Lot 1053
  • 1053

BUT MOCHTAR | Two Geishas

650,000 - 950,000 HKD
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  • But Mochtar
  • Two Geishas
  • Signed and dated 1972; signed, titled, inscribed and dated 1972 on the reverse
  • Oil on canvas
  • 100 by 100 cm; 39 1/4  by 39 1/4  in.


Acquired directly from the artist
Private Asian Collection


This work is in good overall condition as viewed. There is evidence of light wear and losses along the edges of the work due to abrasions with the frame. This work could benefit from a light, professional cleaning as there is some faint surface dirt, but this is only visible upon very close inspection. There are some inconsistencies to the weave of the canvas. All other inconsistencies, such as the surface abrasions/scuffs at background, are inherent to the work itself and due to the artist's working method. Examination under ultraviolet light reveal no sign of restoration as viewed. Framed.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

A highly comprehensive figurative work by Indonesian modern master But Mochtar, Two Women in Kimonos is a lyrical encapsulation of the distinctive Cubist aesthetic the artist came to conceive by the 1960s. The present lot comes after an enlightening visit to Japan in the ‘70s, when Mochtar was captivated by the country’s cultural abundance, rich heritage, and rapid industrialisation. Impressed by Japan’s ability to advance technologically and simultaneously maintain their traditional rituals and customs, Mochtar was inspired; he sought the same for his, a nation that, in his eyes, was slowly responding to modernisation and grappling with the concept of national identity. Two Women in Kimonos is a pictorial homage to the mesmerising allure of Japanese arts. It serves as a memento of his time there, as well as the embodiment for his own aspirations. This remarkable painting is exceptionally rare, as it is one of only five pieces from Mochtar’s brief but pivotal trip to Japan. Two Women in Kimonos serves to capture some of what is quintessentially Geisha. Here, Mochtar attentively depicts a pair of poised ladies playing the shamisen - a three-stringed, banjo-like instrument, associated with Japanese tea ceremonies. Notoriously difficult to learn, the shamisen forms an integral part of the geisha’s artistry, as it portrays her skill and finesse as a “Woman of Art”. The figures in the piece are depicted in a seiza-style kneeling pose, wearing ornate kimonos, with ruby red lips, an image synonymous with Geisha. Gazing unassumingly out towards their audience, they can be seen ever-absorbed by their musical craft. Through their solemn and soft facial expressions, Mochtar portrays these geishas as unobtrusive and graceful beings.

Rendered against a subtle, eggshell-white coloured background, the two geishas are foregrounded, consuming the entirety of the picture plane; their elongated bodies span the length of the canvas, and the curves of their figures somewhat Venus-like. Using a combination of sharp and arched lines, Mochtar creates various crystalline and quasi-geometric planes to depict his subjects. Through the process of abstraction, the geishas are reduced to rounded, overlapping, and fragmented geometric shapes, further contributing to their statuesque qualities. Delineating his figures in a deep Prussian blue, these bold outlines serve to accentuate the sensuous and voluptuous contours of the female bodies, highlighting their feminine appearance. Mochtar’s decision to keep the backdrop simple and bare enables him to place absolute attention on form and line. Through his active and bold brushwork, he creates an intensity that instils an energetic movement in the painting, allowing the viewer to focus on the figuration of the geishas. Emblematic in the work is Mochtar’s enduring love for Cubism, and though his style evolved, he continued to experiment with Cubist elements, primarily through sculpture, throughout his career.

A notable graduate from the Bandung Institute of Technology, But Mochtar experimented with various techniques and Western methodologies in his work. Under the tutelage of Dutch art teacher Ries Mulder, he naturally grew an affinity for geometric abstraction, which he continued to explore within an Indonesian context throughout his practice. With a profound interest in other branches of visual arts, Mochtar continued his artistic training, venturing to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where he trained as a sculptor from 1960 to 1961. As an artist with a multifarious practice, But Mochtar was adept in both sculpture and painting, with the two disciplines having a profound impact in shaping his unique pictorial style.

Two Women in Kimonos is not only demonstrative of his love for Japan, but also of his talent and schooling. The piece sees the artist carefully translate his sculptural sensibilities onto the flat surface of the canvas, incorporating Cubism and expertly trained brushwork. Deeply concerned with dimensionality in his practice, Mochtar employs a reductive geometric approach to create an illusion of depth across the picture. Evident in the present piece, Mochtar limns the two geishas using unrestrained curved lines that intersect and form imbricated angular shapes, overall reinforcing a distinct sculptural quality in the painting. The overlapping of the figures almost fuse them into a single unit, possibly suggestive of the geishas’ special bond and close relationship with one another.

Two Women in Kimonos is a remarkable work that showcases a delightful blend of Mochtar’s pictorial aesthetic with traditional Japanese methodologies and iconography. As seen in the piece, the artist delicately frames the two ladies by painting thick cerulean blue borders on either side of the figures. In doing so, he resultantly emphasises the verticality of the pictorial plane, and heightens the central white space of the canvas – a strategy very much inspired by the elongated compositions of figurative Japanese paintings and woodcut prints. His simple colour palette is also fascinating in this work: typically, Mochtar would coat his canvases in a multitude of bright colours, but in Two Women in Kimonos, he restricts himself to only four colours. This subdued palette of red, blue, black and white harkens to Japanese classical painting, where they form the main and dominant colours. Enthralled by Japanese culture and customs, Mochtar‘s meticulous attention to the shimada hairstyle – an identifiable feature of a geisha – and the kimono, is clearly visible in the piece. Through the series of black spherical ovals that form the geishas’ voluminous wig, and the crimson circular patterns intricately embellished on their traditional dresses, Mochtar implements the defining features of the geisha that he displays with utmost consideration. More than just embracing Japanese aesthetics and formal elements, the work is a celebration of the vibrancy of Japanese culture and heritage.

An eloquent presentation of grandeur and beauty, Two Women in Kimonos is a representation of Mochtar’s versatility as an artist. The present piece captures much of that for which Mochtar has become celebrated: his distinct style of Cubism that remains experimental, as well as his love of ritual and fascination with custom. Like many artists from the Bandung School, Mochtar sought to develop his own distinctive Indonesian pictorial identity, and it is without a doubt that his time in Japan served as a great stimulus for him and his artistic practice. An exquisite painting of only five works from the time, and the only one to appear in the international auction market, Two Women in Kimonos is representative of But Mochtar’s artistic sojourns abroad and stands as a cornerstone of his oeuvre.