Hendra Gunawan: Fishmonger by the Beach

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As a guerilla fighter for independence, painter, and an artistic sculptor, the name Hendra Gunawan has echoed through Nusantara and the International world for his wondrous artworks. Hendra Gunawan was born in Bandung – West Java – Indonesia in 11th of June, 1918 from the couple Raden Prawinegara and Raden Odah Tejaningsih. During his youth, he studied and explored many facets of Indonesian painters at the time such as the expressionist Affandi (1907 – 1990) and the landscape—panoramic painter Wahidi Sunanta. Two of these painters became the masters whom Hendra always looked up to in the world of art. In 1935, together with his close friends, Sudarso (1914 — 2006) and Barli Sasmitawinata (1921 — ), Hendra joined his masters to form a community of painters dubbed “Kelompok Lima” (“Group Five”) in Bandung. The name “Kelompok Lima” was famously recognized for its members who were known to travel around Indonesia to paint together. The five painters are Affandi, Barli, Hendra Gunawan, Sudarso, and Wahdi.

In 1938 Hendra Gunawan was self-taught himself in sculpting. During Japanese occupation, he actively guided and taught the youths of Indonesia that were passionate in learning the arts of painting and sculpting, while also organizing art and cultural events at Pusat Tenaga Rakyat (PUTERA) under the leadership of three Indonesian national figures known as Tiga Serangkai: Soekarno, Moh. Hatta, and K.H. Mas Mansyur. Through these activities Hendra and his colleagues spent their time creating a lot of paintings in restricted places such as Pasar Ikan, Tanjung Priok, and Pelabuhan Cirebon.

Hendra Gunawan also participated in other artistic interests such as Sundanese dramatic arts in theatre, he advised the establishing of Poesaka Sunda group (Sunda Heritage) in Bandung in 1940, as a decor painter. His meeting with Affandi was a phase and a catalyst for him becoming a painter. Based on sheer willpower, honesty, and genuine ambition he found his courage to forge his own path. With a pencil, papers, canvas, and paint he started his career as a painter. His circle of community and friends became his pillars of support to guide him in growth. Furthermore, together with other painters in Bandung, they managed to exhibit his works in many exhibitions in around 1940s.

Entitled “Fishmonger by the beach”, the present work was painted in 1974, four years before he was released from the jail at Kebun Waru (KW), Bandung – West Java. Not like the exotic beauties popularized by the Mooi Indies (Beautiful Indies) aesthetic of Indo-European artists, the women in the present work is composed in a soft motherly face wearing a kebaya with batik motifs which the blouse opened a little upon the chest part. The woman, fishmonger, is depicted selling fish catches, sitting on a large rock by the beach with her son. A son on his mother’s lap is shown proffering the fish to buyers, that all are depicted around the beach with some fishmongers at long distance. Hendra Gunawan emphasizes the son figure in slightly normal composition, while the female figure is composed in a more protruding chin and lips. The artist also constructs the body of the female figure with a larger, curved hips, large breast almost protruding, and long slender hands and large leg calves. Its body is composed not like humane compared to that of natural and normal human body anatomy but the artist characterizes it without leaving its feminine nature. Hendra visualizes its body shape based upon the Wayang art performance from the West Java region, where he lives there. These figures are painted metaphorically inspired by shadow puppet who are famously known for the characters of Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Through the present painting, Hendra Gunawan clearly wishes to tell the viewers with the utmost clarity the scenes displayed through his paintings. The narrative element is very important for him; therefore, the present work is loaded with ways of visual communication bridged by the themes he raises ‘Fishmonger by the Beach’. The life of fishermen like this is parallel to the meaning of the fishes they catch and sell. Life must be fought for if you want to get what you want. It is not permissible to give up and retreat in situations that are considered difficult. Like the life of fish swimming in the vast ocean, it is not afraid to live in a saltwater environment that taste very salty which does not have a negative impact upon the fish. Compare with Hendra’s work, entitled ‘Wanita Sabar Menanti’ (Woman waiting patiently) (134 x 90 cm.), signed but without date, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 28th May 2006, Lot. 38, for HKD 1,080,000, initially estimated between HKD550,000 – HKD700,000 (See fig. 1). The piece was then sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 8th October 2013, Lot. 446, for HKD 1,840,000, initially estimated between HKD 1,400,000 – HKD 2,000,000.


Hendra Gunawan