The banyan tree is a repository of symbolic significance, and has captured the imaginations of humankind since the dawn of civilization. It is revered in folklore and religion, and is often utilized as a symbol in politics. In particular, it has been adopted by Indonesia as an emblem of its coat of arms, symbolizing unity and diversity. As an archipelago of over 17,000 islands, and home to a myriad of people and cultures, Indonesia is metaphorically analogous to the tree, which is a single entity with numerous dangling roots. Each root represents an island that comprises the nation—weaving together one country with many far-flung cultural roots.
The colossal being also bore personal significance to Affandi, one of Indonesia’s best-known painters. As a country at the cusps of tumultuous change during the Dutch occupation, Second World War, nationalist struggle, revolution and nation building, the Banyan tree was a refuge of shade and shelter. It became a symbol of hope and creative power. Encased in a cocoon of long-reaching branches and rich foliage, impassioned like-minded individuals engaged in discourse and exchanged philosophies, fostering lasting friendships that would weather many storms.
In the present lot, Affandi’s portrayal of the banyan tree is that of a magnificent force to be reckoned with. His unprecedented technique of action painting—using his fingers and palms to smear paint from the tube directly onto the canvas—is instantly recognizable. Each stroke is a concentration of his whole being’s energy, which vibrates under the pressure. It permeates with his most innate emotions, forming a highly expressionistic composition of raw, passionate and spontaneous energy. Against the rays of the sun, the boughs twist and glitter like brass coils. The thick layers of impasto mimic the raised ridges and craggy surface of its noble bark. The leaves, indistinct, are swirls of virescent hues, reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. They are like vines that wind and coil, splurging ad sprawling outward in all directions to consume the pictorial space. The banyan tree pulses, swells and balloons, taking on a life of its own.
With its distinctive life cycle and appearance, the banyan tree has become the epitome of longevity and immortality. Its aerial roots descend from its branches to strengthen its hold on the ground. Over time, they become supporting trunks that shroud the host tree in a living mesh, making it stable and constant, virtually impervious to death. The banyan tree has also been compared to God’s shelter to his devotees. In the present lot, its umbrella of foliage lends shade to the community of market vendors, visitors and animals, a welcome reprieve from the stifling heat and glare of the fiery sun.
Affandi’s depiction of the banyan tree is arresting and grand, but also encompasses the darkness of its gnarled and knotted branches and girth. Unlike the Mooi Indie and Pita Maha, he sought to portray the Indies honestly, rather than as an unblemished land of unparalleled idyllic beauty. He did not hesitate to paint unglamorous scenes from daily life that served as a reflection of the people’s true social conditions. His honest and emotional expressions were what garnered him international acclaim. During his life, he exhibited his works across various continents, joined prominent international art biennales, and received a multitude of awards, such as the art award from the Ministry of Education and Culture, Republic of Indonesia. With a career spanning more than half a century, he towered over the Indonesian art scene, and his works, even today, are a sight to behold.
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