One of the most significant artists within the canon of 20th Century Southeast Asian art is the Indonesian expressionist painter Affandi; whose unique vision and approach reflects the evolution and idiosyncrasies of Indonesian modernism to this date. Self-educated, and through serving as a model for an Italian artist in Bandung, Affandi learned the rudiments of painting by observing the rules of anatomical perspective and academic structures, eventually gaining a finely honed mastery in depicting shape and form. During his foundational years of the 1930s, Affandi relied strongly on the use of thick, unguent pastels, combining an intuitive finesse for naturalism with powerfully expressed spontaneity. This evolved into the characteristically bold strokes and three-dimensional impasto layering which define his later works.
Affandi's art was rooted in the direct observation of the world around him, which he transformed to express his personal inner vision. His commitment to painting daily scenes of Indonesian life was a life-long passion; depicting, in his perception, the best and most beautiful aspects of his homeland. To capture the essence of each situation or object, he developed and continually replayed a group of subjects, such as rice terraces, Indonesian festivities, the sun, his self-portrait, and of course the dynamic energy of the village cockfight - a common meeting ground for men from the same walk of life coming together to share the unity, brotherhood and adventure of this traditional sporting event. These localised inspirations resulted in a painting which danced with a dynamic energy and a distinct rhythm full of emotional intensity - a perfect recording of the social emotions of the period in tune with the painter's own feelings and sentiments.
The depiction of an Indonesian cockfight, a traditional contest held in a cockpit ring between two game-cockerels, is an iconic recurring subject in Affandi's large body of work, bringing together event and emotion, the two major pillars of his artistic career. The present lot, At the Cockfight (Lot 2013) is a superlatively powerful picture, capturing a moment of preparation just before the start of this catalytic match between sparring roosters. Of primary importance are the limbs of the figures within the pictorial plane, such as the hands of the men in frenzied motion, ruffling the feathers of their prize roosters or pouring an endless stream of tuwak rice wine into an open mouth. Typical of many of his cockfight pictures, Affandi created tight compositions that oftentimes boldly omitted the full extent of his painted subjects in favour of the larger scene in which the figures appear.
His emphasis on painting the limbs of the figures as well as the pair of feet on the upper right of the picture is best understood within the context of the artist's signature motif, his Life symbol which comprises of a sun, a pair of hands and feet. Affandi believed that the sun gave of continuous source of energy and life. He thought of his own creative power as such, unbound and limitless. Hands and feet were the most important part of the human body, both at work and concerning movement. The feet are also the body's connection with the ground, and signified a concern for life and the everyday in Affandi's oeuvre. These three elements combined is a succinct metaphor of his concerns as a painter and a humanist.
When he painted, Affandi stayed close to the ground, laying his easel low. Many a time, he preferred to sit or squat rather than stand. In this regard, his perspective of the painted subject is often slightly different to other painters. In this work, Affandi viewed the gathering of men and the fighting cocks from low. With a receding perspective of the ground level, a pair of legs can be seen in the upper right of the composition, giving a sense of the great event continuing above and beyond the limited domain of the canvas. Noted writer and critic of Affandi's work, Astri Wright observes that the artist's "squeezing and smearing of paint from the tubes on to the canvas, working it with his fingers, palms, wrists and the back of his hands" adds an intrinsically humanistic texture to each painting, as though imbued with the artist's personal life force.
On a thematic level, the social function of the genre scene was fully appreciated by Affandi, always sensitive to the human condition and the yearnings of his fellow men. Each passage or motif within At the Cockfight is endowed with inherent meaning - from the sociable and loyal cockerels doted upon by hardy village men as pets; to the pouring of the village wine as a symbolic activity which signified celebration and communal bonding.
The expression of masculinity, friendship and friendly rivalry of the cockfight are augmented within a single revealing scene. The cockerels appear with clearly symbolic colours - white, red, black and green - probably in reference to the political tensions building up in the country, which may have appeared to Affandi to be animated by the same struggle between primary forces similar to the cockfight. Yet, the way Affandi features this struggle is from the perspective of a spectator, which he had also become on the political stage by the time this painting was executed, approximately the same time that he left the communist-controlled LEKRA (People's Cultural Institute).
This strong narrative quality is rarely embodied with such fervor and eloquence by Affandi, which immediately sets At the Cockfight apart from his other still-life observations or landscape works. Supremely well-executed, as one of the most complete and memorable scenes of the cockfight in the artist's oeuvre; a viewer is able to observe the formation of aesthetic attitudes and appreciate Affandi's expressionism in its dramatised entirety.
At the Cockfight was a gift from the former President Sukarno to its present owners, who were representatives of the Dutch company Philips based in Jakarta during the 1960s. Following a cordial meeting at the presidential palace between both parties, they were soon after presented with this picture and also received a set of the commemorative monographs of President Sukarno's art collection, edited by Lee Man Fong.