The beauty of his home and its native people served as Gunawan’s lifelong muse, and his work captured the moments of everyday life while drawing out their subtle elegance. Throughout his career, women as a group far outnumbered men or even children in his works, and rather than as passive female caricatures upon the canvas, he realizes them as fully multidimensional, individual characters, in charge of their own interactions, bodies and conducts. In Two Women by the Beach, the artist monumentalizes the lives and conduct of the two Indonesian women, depicting them in all their vibrancy. As they sit in repose along the beach, absorbed in conversation with each other, their figures dominate much of the painted space, emphasizing the aura of ease and poise they hold. In particular, the artist paid meticulous attention to the expressiveness of his subjects’ forms across his works, whether in formal posing, dancing or even merely lounging as they do here.
A jackfruit, sits proudly by the side of one of ladies, suggesting the sensuality and robust fertility of the titular figures who lounge along the beach selling or eating this quintessential Southeast Asian delicacy. Each woman bears a different pose and expression, the one on the left leaning back with her legs extended, only turning her head to look at her companion. For her part, the other woman leans towards her in earnest, seeming almost solicitous, as Gunawan captures the diversity of their body language. Under Gunawan’s brush, their facial features and jawlines are distinctly stylized in line with his habit of illustrating forms in silhouette - a style reminiscent of the figures of wayang kulit and his borrowings from Indonesia’s illustrious artistic heritage. The artist meticulously dwells on the outlines, ridges, colours and dress of his native subjects, representing the human form with a fanciful, generous eye.
Gunawan’s conception of colour has long been as a means of representing individuality, uniqueness and also whimsy on the canvas. From human figures to inanimate objects and the natural environments around them, each was represented with a kaleidoscopic range of hues, layering each work with an abundance of emotion. In marked contrast to his later pieces and their expressive, saturated colours of blue, purple, red and green, this particular work is made even more striking for its softer pastel overtones, so rarely employed across his oeuvre. The beach is covered in an expanse of pastel pink, in perfect visual harmony with the teal shades of the sea in the background.
Subtle, realistic details are further scattered across the scene, from the large bright green jackfruit at the left corner, to the hazy, minute outlines of beachgoers in the distance. The women themselves are rendered with complexions in different colours, further accentuating their individual identities. The woman on the left is painted in an earthier, muted green, while the figure next to her is coloured more naturalistically in subtle flesh browns and yellows. Finally, the multicoloured batik prints on the women’s sarongs and baju kurungs provide visual counterpoints and spots of intricate detail, such as the flowers patterned on their skirts.
In the end, Gunawan’s stylized, contrasting colours imbue his Indonesia with a feeling of fantasy, as he identifies the theatrical beauty existing right within the most common of settings, through his art. The artist ultimately translates the natural lushness and vivid organic tones of his tropical home into a deeply imaginative form, exaggerating their visual impact.
Two Women by the Beach is a treasured work from the earlier years of Gunawan’s lifelong career, already showing his mastery over his signature visual idiom – depicting the beauty of the people and landscapes around him. The work especially demonstrates his wide-ranging use of colour, featuring his rare experiments with pastel. Overall, this piece shows the maestro’s distinct and signature style that distinguished him as true painter of Indonesia’s people and its bountiful landscape.
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