Details & Cataloguing

Modern and Contemporary Asian Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong

Hendra Gunawan


Private Asian Collection

Catalogue Note

Rich with references to ancient mythology, literature, philosophy, and theatrics, Hendra Gunawan’s masterpiece Pandawa Dadu is one of the most striking and studied works from his oeuvre. This evocative painting truly embodies Hendra not merely as an emotional artist, but also as a poet, a political activist, and a patriotic citizen of Indonesia who unwaveringly fought against injustice and colonialism throughout his life. The title Pandawa Dadu, or Pandawa’s Dice, describes a pivotal moment in the immortal Hindu epic The Mahabharata.

Due to his involvement with a cultural organization affiliated with the Indonesian communist party, Hendra was incarcerated in Kebon Waru prison in Bandung. Once exonerated, Hendra became spellbound with Balinese culture, which seemed unaffected by colonialism and the cultural restraints which were confronting Java, inspiring him to migrate to this mystical island. However, it was during his thirteen-year internment when the artist began delving deeper into history painting and Hindu-Indonesian literature, which provided him with the impetus to paint a scene from the Mahabharata.

The prose narrates a tragic conflict between the semi-divine Pandawa family and their cousins, the earthly Korawas. The father of the Korawa household was deprived of the opportunity to rule his kingdom due to his blindness, triggering a deep-rooted animosity between his wily sons and the deific Pandawas. Determined to destroy their rivals, the impious Korawas challenged them to a game of dice, which the Korawas had surreptitiously loaded to secure their victory. Yudistira from the Pandawa family, who enjoyed gambling, agreed to the wager.

Hendra presents this vivid scene in medias res, at the climactic instant when Yudistira inevitably loses everything meaningful in his possession. At this agonizing moment of defeat, Yudistira was compelled to forfeit his wealth, kingdom, freedom, brothers, and even his beloved wife Drupadi. Additionally, all the Pandawas were exiled to the forest for twelve years and obliged to spend their thirteenth year at an indefinite place.

The sheer scale of the canvas befits the scope of this glorious epic, which consists of 90,000 stanzas and stands as the longest poem in history. Though Indonesians had hitherto merely heard about the sprawling Mexican murals and sizable Renaissance oils of the past, here was a chance for Hendra to employ a wide canvas to veritably embrace his newly acquired spiritual and physical freedom. The succession of individuals spanning the width of the painting mimics Greek marble relief panels along temple pediments, which also depicted ancient mythology in a running, horizontal format. By portraying this tormenting scene as a stream of consciousness, as if the dramatic characters exist on the picture plane without syntactic sequence, Hendra pertinently captures the cataclysmic rush of emotion that would have enveloped the Pandawa family at the time of their downfall. 

Pandawa Dadu immortalizes the weight of Yudistira’s loss and the desolation associated with it. Yudistira, who was once venerated as an indomitable and celestial being, exposes his flaws to the community when he loses the game, leaving the people questioning his divinity. The panoramic composition is convoluted and dream-like, consisting of a group of figures hovering in space, each interacting with the other. The tightly fitted cluster of characters is akin to that of Indian miniature paintings of the 18th century, which often depicted renditions of the Mahabharata. In this example, the miniature painting depicts the Pandawa and Korawa armies, each appearing as separate units, facing each other at battle. Much like the miniature painting, Pandawa Dadu is an eruption of color on a macrocosmic scale, yet it requires the eye to trace the minutiae of the composition in order for the mind to place the diverse characters in context and truly comprehend the depth of the tragedy. By including sundry figures and a surfeit of faces to form the backdrop, Hendra further interweaves the epic in a ripple effect that brought pathos to the entire dynasty.

Conceivably the most poignant aspect of the painting concerns the defilement of Drupadi. In the chronicle, the triumphant Korawas dragged the princess before the courts by her hair, a particularly sinful insult as a married woman’s hair was considered sacred. Subsequently, they began to disrobe her. Hendra illustrates this scene with a nude Drupadi centered on the canvas, partially concealed by her voluminous hair. Similar to The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus by Peter Paul Reubens, the figure of the naked woman at center dominates the picture plane. The daughters of Leucippus violently contort their bare bodies, bend their limbs and thrust their arms upwards as they struggle to break free from the grip of the iniquitous men. Similarly, the nimble Drupadi bends her left leg towards the right side while twisting her waist in the opposite direction, her body language reflective of her physical discomfort. 

