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Regarding Hendra

100 Years Hendra Gunawan – A Centenary Celebration, opened in Jakarta today, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Hendra Gunawan (1918-1983), one of Indonesia’s greatest modern art masters.

In this milestone year, Ciputra Artpreneur celebrates the life and work of Hendra with two exhibitions at the Ciputra Museum and Ciputra Gallery – Hendra Gunawan: Prisoner of Hope and Spektrum Hendra Gunawan. The former exhibition is a permanent show billed as the largest-ever display of Hendra’s works in Indonesia, and we were invited to attend and cover the opening. 32 works are on display in Hendra Gunawan: Prisoner of Hope, a number of which have never before been exhibited publicly. The exhibition features 23 paintings from the private collection of businessman and philanthropist Ir. Ciputra who was a close friend of the artist.

Curators Agus Dermawan T. (right, holding microphone) and Aminudin TH Siregar (left), at the media preview of Hendra Gunawan: Prisoner of Hope

Hendra’s work is distinctive — his ethereal figures and brightly coloured brushstrokes portraying ordinary Indonesian life, are often instantly recognisable to anyone with even just a passing interest in the country’s art.

Far from being a mere figurehead of Indonesian nationalism, Hendra famously walked the talk.

He was a revolutionary fighter in the 1940s and later served time in prison from the years of 1965 to 1978, on account of his associations with the Indonesian Communist Party’s cultural organisation, the Lembaga Kebudajaan Rakyat (LEKRA). The artist also co-founded the famed People’s Painters or Pelukis Rakyat, which took the view that art should be inspired by, and understandable to the masses.

Significant then is the title of the show Hendra Gunawan: Prisoner of Hope which is perhaps a nod to opinions such as those expressed by academic Astri Wright, that Hendra produced some of his best and most inspiring work when imprisoned, developing a taste for a “new language of exaggeration and colour-play.” Wright in her seminal essay Painting the People, speaks of one collector who recalls being pooh-poohed for not favouring Hendra’s more subtly- coloured works from the 1950s. Said the collector in response:

“No! This period is the best! Because this (when he was in prison) was the only period in his life that he was able to express himself totally – because the only way he could express himself was through his painting.”

In a similar vein, well-known Indonesian collector Oei Hong Djien notes in the catalogue The Five Maestros of Modern Indonesian Art that following his release from prison, Hendra “raced against time to produce as many works as possible.”

Given Hendra’s deep connections with his countrymen, it is perhaps only fitting that Hendra Gunawan: Prisoner of Hope, be accompanied by a showing of contemporary work, Spektrum Hendra Gunawan, curated by Rifky Effendy and featuring artwork by 70 contemporary artists who have engaged with and responded to Hendra’s painting.

We attempt to unpack these 2 exhibitions by looking at common themes which appear to cut across both shows:

(i) Perceptions of Femininity

Women are a common subject in Hendra’s works, often being rendered as vital, vibrant figures — brightly-hued and flush with fecundity and life. While Hendra focuses on the curvy forms of his female subjects, he also acknowledges their important function in Indonesian society.

Says Astri Wright:

“Hendra’s women are nourishing, nursing, mothering beauties, voluptuously busty, their undulating bodies wrapped in bright-coloured cloth. Their forms are echoed by the form of papayas, often competing with strutting eggplants and cucumbers.”

Fighting for the Mask (1973) is but one example of such a depiction

According to one collector cited in Wright’s essay Painting the People, Hendra’s attachment to painting women developed from his unhappy severance from his own mother at an early age  – having been chased away from home by his father.

He also had a young second wife, Nuraeni, who accompanied him in prison. She not only provided inspiration for Hendra’s painting but is credited for his distinctive use of colour. Wright’s interviews with collectors reveal that Nuraeni had worked as a salesgirl in a clothing and fabric store and so had become used to seeing a range of brightly – coloured material. When she started painting lessons with Hendra, he became inspired by her use of such bright colours. Some commentators take the view that the development of Hendra’s “unique colourful style” during his prison period, was a result of Nuraeni’s influence – a fact that the artist has himself openly acknowledged.

Women Bathing (1970), provides another illustration of Hendra’s use of colour and portrayal of the female body

While some might have seen this acknowledgement as an act of humility and romantic love on Hendra’s part, Wright urges us not to forget his long-suffering first wife. She cites an observation by Maryarti, (Affandi’s wife) that the said first wife did everything she could to sustain Hendra’s practice while he was imprisoned, sneaking paintings out of jail, selling works and “doing any kind of work to get a mouthful of rice.” Still, Maryati mused,

“…after all that, Hendra was more close to someone else after he came out of prison – that’s a wife’s fate.”

