Charming and whimsical, The Flautist is a sublime rarity by Italian artist Romualdo Locatelli, whose most sought-after works pay homage to his utopian days in Bali. Born in 1905 in Bergamo, Northern Italy, Locatelli spent the majority of his childhood assisting his father with his frescos and decorative art, and even embellished frescos of his own for the Parish Church in San Filastro at the age of 14. At a time when romanticised and poeticized visions of the orient enraptured the fascination of European art circles, Locatelli sought to transcend the boundaries of formal portraiture, and found inspiration within neo-classicist and late orientalist aesthetics. Locatelli worked as an imaginative portrait artist in Italy until a Bandung based Dutch collector, John De Jong, invited the maestro to move to the Dutch East Indies as an artist in residence. Thus, 1938 marked the beginning of Locatelli’s pivotal tenure in Indonesia, where he was invigorated with a new impetus to illustrate from the whim of his own passions. Locatelli’s loving depictions of the Balinese locale are evocative of his sheer preoccupation with their exotic beauties and traditions, and The Flautist is a quintessential exemplar.
As one of the handful of precious pieces that survived the bombings of Manila by the Japanese in 1941, The Flautist is a remarkable commemoration of Locatelli’s vast oeuvre. Executed in 1939, this painting depicts a young Balinese boy, with a suling, a bamboo ring flute, perched on his lips. Poised and ready to play a tune, the boy casts a cheeky glance to the viewer, as if waiting for instruction. Here, Locatelli saturates the sepia toned canvas with chiaroscuro, as he plays with feathery brushstrokes of light and shadow to blanket the background with natural shades of lustrous golds, earthy browns and velvety yellows. While Locatelli’s contained yet robust palette lends from pigments typically found in traditional Javanese paintings, his expressive and confident brush strokes are indicative of his classical Italian training and Impressionist roots. Locatelli’s masterful treatment of brushwork and light come together as the luminous glow of the Balinese sunset casts its warm rays onto the boy, and his silhouette blends into the soft terrain. Amongst the lush and sensual aesthetics of the landscape, Locatelli manages to transform his enchantment with the essence of his subjects into something tangible, as loose brushstrokes of colours delineate the soft, dream-like features of the boy. Situated at the viewer’s eye level, it seems as if the boy is staring right at us with a serene and assured gaze, which enhances the intensity of the encounter.
For Locatelli, Bali was an entire realm of earthly delights, waiting for discovery, and every piece from this period of his covetable oeuvre is reminiscent of the pure curiosity and delight he had during his time there. A highly rare masterpiece, The Flautist provides collectors with an exquisite vignette into the halcyon days of pre-war Southeast Asia, as Locatelli prompts us to listen carefully to the young boy, as he shares with us the cheerful cultures and traditions of Bali through his captivating melodies.
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