Spanning an impressive three metres in length, The Fish Seller is a magnificent panorama depicting a village scene that highlights Hendra’s unique figurative style and vibrant colour palette on a grand scale. Painted during the later stage of his career in 1981, The Fish Seller bears the hallmarks of a signature Hendra piece; at the same time, his mature style carries with it an inherent assuredness as he plays with various visual motifs he established over the course of his career.
Hendra was particularly moved by the humble yet dignified existence of his fellow Indonesians, and paid homage to them in his genre paintings. In this work, a group of women gather around a fish seller, whose rainbow-striped top adds a dash of colour to his otherwise monochrome outfit; while he offers the succulent fish in his hand to one of the women, the rest of the crowd are engrossed in examining his wares and chatting to each other. On the extreme right of the painting, a mother and her child look on at the group of shoppers, having completed their own purchases. The figures carry a casual air in their mannerisms; their daily lives are not performed but unassuming yet captivating. This sense of spontaneity is true to Hendra’s dedication to representing his people in their “real” everyday lives. In Fish Seller, it is almost as if Hendra happened upon the scene and painted the work on the spot.
Hendra employs bold, expressive colours in the present lot, inviting the viewer into a dazzling scene. The brilliant shades of turquoise and aquamarine used to render geographical features like the faraway mountains and sky are quintessentially Hendra; the tinges of blue, purple, and green running through the landscape give it a fantastical feeling, as if the Indonesia seen in Hendra’s art exists in a heightened reality. The artist applies this technique throughout the vast work—his human subjects are also stylised and rendered with complexions in different hues that echo the landscape, imbuing them with lively energy. The myriad batik prints on the women’s clothes, a mixture of sarongs and baju kurungs, provide lively counterpoints of contrasting colours within the painting. Hendra’s painstaking effort to give each piece of clothing a unique pattern reflects his deep pride in indigenous Indonesian culture, as he often incorporated batik clothing as a visual motif in his art. In doing so, Hendra presents a symphony of colour in The Fish Seller that elevates its subject matter from commonplace to theatrical.
Hendra’s tendency to portray people in profile or in silhouette also provides him with the opportunity to flaunt his distinctive artistic vocabulary. The titular fish seller is a fine example of Hendra’s figurative style. He appears to be the sole male among all the women, and his silhouette— sitting on his haunches with angular limbs and elongated fingers—is especially reminiscent of the forms of Indonesia’s shadow puppets, the wayang kulit. Elements of the wayang are also present in the depiction of the women, who all sport similarly exaggerated arms and fingers as well as articulated joints. Indeed, the visual connection to a well-known traditional Javanese art form helps explain why Hendra’s works possess the unique Indonesian flair beloved by collectors and admirers alike.
Women are often the key characters in Hendra’s paintings, and his portrayals of femininity are some of the most well-rounded and sublime in modern Indonesian art. He did not limit himself to posed portraits or academic studies of women as models, and instead chose to depict them in a variety of states of rest, work, and play. In this vein, Fish Seller displays the artist’s ability to capture the range of personalities of his female subjects. Unlike the distant, exotic beauties popularised by the Mooi Indies (Beautiful Indies) aesthetic of Indo-European artists, the women in the present work are vivacious, energetic, and even boisterous as they go about the business of something as quotidian as buying fish. Hendra saw the women in his art as ‘metaphors for the land and the nation… as well as the highest forms of beauty to be found in life and worshipped.’ (T., Agus Dermawan, Hendra Gunawan: a great modern Indonesian painter, Jakarta: Ciputra Artpreneur, 2015, p.63) By representing womanhood in different forms—from the adolescent girl balancing a basket of fruit on her head, to the cheerful women admiring the fish, to the mothers embracing their children—the painting pays homage to the vitality of the Indonesian women.
Hendra maximises the canvas’ large size to experiment with depth and composition, lending the painting a sense of dynamism that draws in the viewer. The foreground is dominated by the people, and their clustered figures suggest the hustle and bustle unfolding before the viewer’s eyes. On the other hand, the background of a rolling natural landscape that extends far into the distance serves as visual juxtaposition by providing spatial balance to the work. In doing so, Hendra composes a harmonious piece of expansive beauty.
Hendra was a true artist for the people, and lively paintings like the present one underscore the insight and empathy he brought to his work. Hendra’s love for his country shines through in his representations of Indonesian rural life characterised by warmth and a sense of community. Although the people he painted in these works are archetypes rather than specific individuals, this adds an element of universal understanding to the viewing experience. In these vignettes of daily life one finds the various dramas of human existence rendered with profound, even tender, compassion; Hendra’s art celebrates the very act of living, with its attendant joys and sorrows, tragedies and triumphs.
The Fish Seller is indeed an excellent work by one of Indonesia’s greatest modern painters. Hendra’s ability to discover and illustrate beauty by observing the people around him is a testament to his keen eye and strong artistic vision; the painting’s light-hearted depiction of an everyday scene is elevated by its visual richness, bringing to life the vibrant nation and people its artist so loved.
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