Artist and Collector: Provenance Stories of Five SEA Paintings

Artist and Collector: Provenance Stories of Five SEA Paintings

Chapters

F resh to the market, several of the works offered in the Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art evening and day sales (8-9 July, Hong Kong) come with unique stories of provenance and ownership – histories that cast light upon the intimacy, friendship or love shared between the artist and the original collector. The inspiration for all of these great works were spurred on by someone close to the artist, revealing relationships linked together by shared patriotism, romance, civic ideals, or even political oppression.

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Self-Portrait with Roses

S. Sudjojono painted self-portraits throughout his storied career, often reflecting back the image of an intellectual activist striving to “propagandize the truth to each and everyone,” as this is how Sudjojono saw himself and the workings of his inner psyche. Because these self portraits revealed such an intimate part of the artist, he would entrust these paintings only to his closest friends, giving these works as gifts almost as if giving a piece of himself. The original owner of Self-Portrait with Roses had been a dear friend of the artist, especially given then special meaning of the painting.

Several years before 1956, when S. Sudjojono completed his profoundly moving painting Self-Portrait with Roses, the artist met and fell in love the woman who would later become his wife and muse, Rosalina (Rose) Wilhelmia Poppeck. Masterfully composed in a palette of rich reds and dark brooding tones, the current work appears to be a love letter to Rose, whom he met several years earlier in Amsterdam in 1951. In the intervening years, a romance developed between the artist and the young singer, and he began painting her portraits in 1956. Although Self-Portrait with Roses depicts Sudjojono, Rose is most certainly the focus of the painting.

S. Sudjojono, The artist

"Like tall mountains reaching the clouds, Like low valleys holding the forest, So there is to you no flatness. Peaks and valleys suddenly ambush one another. Rose, my inspiration. You shake me till my toil trembles. Don't leave me, My dear Love."
Inscription from ‘Self Portrait with Roses’ (Translated to English)

Even without the inscription, Self-Portrait with Roses exhibits a powerful poeticism as Sudjojono displays sensitivity and affinity for the unfiltered realities of the Indonesian experience. He makes no attempt to beautify his features, but portrays himself deep in thought, his eyes full of longing. He holds an unwavering gaze and in one hand a bouquet of red roses. Sudjojono’s love is not represented by an image of the person herself, but the emblems that embody her presence in Sudjojono’s life.

This simple bundle of roses is executed with careful precision, each petal and bloom radiating with natural beauty. After they married, Sudjojono began painting the bouquets Rose received as gifts for her performances as her singing career took off. Intimate and poignant, these still life works marked the couple’s milestones and anniversaries throughout their married life. In an interview with Rose, she mentioned that she enjoyed her husband’s self-portraits the most: “I love to see how alive and detailed his portrait paintings are.”

Washing of the Feet

Anita Magsaysay-Ho painted Washing of the Feet 1959 as a gift to Philippine Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez. In this depiction of an iconic biblical scene, Magsaysay-Ho expresses admiration for humble, hardworking Filipinos and at the same time captures the lofty ideal linking leadership and public service.

The present lot was previously held in the personal collection of the late Vice President Pelaez and has been kept in private hands in a collection in Australia. Pelaez served as vice president of the Philippines from 1961 to 1964, and concurrent foreign affairs secretary from 1962 to 1963. He was later appointed ambassador to the U.S. from 1986 to 1992. Besides his many achievements as a statesman, he was a popular figure known for his longstanding interest in rural economic development and for being a devout Catholic.

From left to right: Prince Juan Carlos I of Spain, Edith Fabella Pelaez, Princess Sofia of Spain, Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez

The artist and the vice president were close friends. On a visit to the Pelaez’s office, Magsaysay-Ho noticed that he had a print depicting a scene from the New Testament. He explained his philosophy that public leaders strive to uphold the interests of those they serve, rather than their own. This concept of public service was guided by the verses in John 13: 14-17: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him."

left to right: Dirck van Baburen (circa 1594/1595–1624), Christ Washing the Apostles Feet, circa 1616 © Dirck van Baburen. Jacopo Tintoretto (1518- 1594), Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet, circa 1575-1580 © Jacopo Tintoretto.

Magsaysay-Ho said, “I painted this for Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez. He told me that public officials must remember this scene from the Bible with its lesson in humanity. He said that public officials must serve the people. I am told that after I gave this to him, he hung it in whatever office he occupied.”

“For this painting, I studied the feet of the drivers, janitors and other working men I wanted the feet of the apostles to be realistic and I wanted to paint the feet of people firmly planted on the ground.”
Magsaysay-Ho

The most salient qualities of Magsaysay-Ho’s paintings are the quiet dignity, communal spirit. and inviting nature of the figures in each work. Washing of the Feet is emblematic of this very sense of solidarity, elevating a humble gesture to one of nobility. The faces of the apostles are unseen, though we would imagine their surprise by Jesus’s act of humility. The disciples are seated closely together in nervous anticipation, their hands clasped upon their knees and their feet planted tightly together. The artist masterfully employs body language to suggest these complex ideas.

Topeng Monyet

Topeng Monyet came about as the result of an ongoing conversation when a friend of visited Hendra Gunawan at the Sanggar Bambu (Bamboo Studio) in Pasar Rumput, a gathering place for artists in the 1960s. Their discussion focused on the traditions and practices of local communities. Soon after, the artist created this masterful work which captured the masked monkey dance from the traditional Javanese street-circus. Topeng Monyet celebrates a part of Indonesia’s indigenous past. The artist brings to life these playful macaques as they amuse the crowd with animated gestures and spirited antics. This painting may be the only known example of this subject in the artist’s oeuvre.

