Renowned as both a pioneering artist and a vocal exponent of a national Indonesian identity, Affandi is one of the most prolific, complex and masterful painters of modern art history. Despite borrowing from Western modernist techniques, Affandi’s oeuvre retains an indigenous sensibility rooted in his unique interpretation of Indonesian humanism. Born in Cirebon, West Java, in 1907, Affandi bore witness to the heydays of Dutch colonialism and participated in the struggle for national independence, forging close relations with the nationalist intellectuals of his age. His political sympathies would come to inform his unique artistic voice—one markedly distinct from the romanticized, colonial Mooi Indie ethnographic paintings. In attempting to navigate through the question of a post-colonial, multi-cultural Indonesian identity, Affandi found solace in the universalistic appeal of humanism. It inspired his lifelong interest in depicting the everyday life of the Balinese common folk in a manner that showed them as equal citizen-subjects—rather than the exoticised Other.
While Affandi was riveted by the sensory feast of temple festivals, birth rites and cremations in Bali, he was particularly drawn to situations he could endow with personal signification. The cockfight provided the perfect occasion for this: ostensibly practiced as a religious purification ritual to expel evil spirits, the cockfight holds a social function in the Balinese psyche.The anthropologist Clifford Geertz once described it as an occasion where “the Balinese (man) forms and discovers his temperament and his society’s temper at the same time,” enabling the Balinese to “see a dimension of his own subjectivity.” (Clifford Geertz, "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight", Daedalus, 2005, p. 62)
Drawing on the complex symbolism of this popular pastime, Affandi stages a dramatic scene capturing a moment of heightened psychological tension in Man with Cockerel. Set in the brief interlude preceding the explosive ferocity of the cockfight—the proverbial calm before the storm—the portrait captures an emotional intense moment between a cockfighter and his prized gamecock. Opting for a style distinct from the conventional tropes of most cockfighting images—which tend to depict the action in medias res—Affandi portrays his subject’s interiority with great poignancy. This is akin to how Michelangelo stages his sculpture of David in the lead-up to his battle with Goliath to amplify the emotive effect of the work. The man depicted in the work stands unmoving, clutching his cherished rooster—the object of his pride—moments before it is released into the ring and forced to battle for its survival.
While the man’s face remains calm, suggesting a kind of imperturbable aloofness, the whirling scribbles of dark viridian and yellow behind him imply an unarticulated tumult—an understandable response, given the nature of the impending fight. Affandi’s emphasis on the cockfighter’s subjectivity invites the viewer to identify with the mélange of the figure’s emotions—apprehension, pride, trepidation—thus imbuing the painting with a universal appeal. Yet, Bali remains a constant presence in the work, manifest in its details: Affandi’s subject is quintessentially Balinese, characteristically clad in a crimson kamben (Balinese sarong) and chartreuse udeng (Balinese headdress).
Carrying a visual richness, the present lot lends itself to multiple layers of interpretation. The man’s composed veneer—seemingly at odds with the turbulent whirlpool surrounding him—suggests his performance of masculinity. There exists a strong association between cockerels and masculinity in Balinese culture and etymology; sabung, the word for cock, is employed metaphorically in everyday parlance to mean “warrior,” “champion,” or “tough guy." (Ibid, p. 60) In Man with Cockerel, the titular figure’s ego is represented by his rooster; his partially-obscured downward gaze toward his cockerel, whose sharp eyes are left exposed, suggests a transition of the ego from the man to his alter ego, the cockerel. The identification between the two is reinforced by Affandi’s use of colour: the cockerel’s brightly-outlined vermillion comb, wattle and wings match his owner’s crimson sarong, whereas its emerald green sickle feathers match the latter’s yellow-green udeng.
At the same time, the work retains an element of tenderness and intimacy between the painting’s two protagonists. Many Balinese men spend an enormous amount of time grooming, feeding and training their favourite roosters, keeping them in wicker cages and nourishing them with a special maize-based diet. In Man with Cockerel, the man casts a doting gaze toward his prized creature, evincing a mixture of rapt admiration. He cradles his rooster protectively in his arms in a pose not dissimilar to Cecilia Gallerani’s in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine. Yet, unlike Gallerani’s maternal affection, Affandi’s subject pulsates with nervous energy—his fingers are excitably ruffling the bird’s feathers to rouse its spirits, his left hand attempting to restrain his creature’s restless fluttering.
Affandi’s signature modus of finger painting, commonly understood as expressionist, is perhaps uniquely suited to capture the fervent energy of cockfighting, where “man and beast, good and evil…the creative power of aroused masculinity and the destructive power of loosened animality fuse.” (Ibid., p. 84) Affandi gradually developed his signature method after his trip to Bali in 1957 and is impressively displayed in Man with Cockerel: Forceful lines form the outline of the two figures and dominate the background; the corners of the canvas are smeared and smudged by the artist’s hands, as a direct imprint of the artist’s presence; the applied paints, delivered with a heavy, tactile impasto, display a sharp staccato rhythm. The image pulsates with a vigor that is also accomplished through the abundant use of warm tones. The feathers of Affandi’s rooster are delineated with thick, white streaks of paint applied over exposed canvas, ensconced against an opaque backdrop. The artist’s use of high contrasts not on emphasizes focal points, it also intensifies the emotional charge of the work. His colour palette, dominated by reds, greens, blacks and whites, is also intentional, possibly referencing the political tensions in the new nation-state. (Sardjana Sumichan, Affandi: Volume II, Bina Lestari Budaya Foundation, Jakarta, p. 41) Likewise the darkness of the background reinforces the complex turbulence associated with the game.
This distinctive rhythm in Man with a Cockerel imbues the scene with Affandi’s characteristic sensitivity and visual power. Both an ode to Bali and an appeal to universal humanism, Man with a Cockerel is a showpiece of Affandi’s artistic growth and a tribute to Indonesia in the fledgling years of its postcolonial nationhood. At once quiet yet cacophonous, tempestuous yet tender, this figurative work resists a singular interpretation and stands as a testament to the nuanced and profound Indonesian identity.
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