As a quintessential European Impressionist painter, Le Mayeur sought to unearth and portray an untainted sense of beauty. Following the footsteps of French artist Paul Gauguin, he began his search in Tahiti, an island that he soon found too commercialized. However, after discovering the unadulterated island of Bali during his first visit in 1929, Le Mayeur was immediately captivated by the exotic culture, the graceful women and the scenic beauty of the Balinese vistas. In 1932, he migrated to the sun-kissed enclave, where he would marry the exquisite Legong Dancer Ni Wayan Pollok Tjoeglik (colloquially known as Ni Pollok), one of his young Balinese models. Ni Pollok, at once his spouse, model and muse, was the pristine embodiment of feminine beauty and refinement for the smitten artist, who dedicated his life to immortalizing her.
The present lot, Picking Flowers, celebrates the blithe activities of island life. It portrays a precious moment in time, wherein three standing women, possibly all variations of Ni Pollok, effortlessly raise their slender arms to pick flowers from the verdure above them. Though they are executing a mundane, unassuming task, the girls appear to move in harmonious synchrony.
Picking Flowers was exhibited in 1937 at Le Mayeur’s third solo exhibition in Singapore. Ni Pollok attended this retrospective at the YMCA, which marked her first excursion outside Bali. She was the cynosure of all eyes at the opening event, where she performed Legong and Djanger dances to the live music played by her nephew Ketjog, a gamelan player[i]. After the exhibition, the painting was brought back to Bali, where it was part of the artist’s private collection.
The esteemed collector Mr. Alex Papadimitriou, whose knowledge and taste have won the respect and admiration of the art community in Indonesia, visited Le Mayeur’s studio in 1952 and chanced upon Picking Flowers, which he found particularly attractive due to its unique and distinctive composition. In Le Mayeur’s typical Balinese works, such as Dancers, the subjects depicted are appreciated from a conservative distance. Contrarily, the maidens in the present lot appear in the foreground of the work, suggestive of a sense of intimacy between the artist and his models. It was this idiosyncratic composition that urged Mr. Alex Papadimitriou to acquire this work.
The arrangement and body language of his subjects are undoubtedly similar to that of the Three Graces in Botticelli’s mythological painting Primavera, which was conceived during the Italian Renaissance in 1482. The painting itself speaks of the flourishing bounty and lush growth of the spring season, an overarching theme that Le Mayeur may have related to, for he was a lover of nature. The dancing, entwined handmaidens in Botticelli’s composition thrust their arms upward, a similar gesture to that of the three Balinese women in Picking Flowers.
Representative of beauty, chastity and sensual pleasure respectively, the Three Graces stand as a classic image of femininity in the history of art. It is certainty conceivable that when painting the present lot, Le Mayeur was harping back to the concept of classic beauty, which remains timeless and consistent across eras. The upward movement of their supple arms can be juxtaposed with that of Hendra Gunawan’s Snake Dancer, suggesting that this image of beauty endured and continued in the perceptions of the Indonesian modern masters, years later.
The models in Le Mayeur’s painting are depicted from an aerial viewpoint, akin to that of Edgar Degas’ painting of ballerinas. Though they are assembled together, they are lost in their own thoughts and do not engage one another. Similarly, the delicate nymphs in Le Mayeur’s painting are contemplative, bearing composed and distant expressions on their faces as they use their dainty fingers to pick blossoms from the shrubbery surrounding them. The sinuous vines in the garden before them mimic the contours of their sprightly arms, mirroring the moving bodies of the nimble maidens.
Apart from his depiction of lush nature and lithe women, it is his characteristic coloring and the manner in which he applies pigment onto the canvas that truly makes Le Mayeur a renowned artist. A particularly unique quality of this painting is the soft color palette. The skin tones of the maidens blend pleasantly with the earthy backdrop, causing the women to appear at unified with the garden before them. There is an air of spontaneity so tangible in his bold, thick brushstrokes. Without much modeling or detailing, Le Mayeur smears several layers of paint onto the canvas, until he captures the perfect hues to replicate the effects of the setting sunlight.
The late afternoon glow in the present lot exhales with the fresh breeze of a tropical alfresco. It is imaginable that Le Mayeur acquired his penchant for capturing beauty from Impressionist painters in Europe such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who also loved to paint similar subjects in the outdoors. Le Mayeur always painted en plein air in order to capture his subjects bathed in natural light and even built his home accordingly. Their open-air cottage at Sanur beach served as his studio, exhibition space and also his guest home where he and Ni Pollok would entertain diplomats and other artists. Le Mayeur described his garden, ‘I planted a mass of bougainvillea, frangipani, hibiscus, and all around the cottage I put groups of intertwining plants.[ii]’
Upon viewing the present lot, it is evident that every banal activity of Ni Pollok managed to inspire the artist. He visually describes her with high cheekbones, a slender waist, and the poise and demeanor of a princess. In doing something so unpretentious, the charming Ni Pollok exudes a quiet aura of elegance. Le Mayeur strikingly portrays young ladies so in tune with their natural milieu. Mr. Alex Papadimitriou once stated, “paintings without substance have no value, while this substance is hard to define and explain. Only one's feelings can tell[iii].” Incandescent, warm and inviting, this work radiates with a certain vibrancy and joy: it is truly telling of Le Mayeur’s love for Bali, an abode that delivered the artist bliss and liberation so palpable in his expressions.
[i] Dr Jop Ubbens & Dr Cathinka Huizing, Adrien Jean Le Mayeur de Merpres: Painter-Traveller/ Schilder-Reiziger, Pictures Publishers, Wijk en Aalburg, The Netherlands, 1995, p. 109
[ii] Dr Jop Ubbens & Dr Cathinka Huizing, Adrien Jean Le Mayeur de Merpres: Painter-Traveller/ Schilder-Reiziger, Pictures Publishers, Wijk en Aalburg, The Netherlands, 1995, p. 119
[iii] Lila Fitri Aly, “Papadimitriou: No short-cut in painting”, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta, 20 October 2002
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