Hendra Gunawan’s extensive oeuvre is an homage to his homeland and its people. The works of this celebrated artist immortalize the spirit and cultural richness of Indonesia. The artist was a staunch nationalist who sought both to celebrate and preserve Indonesia’s cultural heritage, especially following the Indonesian National Revolution in the late 1940s. Thus he was drawn to rural subjects, often intimate and otherwise undocumented glimpses of country life. Painted in the 1960s during a tumultuous period for the artist, Topeng Monyet is unique within Hendra Gunawan’s opus. Still, the early work touches upon the same spirit that exemplifies the artist’s instinct to celebrate the everyday and praise the ordinary of Indonesian traditions.

Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps (1803–1860), The Experts, 1837© Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps

Originating from the indigenous masked human dances of Cirebon, Topeng Monyet is considered an art form in Indonesia, practiced since the late 19th century and enjoyed throughout the islands. In such performances, long-tailed macaque monkeys would be outfitted in brightly colored costumes and props while they pantomime human tasks to the beat of a drum. The amusing performance was also a fixture of busking street life.

Capturing his subjects in his idiosyncratic painterly vernacular, Gunawan draws the gaze toward the key exchanges between the Topeng dancing troop and the spontaneous gathering of audience members. The crowd is ever so absorbed as the monkey balances on the back of a dog. In the foreground is a maternal figure, a nurturing presence that represents a unifying love akin to the artist’s dedication to Indonesia and the unwavering spirit of its people.

Balinese Women in the Garden

Adrien Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès's masterpiece Balinese Women in the Garden was acquired directly from the artist by the present owner’s grandfather, who was an avid collector of Le Mayeur’s work. Holding a special connection with Le Mayeur, this gentleman also had the opportunity to work closely with the artist’s life-long muse and wife, Ni Pollock, whom the collector photographed in the 1970s.

An exceptionally exquisite and rare work amongst Adrien Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès’ illustrious opus, the painting encapsulates the Belgian-born artist’s profound affinity for in Balinese traditions and customs, which he depicted through vibrant, ethereal pastoral scenes. His fascination with the beauty of Balinese women takes the subject of this work.

A photograph of Ni Pollock in Bali taken by D.P. (a friend of the present owner’s parents) between 1975 and 1983

Executed in the 1950s, Balinese Women in the Garden stands as a compositionally comprehensive and dense work that epitomizes Le Mayeur’s opus. It is a celebration of his two favored motifs: the natural landscape and womanhood. Set in the garden of his home, nestled just behind a beach, the painting presents multiple maidens at work weaving in the early morning hours. Delineating his Balinese beauties in repose, in accordance with the artist’s Impressionist tendencies, Le Mayeur exhibits his skill and mastery in capturing the soft contours of the female body form by illustrating varying modes of this classical position throughout the painting.

Situated behind a succession of Balinese stone sculptures, silhouettes of more maidens, veiled by the sun’s rays, can be seen against the backdrop of a vast and rich, jewel toned vista. The ebbing tides, rendered in aquamarine and turquoise, diminish into the horizon of translucent clouds that envelope the sky with pastel yellow and lavender hues. Le Mayeur’s masterful ability to render light and color effortlessly was his signature, and this piece is a testament to his skill and ingenuity as an Impressionist painter.

Having remained as a treasured piece in the family’s collection since its inception in the 1950s, the present lot has never been exposed to the market and its inclusion in the Sotheby’s Spring evening sale marks a significant appearance. An important work that is both technically complex, as it is beautiful, Balinese Women in Garden is a highly important and intricate work that stands as a pictorial homage to the luscious landscape of Bali and the striking beauty of its people.

By the Beach

Hendra Gunawan painted By the Beach in 1973 while he was incarcerated in Kebon Waru prison in Bandung. He was sent away for twelve years due to his involvement with a cultural organization associated with the Indonesian communist party. Situated near the prison was a factory owned by the family of an avid art collector. Aware that the artist was an inmate at the prison, the collector found himself visiting Gunawan on occasion and became fascinated by the works the painter created. (The collector also happens to be a close friend of another prominent artist Anton Huang, whose work Cili Cili Series is also on offer in this sale.)

At one point, the collector decided to commission a work, and the two engaged in a dialogue to select a suitable composition, with alternatives and suggestions. The collector then purchased the canvas and paint from the promenade street Jalan Braga and had these supplies sent to Kebon Waru. In this prison-studio, Gunawan turned the blank canvas into a vibrant and significant masterpiece.

The artist may have been physically imprisoned within a harsh and oppressive space, but he continued to work despite his circumstances. In his cell, the Gunawan's imagination was abounding, spilling over with artistic expression. Like many of the works within his opus, By the Beach included subjects that are rife with meaning. The gathering of women spending leisure time by the seaside celebrates life’s moments – of social togetherness and freedom. At the same time, the images draw from the artist’s individual reflections and daydreams, projecting a historical and contemporary vision of rural life in Indonesia. While in prison, Gunawan blank canvases were windows into the outside world, sustained by a sense of hope and what he could muster from his memory.

Perhaps it is a profound paradox that By the Beach was rendered so energetically, amid the colonial oppression and poverty suffered by his countrymen and women, not to mention to the torment the artist experienced while he was locked up in prison. Perhaps the artistic energy required to create such a work was a salve to Gunawan, sustaining him when nothing else could.

Modern & Contemporary Southeast Asian Art Hong Kong Spring Auctions
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