Hendra Gunawan had a charming, strong personality, a persevering spirit and an incredibly storied life. He is considered one of Indonesia’s pioneering modern artists and one who was particularly fierce in his support of Indonesia’s national independence; a lover of his country, his fellow people and a generous advocate for the local art community. Having had only a short tutelage under the instruction of Abdullah Suriosubroto, Gunawan had no formal training and learnt primarily through a cross-intellectual exchange between his peers - Wahdi, Affandi, Barli and Sudarso. The close friendships formed grew into a sharing of ideals, of what a new form of Indonesian art should be, thus giving birth to the first Indonesian modern art movement and the founding of Persagi (The Indonesian Painters Association) in 1938.
Given the history surrounding the time of its conception, the art produced by the 20 artists that formed Persagi was interlaced with a growing yearning for Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch colonialists. Furthermore, instead of sharing a singular style, the artists themselves focused on developing their own artistic language with the common ideology that the works produced should mirror the artists’ personal perspective. Gunawan’s approach to painting was undoubtedly influenced by these key principles of Persagi. Throughout his oeuvre, he unabashedly expressed his love for his land and its people through the vivid caricatures of pastoral life. His work stands out as a figurative representation of the life he saw and lived, showing people what it was like to look at Indonesia through his own eyes.
In Fisherman On the Beach, Gunawan creates the modest scene of women in media res; two, gathered by the fisherman’s boat surveying his catch of the day and one, standing, looking upon the other three figures in almost contemplative fashion. A classic example of his favoured subject, portraits of everyday life, Gunawan captures these simple moments masterfully and breathes subtle movement and serenity into them.
With only the women detailed with outstanding flashes of gold, pink and red tinted lips, this earlier piece showcases a palette that is muted in comparison to Gunawan’s bold, expressive later works. The fisherman, while very much part of the story of everyday living, is toned down with his black clothing and subdued complexion. The life and energy Gunawan gives the women stays true to his ubiquitous celebration of the woman figure. Famously inspired by his own mother, the women in Gunawan’s work have long been thought of as an incredibly diverse view of the feminine role. Depicting women in various states of action and in constant engagement with their portrayed environment, the narrative of the woman was never whittled down to a singular essential.
This piece further speaks of Gunawan’s figurative style that consistently features in his work and demonstrates the breadth of his artistic vocabulary. As a young man, Gunawan practiced the art of traditional Indonesian shadow puppetry, the Wayang Kulit. He carries forth his experience with the craft as he paints people in profile, featuring silhouettes of angular, elongated limbs and fingers; forms that are reminiscent of the Wayang Kulit puppets.
Throughout the span of his life and works, Gunawan sought to share the beauty of Indonesia and the image of ‘hardworking people’ he knew. As a large proponent of the then burgeoning art scene and a fierce activist of an independent Indonesian culture, he continually rose in prominence until he was convicted for political affiliations in 1963. His personal slogan ‘art for the people’ was thought to be aligned with the aspirations of the KPI (Komisi Penyiaran Indonesia) and its cultural arm LEKRA (Lembaga Kebudajaan Rakjat). The stigma of a political prisoner unfortunately stuck with Gunawan after he was released in 1978 and he was not able to retain the same esteem he was given in the 1940s and 1950s. Despite certain associations with political parties, Gunawan’s art was never politically purposed or made as revolutionary art, but as an unadulterated expression of a desire of pro-independence and a constant affection for the people amongst a changing nation and turbulent times.
There is a certain mystery that encapsulates the artist, perhaps stemming from a clash between the aggressive perception of him as a political prisoner and as one of Indonesia’s pioneering visionaries, one that is lauded with filling his life and art with nationalistic pride, and a strong independent spirit. Ultimately, his works are effective in capturing the public’s imagination. Till this very day, they persist in continual relevance, existing as an enduring symbol of Indonesia and its peoples’ perseverance during periods of strife in its history.
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