gunawan fervently participated in political activity during one of Indonesia’s most tumultuous eras, his brush consistently returned to traditional themes of the Indonesian everyday. Even during his incarceration he retained this thematic impulse by using his memories of the outside world. Painted in the 1960s at the peak of his artistic powers, Three Women on a Beach demonstrates a simple patriotism and unfettered expression that was lost following his time in prison.
In the present lot, Hendra Gunawan portrays three women elevated atop a beach cliff. Using his intuitive sense of colour he conveys their synergetic relationship with the surrounding land. The colourful traditional tunic, or kebaya, of the middle female figure blends with the yellow sand beyond, while the ethereal matriarch of the trio bears a cool-hued complexion that merges her with the sky behind. So too, does her white kebaya coalesce with the clouds above. With her head amid the clouds and elevated positioning, as well as the eager, deferential gaze of the crouching pair, Hendra Gunawan characterizes the higher wisdom and feminine strength of the figure. Painted in striking profile, the protagonist gazes into a world beyond the confines of the canvas. In addition, her lower limbs share a marked and surreal semblance with the hues of the grey-black rock upon which she sits. While her posture, colour and profile signify her as distinct, the merging forms of the three women denote the connectedness of the female group. From afar the batik sarong of the main figure could be mistaken for that of her neighbours. Hendra Gunawan often celebrated the meaningful, supportive relationships between women in his paintings. In his view, it was the women that held together a community.
The anatomy of the figures is exemplary of both Hendra Gunawan’s technical skill and style. Art historian Astri Wright observes that Hendra Gunawan’s female figures are “nourishing, nursing, mothering beauties, voluptuous and undulating bodies wrapped in brightly coloured cloth.” Anatomically, they bear features akin to traditional Indonesian shadow puppetry, Wayang Kulit, with elongated limbs, thick feet, widely spaced toes, long necks, protruding noses and large eyes. The main figure displays all of these characteristics but it is her exaggerated profile, in particular, that echoes the stylization of an anthropomorphized Wayang Kulit.
The bright hues of the trio separate them from their backdrop. Beyond the figures, the bare branches of a tree reaches towards a horizon that is almost indistinguishable in the gradations of vivid blue seas into cerulean skies. Rendered in heavy, thick brushstrokes the backdrop contrasts the delicacy of the character's features and clothing. The edge of buildings can be seen in the far distance, suggesting the figures have sought refuge from the throng of village life. Upon closer inspection, a striking parallel can be seen as three figures gather upon the distant cliff, suggesting universality of such gatherings. Opposed to the traditional values in which women were marginalized, Hendra Gunawan’s feminine figures are all-important, united with one another and their surrounding environment, rendered as enchanted, grounded and powerful creatures. Informed by traditional shadow puppets, in Three Women on a Beach Hendra Gunawan creates theatre of an otherwise banal moment, elevating it to the sacred. His female figures are a celebration of women as they exemplify beauty, resilience, community and thus embody the spirit of his home.