Born in 1918, he rapidly became one of Indonesia’s most acclaimed artistic talents and intellectuals, especially for his generous, inclusive view of home. Beyond his knowledge of art, Indonesian history and politics, Gunawan liberally drew from his interactions with the homeless, farmers, politicians and freedom fighters, and embodied them all through the medium of art. To him, Indonesia’s vibrancy was made fully concrete by bold paint strokes, dramatic and striking forms, and bright batik colors. As such, Gunawan’s art captured the broad spectrum of his society and therefore was inherently populist by nature, driven by a nationalistic love of his homeland. His work therefore represents his position as both within the scene, and also without – observing and chronicling the lives of his countrymen while living through them by extension.
Here, the fish seller haggles with a local woman, as a young child reaches up towards the prize fish in excitement. The painted scene itself carries a subtle tension, in the minute details of the fish seller’s questioning, angled gaze, which stands in direct opposition to the woman’s own assertive stare, her hand resting possessively on the object in question. The fish itself occupies the focal point of the painting, colored in an arresting, brilliant gold further emphasized by a palette of muted hues surrounding it. The large fish therefore becomes immediately symbolic of bounty and good fortune, which the woman and her family hope to acquire. By contrast, the titular fish seller almost recedes into the background. On a broader level, The Golden Fish Seller frames a moment of spontaneity, representing an instant in everyday, village life that so often becomes unnoticed.
Over the course of his career, Gunawan developed a range of figurative visual motifs, of which form and color were the most distinctive. Principally, Gunawan’s work has always subverted traditional codes of color as a means of comprehending his environment, as The Golden Fish Seller amply showcases. On the whole, the painting reflects Gunawan’s steadfast eye for color composition, blending the vivid red of the beach and the expressive golden of the fish, with the restrained teals and earth browns that distinguish the three figures. Above all, the unexpected shades imbue the painting with a particular whimsy, finding the unconventional right among the everyday, such that each is hardly mutually exclusive from the other. The work too bears a wealth of delicate visual detailing, most prominently in the woman’s garb. Her sarong skirt is intricately speckled, and the sheer lace of her top is rendered with a sense of texture and realism.
Gunawan’s painted characters are all unassuming in posture and movement, yet also performative at the same time. The figures themselves are immediately reminiscent of wayang kulit, from the woman’s exaggerated neck, to the fisherman’s articulated hands and feet. All of this pays homage to one of Indonesia’s most beloved cultural art forms, wherein Gunawan derived his style and form from his heritage, yet still distinctly transforms them as his own.
Even in this portrayal of the mundane, the golden fish imbues the scene with a sense of the fantastical and exquisite, becoming a physical symbol of eternal luck. In the end, Gunawan’s artistic imagination created worlds balanced between the commonplace and the theatric, capturing the Indonesia of the people as a world of diverse color, symphony and fantasy.
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