Lot 353
  • 353

Hendra Gunawan

1,200,000 - 2,200,000 HKD
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  • Hendra Gunawan
  • Snake Dancer (Penari Ular)

  • 196 BY 136 CM.; 77 BY 53 1/2 IN.


Dr. Lukas Mangindaan


Texas, Modern Indonesian Art: Three Generations of Tradition and Change 1945-1990, Sewall Gallery, Rice University, Houston, Texas, October 18, 1990 - December 20, 1990

San Diego, Modern Indoensian Art: Three Generations of Tradition and Change 1945-1990, Museum of Man, Balboa Park, San Diego, California, June 14, 1991 - August 25, 1991

Singapore, Modern Indoensian Art: Three Generations of Tradition and Change 1945-1990, Panitia Pemeran Kias,1990-1991, and Festival of Indonesia, Singapore, 1990,

Oakland, Modern Indoensian Art: Three Generations of Tradition and Change 1945-1990, Mills College Art Gallery, Oakland, California, September 8, 1991 - October 27, 1991

Seattle, Modern Indoensian Art: Three Generations of Tradition and Change 1945-1990 Wing Luke Asian Art Museum, Seattle, Washington, November 14, 1991 - January 5, 1992

Honolulu, Modern Indoensian Art: Three Generations of Tradition and Change 1945-1990, The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii, January 22, 1992 - March 23, 1992

Singapore, Modernity & Beyond: Themes in South East Asian Art – Inaugural exhibition of the Singapore Art Museum¸ Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, January 21 – April,  1996


Agus Dermawan T and Dr. Astri Wright, Hendra Gunawan: A Great Modern Indonesian Painter, Ir Ciputra Foundation, Jakarta, 2001, p. 138, colourplate no. 70

Joseph Fisher, Modern Indonesian Art: The Three Generations of Tradition and Change 1945-1990, Singapore National Printers Ltd., Singapore, illustrated on p. 120, 128, colourplate no. 101

Astri Wright, Soul, Spirit, and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters, Oxford University Press, 1994, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, New York, illustrated on Chapter 10 Expressing Empathy: Djoko Pekik, colourplate no. 46


The painting is in good condition, as is the canvas, which is clear and taut. Examination under ultraviolet light reveals some small spots of minor retouching on the upper right corner (a spot on the background), upper middle (a spot on the green background), middle left (a spot on the batik), lower right margin (2 spots on the brown background), bottom register (a few spots on the papayas and a spot on the hand). There are retouchings along the middle left margin, middle right edge, as well as two, hair-line linear retouchings running diagonally on the left portion of the left register. Other retouchings are mostly scattered minor flecks on the lower left (hair), lower right (hair), middle area of the lower register (on brown background). Retouchings are visible only under UV light. There are three spots of repair on the canvas: a 4 cm horizontal one on the chest of the snake dancer, a circular one (approximately 50mm in diameter) on the upper right (the middle of the banded krait snake), and a tiny one on the lower right (on the big toe of the snake dancer). There is also a canvas repair on the middle right edge and on the left edge, near the folding overlap and not visible when framed. These are apparent only upon close examination under ultraviolet light. A small pin puncture mark is found on the lower left corner. Some light craquelures associated with the painting's age can be observed on the middle left (figure with yellow kebaya) but the paint layers are well-preserved and stable. Colours of the actual painting are more vibrant and the contrast is more obvious in reality than in the catalogue illustration.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Hendra Gunawan's most compelling paintings are those that draw the viewer in with its intensity, movement, and enthralling narrative. Equal parts artistic achievement, emotional resonance and intellectual triumph, Penari Ular (The Snake Dancer) is undoubtedly one of the best and most well-documented examples of the artist's genius. It is illustrated in various tomes chronicling the artist, as well as in publications on Modern Indonesian Art. It was also one of the paintings included in the landmark exhibition of Indonesian Art in the United States, which toured five cities in 1990-1992: Houston, San Diego, Oakland, Seattle, and Honolulu.

The large scale of The Snake Dancer, in conjunction with the dense yet balanced composition, creates a seductive montage of rich jewel tones and a tapestry of curvilinear and geometric patterns. Hendra boldly divided the picture plane diagonally into two parts. The upper part is dominated by the dancing figure of a woman. She is undeniably the star of this composition and is depicted differently from the rest of the figures. Her pale white face is painted in profile; its shadow-puppet-like silhouette stands out against the dark background. She appears to be completely lost in her own world: her eyes are closed; her red lips are parted; her arms are up in the air. The sense of movement is delicately, but firmly conveyed by the fluttering fabric of her diaphanous kebaya and batik cloth. With her weight shifted onto one leg, a shoulder angled in one direction while a pelvis is angled in another, Hendra almost positioned her in the classical contrapposto – yet he modified the pose by lifting one leg completely off the ground, as if in a graceful pirouette, and thus gave the scene its otherworldly atmosphere. Echoing her sinuous movements are two snakes that seem to slither between her fingers and swirl around her neck. One is a deep emerald green with red specks on its jaw while the other has alternating black and yellow bands and is known as the venomous banded krait; they are both captivating in their beauty and horrifying in their menace.

