An early and iconic piece, Penjual Unggas (The Poultry Vendor) stands as far more than a mere description of a scene, as it represents the daring femininity and candid allure the artist so admired in women. Here, a female poultry vendor walks to the market, holding a chicken in each hand and bearing a larger basket full of chickens upon her head. The bracelets around her ankles indicate that the woman is Madurese, an ethnic group originally from the island of Madura off the northeastern coast of Java. The bird in her left hand is a black blur of movement – its feathers are splayed out as it struggles to escape her firm hold – giving the scene a fervent sense of movement. Behind her, a man balances a cigarette in his mouth as he carries a hen in his arms. He appears to follow the poultry vendor closely, almost chasing her and the chickens she carries to the market. Revealing the jovial spirit and Hendra’s fun loving nature, this interaction is at once spontaneous yet subtly suggestive.
The two figures are depicted against a pink wash background, yet it is the woman’s figure that dominates the canvas as she strides with full assurance and poise despite her rather overwhelming load. Her delicate eye lids, sharp nose and crimson lips are rendered in swift, confident strokes that capture the sensual yet bold charisma of the Gunawan’s heroine. Strikingly, the man’s features are hardly performative, retaining an unassuming yet captivating air as the artist represents them in their entirety. Upon this simple backdrop, the artist brings the unassuming and dynamic natures of the titular figures to the fore, elevating ordinary characters to numinous creatures. Indeed Hendra was deeply moved by the humble yet innately dignified existence of his fellow people and readily celebrated this authentic spirit in his art, which paid homage to these essential, overlooked themes of Indonesian society.
In this 1962 work, Hendra showcases his trademark inventiveness of colour at an early point in his career. In order to create highly stylized visions of reality, the artist employed an unconventionally eclectic palette which is often compared to the chromatic experimentations of the Fauvist movement. The poultry vendor’s skin is painted in shades of turquoise, a stark contrast to the man’s naturalistic complexion and duller black garb – further establishing her as the thematic focus of the piece. Indeed, women were often the central subjects in Gunawan’s painting. The only child of a single mother, the artist devoted himself to capturing a well-rounded view of their femininity. Rather than strictly limiting himself to posing models and portraiture, he instead chose to portray them in diverse states of action – directly interacting with the environment around them - whether at work, rest or in conversation. As a result, his work showcases a range of personalities, dignified and vibrant just as the woman in this painting represents. Hendra renders her with a wonderful attention to detail and ornamentation, with the jade bangles at her feet and especially in the design of her sarong kebaya. The fabric of her blue kebaya is made delicately translucent, while the skirt around her waist is painted with subtle yet brilliantly coloured flowers in red, pink and green, bright accents of colour providing a sense of depth and realism. It is in these small, yet highly expressive details that we see the undeniable genius of Hendra’s brushwork and finesse.
In comparison to his later paintings, distinguished by bold, multicoloured and dense backgrounds, the present work features a considerably muted, monochromatic peach hue. This particular pink is itself a rare colour in his palette and is unabashedly feminine in tone. As such, the painting presents Gunawan’s early experimentations that favored whimsical pastels alongside the sinuous lines and decisive brushwork that are signature to his unique vernacular. The characters in Penjual Unggas (The Poultry Vendor) are portrayed in a distinctly figurative, exaggerated style, with elongated limbs, angular faces and articulated fingers and toes – a homage to Indonesia’s classical shadow puppet plays.
A magnificent work of exceptional provenance, Hendra Gunawan’s Penjual Unggas (The Poultry Vendor) stands as a testament to his ability to identify and illustrate beauty around him, from the everyday customs of local villagers down to the humblest farm animal. Evident in this painting, the artist delivers an enduringly enchanting portrayal of a Madurese woman fully intertwined in the vigor of life with striking verisimilitude. Penjual Unggas (The Poultry Vendor)’s depiction of a simple but captivating moment in time is enhanced by its visual lushness, as the artist monumentalizes the spirit of his homeland in all its subtle brilliance.
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