- Rudolf Bonnet
- The Three Populations of South Sulawesi (Makassarese Fishermen, Toraja Farmers and Buginese Sailors and Merchants)
- Signed, inscribed and dated Juli 46
- Charcoal on paper
Christie's Hong Kong, July 6 2003, Lot 9
Private Asian Collection
During World War II, Japanese occupiers sent Bonnet to Sulawesi in 1943, compelling him to spend the remainder of the war in internment camps in Paréparé, Bolong and Makassar. Forever concerned with cultural exploration, this buoyant artist used his displacement as an opportunity to augment his opus with more diversity. The rare sketch in the present lot was a study for a glorious tempera mural entitled The Three Populations of South Sulawesi (Makassarese Fishermen, Toraja Farmers and Buginese Sailors and Merchants), which he would later paint on the wall of a government building in Makassar. Unsurprisingly, the title itself possesses a somewhat anthropological piquancy so characteristic of Bonnet’s works, revealing his incessant curiosity and unyielding commitment to studying the mysterious lives of the communities within this vast archipelago.
Though the final mural is a taller composition, consisting of boats receding into the ocean in the backdrop, the study focuses primarily on the male figures clad in loincloths, sarongs and traditional headgear known as caping and songkok. Standing in a diamond formation, these four men form a visual oval spanning the length of the picture plane. The geometrical conformation provides a sense of stability to the structure of the work, reflecting the strength of their teamwork.
Together, the two men on each side carry a loop of ropes and the others parade baskets full of fish as they approach the shore. This study, which proudly describes the labor of the working class, is thematically comparable to Summer, an ink painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder which portrays peasant workers vigorously toiling the land in the rustic countryside. Having studied in the Netherlands, Bonnet was exposed to paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, when Dutch art had to reinvent itself after separating from the Catholic Church. It is apparent that Bonnet felt a particular affinity towards Dutch genre paintings, which illustrated citizens spanning all social classes performing seemingly ordinary and simple tasks. These un-idealized depictions of peasants and drudges romanticized what was once considered inconspicuous and menial. Much like Pieter Bruegel the Elder and in keeping with the rules of genre painting, Bonnet features anonymous individuals rather than discernible, historical figures. Evidently, Bonnet truly respected and admired the sweat and toil of these men of the sea.
Further emphasizing admiration for the industriousness of these plodders, he draws them in the highest standards of classical beauty. Unlike other bohemian Indo-European artists who also came to Bali in the 20th century, such as Walter Spies who purposefully stylized his figures, Bonnet strictly adhered to the formal aspects of realism. By fashioning each figure in the contrapposto pose, with one knee slightly bent to create a natural tilt, he imbues a sense of agility and dynamic movement to their stance. This penchant for abiding by the academic rules of naturalism harks back to Bonnet’s Italian interlude, when sculptures and paintings by artists from the Renaissance made a profound impression on the artist. Analogous to the figures in Michelangelo’s paintings from the Sistine Chapel, Bonnet’s fishermen have been drawn with a draughtsman-like comprehension of human anatomy. The lean and muscular contours of the workers’ bodies are testament to the strenuous nature of their labor.
Apart from capturing impeccable corporal form and its nimbleness with technical verisimilitude, Bonnet also skillfully employs chiaroscuro to imbue his monochromatic work with a remarkable three-dimensional quality. Using stark contrasts in illumination between light and dark areas in the image, he selects from a vast spectrum of gradation to manifest his figures. Much like Michelangelo in the process of painting Ignudo, Bonnet cast obscure shadows and juxtaposed them against the highlighted, convex contours, ultimately modeling a relief-like rendering of the chiseled bodies. With immense control and mastery of his charcoals and conté crayons, he captures the human form with painstaking precision and finesse.
An endearing sense of simplicity and artlessness exudes from the body language of these men: while they display the objects of their daily grind, they modestly shy away from encounter. Characteristic of Bonnet’s portraits, the individuals neither engage each other nor the viewer. Instead they are somewhat aloof, gazing into the distance in varying directions and lost in their thoughts as they resume their quotidian routines. Despite the sense of detachment, their close-knit arrangement reveals an element of familiarity and reassurance between them. Accustomed to their tasks, they each bear a serene and unperturbed expression, permeating an aura of elegant pensiveness.
Never losing stimulus and reverence, Bonnet ceaselessly travelled around the Dutch East Indies to add to his prolific opus. As a true aficionado of the indigenous people, Bonnet preferred to represent these muses with realism, rather than to convey them. They inspired him to sketch incessantly, with his preferred medium of charcoal and paper. By depicting his figures with such refinement and finesse, Bonnet almost exalts these common folk, providing them with a sense of majesty and worthiness to befit a loftier place in society. For Bonnet, who viewed the Indonesia populace through a quintessentially romanticized lens, beauty lay in the untouched human form and he therefore felt impelled to immortalize it.