Modern & Contemporary Southeast Asian Art

Affandi and His Portrayal of Life

By Sotheby's

C elebrated for his idiosyncratic, unorthodox style and bold subject matter, Affandi was perhaps Southeast Asia’s foremost expressionist painter of the mid-20th century. Before teaching himself to paint at the age of 27, he worked as a teacher and box office clerk. He was inspired by the aesthetic shifts that swept the art world during and after the Second World War and turned to painting to capture the poignancy and richness of an Indonesia taking its first halting steps into the modern era. Besides embodying this ideal of honest representation in his own work, he also founded the organization Lembaga Pelukis Rakyat (The People’s Painters Association) to encourage Indonesian artists to strive for authenticity—rather than rehearsed reverence—in their depictions of the human experience. His determination to depict life honestly rather than romantically set him apart from the aesthetics of Mooi Indie and Pita-Maha, and he became known for painting unglamorous but fascinating scenes from daily life that held up a mirror for the turbulent society in which he actually lived, not an idealized, imaginary Indonesia.

AFFANDI, DOGS FIGHTING, OIL ON CANVAS, SIGNED AND DATED 1964. ESTIMATE HK$ 1,200,000-2,500,000/US$ 155,000-323,000.

This commitment to honest expression is a hallmark of his work. Rather than forcing his paintings to bear the burden of an explicit ideological agenda, Affandi sought above all to portray life as he saw it: candid, unguarded, raw, and sometimes even ugly. This desire to represent things as he found them led to a lifelong fascination with nudes, which he painted in defiance of traditional Indonesian mores. He began by painting a number of nudes of his wife Maryati, the poet Chairal Anwar’s girlfriend, and even his own daughter.

AFFANDI, NUDE I (DETAIL), OIL ON CANVAS, SIGNED AND DATED 1965. ESTIMATE HK$ 1,200,000-1,800,000 /US$ 155,000-233,000.

However, it was not until Affandi traveled beyond his native West Java that he found a more liberating environment in which to paint nudes. In his travels, he hired market vendors and prostitutes from Bali to Baltimore to model for him unclothed. The empathy evident in Affandi’s nudes allows them to transcend mere studies of the female form and capture the intimacy of human experience through the intimacy of painting. Affandi’s nudes expand the relationship of the painter’s hand and eye to sensation, emotion, and the ultimate abjectness of desire. He liked to paint women in whose nudity the viewer feels some trace of the essential tragedy of human life.

Despite objections in the name of propriety, Affandi painted nudes from the 1940s until the end of his life, and once said in defense of the form, “We were born naked, weren’t we? What could be more natural and pure than a nude human being, completely uncovered?”

AFFANDI, RECLINING NUDE  (DETAIL), OIL ON CANVAS, SIGNED AND DATED 1966. ESTIMATE HK$ 3,000,000-5,000,000/US$ 387,000 – 645,000.

Reclining Nude is one of Affandi’s most iconic pieces. Though most of Affandi’s nude works are painted in lime and yellow hues, this painting stands out as his only known “red” nude. The deep, saturated reds of the woman’s flushed skin echo the blossoming flowers scattered around her bed. The crimson pigment, applied with raw spontaneity directly from the tube (a technique Affandi pioneered), mirrors the artist’s ardor. The piece exemplifies Affandi’s celebration of the female form in new and unexpected ways; the woman radiates a strength and sincerity that breaks through the historical limitations of traditional nude compositions. Despite her nakedness, she remains in control of the artist’s desires and reclaims her identity as a sensual being, asserting her femininity in defiance of the male gaze.

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