Locatelli’s trip in Java was spurred by the initiation Dutch government, which had been made through a Bandung-based Dutch collector, John de Jong, who fell in love with the artist’s works during a visit to Italy. Through his patrons, John and Gerthrude de Jong, the Locatellis became popular among the high society in Jakarta and Bandung and he thrived as the Dutch Indies’ new society portraitist. Yet Locatelli’s dream was to work on his own compositions in Bali, to be freed of from the formality of portraiture.
During the brief period Locatelli lived in Java and Bali, he created some of his most exuberant and expressive works, such as Kris Dance. Unlike anything Locatelli had painted, his Bali period is the one that is most liberating and thus most important to the artist. Gambuh Dancer beautifully exemplifies a masterwork from that period; it is a perfect synthesis between Locatelli’s academic Italian school training, his new-found freedom of expression and elements indigenous to his new home.
Painted in subdued, sepia-toned palette, echoing the earthy browns and natural pigment dyes used in the Javanese and Balinese decorative arts, Locatelli rendered a beautiful girl in full costume. Standing in the center, she is depicted from a downcast angle, as if beheld by a viewer who is seated on the ground. Her arms are raised in a classic dance pose, creating angles perpendicular to her shoulders and dividing the picture plane into four quadrants, with her body as the axis. Forming a harmonious balance betweenthe elements of composition, line and space is Locatelli’s homage to his academic training. The brushstrokes here, like those of his other non-portraiture works,
The gambuh is the most archaic dance form in Bali, preserving many features of movement, music and language that date to the Majapahit Empire (13th – early 16th century). Where there is dialogue, it is spoken mostly in Kawi, a 14th century form of the Javanese language. Only the attendants or servants in this dance-drama speak colloquial Balinese, and it is therefore not surprising that the subtleties of plot and narrative are lost even to the Balinese audience. It is performed at a temple’s outermost courtyard only on special occasions, as an offering during ceremonies such as temple feasts and cremations.
The Gambuh dance is considered to be the source of most Balinese dances that exist today, including the Topeng, Sendratari and the famous Legong. Despite its historical importance, the Gambuh is extremely rare. It was kept alive only by a small number of troupes in southern and eastern Bali before the war, and performances even during Locatelli’s time were exceedingly scarce. Between the fifteenth and sixteenth century – the twilight era of the Majapahit Empire, Bali was considered a haven for the nobility in the highly political Majapahit court. The name ‘gambuh’ came from the old Balinese world for “mixture” and signifies the amalgamation between Majapahit’s Hindu-Javanese culture and ancient Balinese spirit. (Emiko Susilo, Explorations in Southeast Asian Studies Vol. 1 No. 2, Gambuh: A Dance-Drama of the Balinese Courts, p. 7). In this context, the role of the arts, particularly dance-dramas, became more important; not only do they serve religious purposes, they also function to serve the court. Furthermore, he royalties not only acted as patrons of the performing arts but were themselves performers.
Most of the stories are derived from the Malat chronicles, the Balinese version of the Javanese Panji tales. It narrates the adventures of Raden Panji, a prince who was separated from his beloved, Candra Kirana, on the night before their wedding. Through a series of dramatic events, the two lovers endlessly searched for one another until they meet again in a climatic scene. The heroine belongs to the group of manis or refined characters, and as such, speaks only Kawi in a high-pitched stylised manner, and moves with the utmost elegance and gracefulness. From the figure’s pose and costumes, it is very likely that the dancer in this painting is playing the role of Candra Kirana.
Gambuh Dancer is the most ideal example of painterliness; with broad, energetic brushstrokes, Locatelli conveys a sense of constant movement and skillfully captures the essence of his sitter. Resplendent in its format, execution, and theme, this portrait of a gambuh performer captures the urgent transience of beauty. Ultimately it represents some of the most primal instincts of mankind — the desire to live, to revel in beauty, to express oneself freely, and to leave behind a legacy.
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