Cultural icon Hendra Gunawan, often deemed a maestro of modern art in Indonesia, has long been praised for his distinctive representations of the country and skillful ability to express a fresh identity in art. Hendra’s works vividly capture snapshots of an array of subjects endemic to the archipelagic region, including unconventional and exaggerated figures of fishermen and village women, set against lush tropical environs. His unusual illustrations and use of primal colors have become instantly recognizable signatures of his artistry. This season, Sotheby’s is pleased to present Women and Children by the Beach for auction – a rare exemplar from his storied career that captures the essence of the painter best known for his humanistic portrayals of circadian life in Indonesia.
Women and Children by the Beach is larger in scale as compared to other pieces within the artist’s oeuvre. Six figures of women and children occupy the canvas of the panorama, rendering the piece highly detailed in its conception. Executed with frankness and intensity, the charm of Hendra’s country and home served as his muse, and he preferred to celebrate the common people rather than those of the upper echelon. The artist often portrayed Javanese, Balinese and other Indonesian people engaging in the seemingly trivial, routine procedures of everyday life.
Women and Children by the Beach is a painting infused with unobtrusive joy that provides its audiences with a close-up of an idealized, bucolic existence and leisurely approach to life. Hendra possessed a certain enthusiasm about portraying the peculiar customs of the every day. As with other Hendra paintings where the maidens are often portrayed sitting together partaking in seemingly unusual acts, the women in this piece are depicted ungrudgingly cleaning one another’s hair; a form of ritualistic grooming that perpetuates notions of closeness, empathy and female bonding. The close-knit grouping of the ladies coupled with their tandem gazes captures an alliance that resembles a sisterhood. As they actively practice empathy with one another and appear relaxed and at ease within their milieu, there lies a sense of community and rapport amongst themselves; an important facet to a harmonious existence in the lives of Indonesian women.
Simultaneously, two young children engage in seaside activities, providing a vignette into the oceanfront life. One sits precariously yet comfortably on his mother’s knee, balanced by her firm and protective grip, while brandishing a string of crabs that he would have collected from the beach. Another inquisitive child, perched on the bottom perimeter of the canvas, rummages through the sand. On the right side of the composition, three figures stroll into the distance, while others bearing loads on their hunched backs board a boat, populating the background of the piece. These fishermen provide an added layer of minutiae that makes the present lot truly special.
More notably, in a harmonic mimicry to the sailboats and diagonal line of the horizon, composed in a striking triangular formation are the women themselves; elongated, unusual figures with distinctly hyperbolic features possibly inspired by wayang imagery. In this way, Hendra imbues a notion of geometry to the arrangement of his figures, which permeates the composition with a sense of harmony, balance and strength. The sinuous branches in the foreground not only mirror the ornate batik patterns of the sarongs and limbs of the comfortably seated women, but also the undulating S-curve delineated from the central woman’s arm right through to her legs. The figures themselves appear to be at unity with one another, and also with their environment.
Painted in a mythical style that stands somewhere in between reality and fantasy, the women’s protruding faces, pastel flesh tones and lanky fingers allude to a fairy tale-like narrative, as though they are mermaids belonging to a piece of folklore. Their hair appears wispy; twisting and moving with dynamic mobility as if driven by the wind. Perhaps, the artist intended to convey the women as symbols of force and motion, as Hendra was known to possess an admiration of women and a deep respect for their place in society.
Women and Children by the Beach is a rare testament to the dynamic flourishes of Hendra’s works. The piece is a coveted example of how the artist is able to elicit an emotional response by capturing his experience of the subjects; of their values and belief systems, rather than of the subject themselves. These layered meanings have always been prevalent in Hendra’s work. To the artist, natural environments were more pure in their conviction, both physically and spiritually. The beach vibrates with vitality and the people, infused with a vibrancy for life. An evocative work fresh to the international art market, Women and Children by the Beach is a paramount piece from Hendra’s oeuvre that Sotheby’s is proud to present in our Spring 2019 sales.