Hofker was born in Amsterdam in 1902, receiving his formative education in the Dutch National Academy of Fine Arts. While he was always possessed of an extensive range - from architectural paintings to topological landscapes - he first established himself as an eminent portraitist, and it was this talent that would later grant him the opportunity to journey to Indonesia for the first time. He was commissioned by the Dutch government to paint a portrait of Queen Wilhemina for their colonial headquarters in Batavia. This subsequently became a critical turning point in Hofker’s creative life and sparked a lifelong fascination for Indonesia and Bali in particular, as he continued to represent the diversity of the island’s habitats and customs long after his return to the Netherlands.
In the Baleh, Ubud depicts two villagers, seated under the shade of a thatched roof and looking upon the openness of the Balinese countryside, in all its escapist beauty. In contrast to contemporaries Walter Spies, Miguel Covarrubias or Adrien Le Mayeur, Hofker applied a picturesque Western realism to his art, striving to capture the setting before him in each and every representative shade or shape. The canvas is dense and overgrown with vegetation - grasses and leaves overlapping in distinctive, precise shades of vibrant to dull greens and browns. Whether a branch or blade of grass, each object too lacks clearly defined outlines, such that the colours that compose them blend organically into its surroundings. All of this amounts to a scene of pure visual harmony, where the eye sweeps across the painted landscape without any jarring interruption- nature faithfully reproduced in its entirety. The tree occupies the painting’s focal point, and serves to lengthen the visual frame, while providing an illustrative sense of scale.
The man and woman are seated within nature itself, immediately at home and in repose. The male figure dons a farmer’s hat and rests an outstretched arm on his raised knee, while the lady languidly leans on her arm. Both look out towards the distant horizon, their close proximity suggests a romantic intimacy as they gaze towards the verdant padi-fields of Ubud. Together, they remain in a state of stillness, and the shade above them further adds an element of seclusion to the scene. Hofker captures these Balinese villagers as they rest from the day’s tasks, in communion with the natural setting
Above all, this present piece showcases Hofker’s mastery of light, shadow and perspective in all its sublime subtlety, executed consistently through the smallest of details. The scene’s foreground is shadowed under the roof, casting across the seated figures and the foliage around them. As such, they are rendered with muted brown undertones that lend volume to the villagers’ ostensibly brighter green and red sarongs. Hofker’s cool shades offer an atmospheric contrast to the multicoloured lucidity of the landscape stretching beyond them.
However, the artist’s sheer attention to detail manifests itself in the way Hofker uses light to illuminate the focal point of the work – the Balinese beauty in all her splendor. While her male counterpart has his back turned to the viewer, his face largely hidden the wide straw hat, the maiden’s profile and delicate features are carefully backlit, revealing tenderness in her expression. Brilliant yet soft pinkish orange rays of sunshine splash across the ground from the right of the canvas. . The woman’s arm catches and reflects the dramatic lighting, while her darkened skin reveals gentle variations in tone and color. Beyond the shade of the roof, Ubud’s landscape is palpably warm. Hofker captures the intense heat and brightness that farmers in the terraced rice fields would have to endure. Towards the horizon, the scene become progressively indistinct, ultimately fading away to thin, hazy blues, as the artist reliably renders three-dimensional space onto a flatter and seemingly distant plane. These gradations of perspective appear entirely seamless and organic, where Hofker’s broad, considered palette creates and then heightens these illusions of light. Ultimately, his signature style of naturalism was hardly slavish or restricted, instead imbuing the work with a delicate romanticism while still retaining its authenticity in paint.
The Bali of Hofker’s era continues to endure through his sweeping body of work, and the island’s sense of timelessness is especially evident in Inside the Baleh, Ubud. This truly delightful piece is a special exemplar of his artistic verisimilitude, wielding the oil pigments with the same fluidity as he did in his paper works, creating a heartfelt ode to Bali’s natural wonder.
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