Though lascivious men approach her from all angles, Drupadi is fearless. She turns her face towards the corpulent, masked being, and confronts him with a haughty expression. Hendra skillfully juxtaposes the beast’s stocky, red hand that tugs at her flowing hair with Drupadi’s slender blue fingers, which retort in a valiant tug of war. She appears composed, retaining her majestic demeanor despite her public humiliation. She materializes again on the right side of the canvas, as if a progression of time had elapsed within this singular picture plane. Here, while she holds her face in astonishment, she dauntlessly engages her enemy who clutches her delicate elbows. Hendra reveals only the profile of her countenance, purposefully obscuring Drupadi’s body behind the lumbering being in front of her, in order to conjure an image of her drowning in shame.

Miraculously, Krishna, the darling godchild of India, swiftly comes to the rescue, creating a length of drapery to replace the clothes that were stripped from Drupadi’s body. Hendra’s true essence as a devoted Indonesian artist emerges in his decision to paint a batik fabric as Krishna’s hallowed gift. A mark of Indonesian culture and indigenous pride, batik is the artist’s most favorite and dear motif, almost always included in his paintings. It is a constant embodiment of his motherland but in this case, also a symbol of protection, justice, solidarity, and divine intervention. Drupadi attempts to grip the cloth with her left hand, a gesture of defense against the irreverent character that also seizes the fabric. Hendra inventively creates a parallel between Drupadi’s revered hair and her consecrated batik cloth. In succession with the fluid movements of her long hair, the textile sinuously blankets her right shoulder and recedes into the backdrop, endlessly twisting and turning in the rapid whirlwind of this surreal moment.

Batik is not the only truly Indonesian component Hendra includes in this magnificent work. In fact, the evil characters wear Javanese topeng, masks typically sported during theatrical performances in Java and Bali. This realization in itself provides the viewer with a new lens altogether: Hendra is not merely describing an extract from the Mahabharata, which would have taken place in the 9th century BCE. Instead, he is illustrating Indonesian actors performing the act from the ancient text at a contemporary time. Through this, he brings to mind pictorial semiotics: theoretically, the beholders of the painting realize that they initially deciphered artistic conventions of the images conveyed because they were unconsciously familiar with these images. However, Hendra’s pictorial parable wittily invalidates this rhetoric model of pictorial semiotics.

The element of humor so prevalent in this work also existed in plenty of his other paintings from this time period. At first sight, Hendra’s painting Arjuna Menyusui seems to portray a bizarre image. Arjuna, a pious, male character in Hindu mythology, is breastfeeding a baby. This engenders an impasse in the beholder’s natural inclination to associate certain characters with particular images. The viewer cannot fathom that a powerful, masculine divinity is executing such an earthly and maternal task. However, one must look at the picture in a more literal sense. In Balinese theater, it is women who typically take on the role of Arjuna, as they better capture the elegance of the deity. Hendra is simply depicting a truthful scene from the backstage of a Balinese theater, where an actress garbed in her costume nurses her child. He ingeniously demystifies the gods, bringing them to an earthly, human level.

Pandawa Dadu is at once realistic, depicting actors on stage, and simultaneously surreal, with gods suspended in thin air, flying in and out of the scene and appearing multiple times. In this way, Hendra discreetly comments on the human perception of the metaphysical: we naturally imagine religious stories as they are depicted in our immediate environment and in our current time zone. Therefore, texts evolve through time, changing as they cross new oceans and inspire new people.

Regardless, given that Hendra has painted two known works of this scene, the other almost identical in composition and scale, it is evident that this particular chapter in the legend resonated deeply within his expanding psyche. Perhaps this reflected his own moment of catharsis for his unexpected incarceration for thirteen years, echoing the time frame of the Pandawa’s exile. It is conceivable that the ‘fixed’ dice scattered in diminished denunciation at the base of the image are metaphors of the injustice he personally faced when convicted for standing for his own political beliefs.

Through the production of this work, Hendra was making sense of his personal trauma. Upon analyzing the present lot, it is evident that the island of Bali was therapeutic for the artist, ultimately leading to a stimulating, comical and philosophical impetus in his opus. He taps every level of the human mind; the unconscious that associates metaphors with familiar stories, the subconscious that recognizes the dreamscape, and the conscious, which simply attempts to absorb this ambiguous painting. This rare masterwork reveals the artist’s subtle wit, fascination of his nation in conjunction with foreign traditions, his sincere respect for women, and ultimately, his sensitive mind.


Modern and Contemporary Asian Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong