Research & Essay
As a celebrated Indonesian painter, Hendra Gunawan (1918 – 1983 AD), uses different ways of outward expression to illustrate who he is in the society. He put himself into his work, even without command from others to do so. There are many reasons why Hendra takes to art and there are also many ways for him to become an artist. The painting art helped bring him closer and allows him to communicate without words, but instead with his works. Hendra produced painting arts throughout his career that has given us a large knowledge about the meaning of life. His works have impacted the way we live, the way we see things, and the artist has helped us to understand his art of expression about the meaning as a father in a familial survival.
Born to Raden Prawiranegara and Raden Odah Tejaningsih on June 11th 1918 in Bandung – West Java, Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia), Hendra Gunawan (1918 – 1983 AD) was famously recognized for his colorful style of painting with caricaturistic subject that draws on an Expressionist background. In 1935, together with his close friends, Sudarso (1914 — 2006) and Barli Sasmitawinata (1921 — ), Hendra joined the maestros as his teachers to establish a community of painters named “Kelompok Lima” (Group Five) in Bandung. The name “Kelompok Lima” was famously recognized for its five members passionately traveling around Indonesia to paint together. The members of five painters were Affandi, Barli, Hendra Gunawan, Sudarso, and Wahdi. Thus, during his youth, he studied and explored a lot of facets of Indonesian painters at the time such as the expressionist Affandi (1907 – 1990) and the landscape panoramic painter Wahidi Sunanta.
In 1938 Hendra Gunawan began to teach himself sculpture, and he actively guided and taught the youths of Indonesia who were passionate in learning the arts of painting and sculpting. He also organized art and cultural events at Pusat Tenaga Rakyat (PUTERA) under the leadership of three Indonesian national figures and heroes known as Tiga Serangkai: Soekarno, Moh. Hatta, and K.H. Mas Mansyur. He was a lecturer at the Indonesian Fine Art Academy (ASRI) in Jogjakarta in 1957. At the same time, Hendra Gunawan also involved in the establishment of LEKRA (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat) or People’s Institution of Culture. LEKRA was immensely associated to the ideology of PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia) or Indonesian Communist Party. After only eight years of his activity in LEKRA, the bloody massacre of 30th September 1965 movement imploded upon his country – Indonesia inflicting he was imprisoned in 1965 after the banned PKI party was accused to be a party on coup attempt against Soekarno’s government.
Hendra Gunawan was incarcerated in jail from 1965–1978 in Kebon Waru Prison – Bandung – West Java . During passing his life in the prison he kept on painting and creating his works by using the rough canvases with subjects reflecting the lower-class society’s struggle, patience for a harmonized family, and other social life’s activities. His oeuvres executed in behind bars were mostly signed with his typical name’s signature, and date of creation with a mark “KW” as an acronym of Kebun Waru, the name of the prison house when the artist passed his life at that time.
Entitled to “An Affection of a Father”, the present work was painted by Hendra Gunawan in 1973 when the artist was incarcerated without any legal trial process in Kebun Waru prison – Bandung. The focal point on the present painting is emphasized on a father and his children applied with primary colors to celebrate fatherhood in caring and playing with his children. The artist places the figures in the center of the painting by his quick, energic and vigorous brushstrokes illustrating the daily life of fisherfolk with his children in frolic sitting on cliffs with mountainous and beach landscape as the background. The subject is thickly painted in earthy bright dark browns, orange, red with the tranquil blue palettes in the background, creating a sense of tension between the colors. By applying the bright and dark colors with various shades, the painting renders the figures life in relaxed and joy with his children but somber expression of father’s face appears in vague. Compared to his earlier works painted prior to 1965 using gloomy colors, Hendra used the bright and vibrant colors on the present painting. It affirms the bright and vibrant colors on Hendra’s paintings was influenced by Nuraini’s paintings, Hendra’s second wife when they were imprisoned together.