All around her, her spectators are mesmerized by the performance. The crowd is clearly afraid – a young boy is illustrated running to his mother with a swish of brushstroke – but they could not stop watching. It is not only because the movements are so seductive but also because it expresses an emotion so forceful that it cannot contain her and appears to strip the skin off her body. The dancer's flimsy and tattered kebaya come undone, revealing bare papaya-shaped breasts that were once full but are now sagging and utterly depleted, as if this woman has absolutely nothing left but her spirit and endurance. As exotic and sensual as a snake dance might be, this scene is not performed to seduce but to survive.

To the dancer's left is a figure of a little girl wearing a batik dress of similar pattern and colouring as that of her mother's. She's bending over in front of the audience with an empty bowl. Her eyes are downcast and in contrast to her mother, her limbs are painted with only a few deft linear strokes – as if her legs were bamboo sticks. Anyone who has walked long and far will certainly remember how stiff their legs feel after a strenuous journey. It appears that the dancer is so destitute and desperate that snake dancing becomes a last act for survival and a demonstration of a mother's love and desire to feed her child. Nothing less would compel anyone to toy with their lives in this manner.

Directly referring to the present work, Astri Wright wrote, "Some of his best paintings are thick with feeling. Hendra was fascinated by the high-pitched emotion, as evident...in the painting of a snake-dancer, where a poor village woman dances in a frenzy with a poisonous snake around her neck, her ragged, emaciated child plying the horrified onlookers for coins. Here we can glimpse the painter at work, from experience to inspiration to finished work; during the forties or fifties Hendra had actually seen a street performance where the woman dancing was bitten by the snake and died. He could not forget that experience... This was exactly the kind of extreme situation which seemed to capture human courage and perseverance vis-à-vis desperate situations, a quality that Hendra clearly admired." (Astri Wright, Painting the People, Modern Indonesian Art: Three Generations of Tradition and Change 1945-1990 (Joseph Fischer, Ed.), Singapore National Printers Ltd., Singapore: 1990).
In the late forties and fifties, the period just after independence, the struggle of a nascent nation was palpable. The country was fraught with war, mostly defending military aggressions from the Dutch, and the people were poor. Those were extreme circumstances that might have driven people to equally extreme actions.

Executed in 1977, when Hendra was still imprisoned in Kebon Waru, West Java, he often revisited themes and memories of past events. His involvement with LEKRA (Institute for People's culture), an organization that was affiliated with PKI (Indonesian Communist Party), were the main causes for the artist's capture and imprisonment; yet there was no proof that his ties had not been merely philosophical. In a more metaphorical context, Penari Ular (Snake Dancer) can very well refer to criticism of the chaos and the dubious practices of those who are supposed to uphold the law: the unrecorded massacre of ethnically Chinese Indonesians in the guise of Communist purging. In the 1970s, there were also stories about some members of the police force possessing a gangsters' bullying mentality; they offer 'protection' in exchange for money, and like the dancer in the painting, there was an attempt to elicit money through fear.

1977 marked the twelfth year of Hendra's imprisonment. During this difficult time, perhaps the artist was desperate to paint something from which he could draw inspiration. Indeed, the snake dancer certainly demonstrated fortitude, hope, strength and determination. Serendipitously, Hendra gained his freedom approximately a year after he completed this work.

Hendra excels at creating works that exhibit contrasting elements in his compositions: dark vs. bright (vermillion, amethyst, yellow that glitter against the deepest peacock blue and jade); frontal vs. rear (the spectators in the top register face the viewer while those in the bottom half face away from the onlooker); feminine vs. masculine (the phallic-shaped snake and the strategically placed pattern on the dancer's batik cloth that resemble the female genital). Exhibiting his inherent genius, Hendra juxtaposed the curved vs. the straight by painting the dancer's legs lithe and sinuous, their undulating shapes and movements echoing those of the snakes'. In a beautiful contrast, her daughter's legs are painted very angularly, as if they are stiff bamboo sticks. Furthermore, her limbs appear heavy; she is frozen in her tracks while the boy behind her is moving so fast that he is just a green blur painted with a single, deft brushstroke. The tension between these opposing elements provides dynamism and expressive energy into the picture, but more significantly, this duality was also embodied in Hendra's own existence: innocence vs. incarceration, tradition vs. modernity, emotion vs. intellect, fear vs. courage, despair vs. hope.

Hendra's paintings always endeavour to transform the harsh realities of Indonesian life into hope and dreams through the enactment of poignant scenes, where his subjects take on the role of the heroes and heroines. Yet the humour and colour of his work seem so optimistic. Not only is Penari Ular (Snake Dancer) one of Hendra's best and most alluring masterpieces but it is also a poignant example of the unrivalled strength and endurance of the human spirit and essentially, the triumph of hope over despair.