Painted in 1973 when Hendra Gunawan was incarcerated in the prison for eight years, the artist conveyed his deeper spiritual and philosophical issues being articulated on the present work. These spiritual and philosophical views influenced the artist’s perception of the creative process and the self in relation to the process. The present work is likely creative process of ‘therapy’ enabling the artist to release from the nagging questions on his mind in regards with socio-political and economy imbalances and human tragedy realities. Through the process, the artist developed them on a modern visual language and devoted his energy on the present painting. Depicted in bare-breasted, dressing a traditional Sundanese turban ‘iket’ tied on his head along with a striped breech, the man figure is presented as a fisherfolk returning to home from his long sailing journey. The artist composed a fisherfolk as a man in muscular, robustious body and dark-skinned scorched by the blazing sun for earning his life and embosoming his children. This theme is intended to express the responsibility of a father’s affection to the importance of a familial survival. Like the uniqueness of the women’s body on his artworks, the artist also composes the fisherfolk’s body on the present work in undulating shape resembling a visual character complexity of traditional Sundanese puppet ‘wayang’ performance that have been familiar to the Javanese for centuries. Deriving from Javanese folk-epics, the artist tried to complement his sense of inwardness “kebatinan” on his depressed soul daydreaming his family at home without his presence.
For Hendra Gunawan, a father will always face the juggling aspects of work and family life trying to achieve an ever-elusive work-life balance. The artist recognized and appreciated the value of a father to his children. He expressed how a father enjoys a happy relationship with his son and daughter who seek an esoteric quality of his care and affection. On the present Hendra’s oeuvre, we can see how a spoiled son gleefully sitting on his father’s lap takes and shows two fishes of his father’s work to his cheerful sister, while the father calmly enjoys their happiness and joy. The fisherfolk depicted in dark-skinned scorched by the blazing sun on the present work, the artist also illustrates that the fisherfolk is a lower-class caste and the harder one working under extreme conditions in the midst of far ocean and the greater sting of the sun. Thus, this is why these conditions lead to his skin is darker than that of commonly people. Hendra Gunawan expressed critically on the reality of life at that time, even the fisherfolk was considered a lower-class caste by society but the fisherfolk wished to dedicate the affection to his family, notably the man incarcerated in the jail. Likewise, the artist also tried to break down the patriarchal social tradition and tried to offer his idea that the task of parenting was not meant only to be the responsibility of a mother but also the father. By his strength and resilience in times of mourning in prison, Hendra Gunawan completed the present painting as a testament of his daily life with vibrant life and energy in prison in 1973. For Hendra, even he is in prison and his body is incarcerated, but his mind and creativity still echo.
The subject on the present Hendra’s painting is rarely found in market, but it is found the similar subject and decorative elements even in slightly different composition to the present painting. During his career, the repetition of the same subject, decorative elements and poses of figures on the present painting appear in his later work. Certainly, the repetition of each his works may vary slightly in brush details due to the nature of being hand painted so no two painting are exactly the same. Compare with the similar subject, colors composition and poses in different theme entitled to “Berebut Topeng II” or “Fighting for the Mask II” painted in 1978 (83.5 x 144 cm) from Ir. Ciputra Private Collection.(see fig. 1).1) The fisherfolk is frequently depicted in bare-breasted with in muscular and robustious body on his different paintings with different theme and poses. Compare with Hendra’s oeuvre entitled to “Cari Ikan” or “Looking for Fish”, painted in 1976 (88 x 145.5 cm) also from Ir. Ciputra Private Collection (see fig. 2).2) Emphasizing the human narrative and his philosophy associations on his socio-political surroundings by using vibrant and vivid colors, Auction records were set by works of Indonesian artist Hendra Gunawan this year 2016. Compare with Hendra’s larger painting (150 x 203 cm) entitled to “Village Life’, painted in 1975, one of the figures depicted with similar fisherfolk profile to the present work. It was then sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 2nd October 2016, lot. 1061, for HK$ 5,400,000 or equivalent to US$ 696,059, excluding the buyer’s premium, initially estimated HKD 5,500,000 – HKD 8,500,000 or equivalent to US$ 708,948 –US$ 1,095,648 (see fig. 3).
Agus Dermawan T, Hendra Gunawan, A Great Modern Indonesia Painter, Ciputra Artpreneur, Jakarta, 2015, p. 14.
Ibid, p. 137