The complexities in Hendra’s attitudes towards women seemed to beautifully crystalise in Putri Larasati Ayu Purwanto’s lightbox display, On Observing Beauty – Photo Archives (2017):

Could this be a more contemporary approach to the representation of feminine beauty and power? Could we see these qualities as being stripped down to their bare essentials, with just a hint of neutral flesh (i.e. fingers) presented in an entirely utilitarian way? The artist Putri Larasati, notes that Hendra’s distinctive manner of capturing the female form has become a kind of archetype in itself, and accordingly questions such known and accepted symbols of femininity.

The rather odd display of a painting – Nude (1976) – by Hendra of a fully unclothed Nuraeni adds another layer of inquiry to the treatment of the female form in Indonesian art, and indeed whether societal attitudes have changed in contemporary times.

As the painting was the only work in the exhibition which featured a fully nude woman, it was only permitted to be viewed through a peephole (guarded, no less):

The peephole lies behind the guard, and behind that, an image you’ll need to commit to memory as no photography is allowed

(ii) Fellow- Feeling

Astri Wright comments that Hendra was a man “moved more by deep-seated moral imperatives than by dogma,” having a rooted sense of fellow-feeling towards his friends and acquaintances. Her essay Painting the People recalls anecdotes from collectors, one of which goes like this:

Once, when Hendra heard that someone had bought 7 paintings of his which were rumoured to be fake, he went to take a look. Upon realising that they were, in fact, forgeries, he took them away and painted 7 new paintings for the collector without asking for a single penny in return.

On another occasion, when the mother of one of Hendra’s friends and patrons underwent successful eye surgery, he spontaneously created a painting for the eye doctor whom he had never met, in celebration and gratitude for saving the elderly lady’s eyesight.

Hendra’s propensity for painting the humble quotidian in an elevated, whimsical way seems consistent with his empathetic, all-round-good-guy-type persona.  In Durian Seller (1980), viewers are presented with an everyday scene — the work shows a prospective female buyer being magicked out of thin air, while the seller in the painting’s foreground appears to literally grow out of the earth. The blemishes and scars on the seller’s body are embraced and flaunted in a colourful, decorative style:

The motif of the snake dancer is also one that stands out in Hendra’s practice. He had been deeply affected by the sight of a woman engaging in the dangerous performance in real life, in order to earn a living. The performer was eventually fatally bitten by her snake and this disturbing image of bravery and fortitude stayed with Hendra for a long time. A few paintings of snake dancers are in existence, and in Snake Performer (1973) below, we see one fine example:

In the contemporary forum, Nasirun’s Kaki-Kaki Rakyat (2018) is a massive installation created in tribute to the feet of ordinary Indonesian folk, people who are neither “powerful” nor “elite.” Particularly, Nasirun sees Hendra’s  aestheticisation of varicose veins in the legs of his subjects as “beautiful and harmonious,” having the effect of elevating such ordinary citizens to a higher plane of respectability:

Exhibition view of Nasirun’s installation
A closer look

(iii) Resistance

The work below, Twelve Years Without a Bath (1977) reflects on Hendra’s time in prison. The painting’s title refers to the lack of any due process of law for the 12 years that Hendra had been imprisoned on the basis of being a communist.

This made him feel “dirty,” as if he had “never been bathed by legal truths.”  It shows his only friend in prison, a stray cat, to whom he playfully offers a live cicak (lizard) dangling from his fingers. According to the exhibition catalogue, the small cooking stove at Hendra’s feet suggests the possibility that the lizard might be served up as a meal.

The exhibition catalogue additionally makes the point that Hendra has portrayed himself “so fully” here that he wrote the inscription “self-portrait” on the bottom left of the canvas.

This presents an interesting contrast to observations made by well-known Indonesian collector Oei Hong Djien in the catalogue The Five Maestros of Modern Indonesian Art. Oei states that many of Hendra’s works dating from the 1940s did not bear his signature, and hazards a guess that “during the obliteration of the Communist Party in Indonesia in 1965, people were afraid to be associated with anything deemed communist.” It was common for the military to enter and search homes and it could have been the case that because of Hendra’s associations with LEKRA, his signature might have been removed from early paintings. In any event, Oei takes the view that Hendra was himself “indifferent” when it came to signing his works.

The rich jewel- toned painting of Hendra’s incarceration, complete with a menagerie to keep him company, sits alongside more stark contemporary works such as Self-Portrait as a Political Artist (2018) by Agung Kurniawan:

Stare at this long enough and the steel and paint will start to vibrate before your eyes

What are our concluding thoughts?

We particularly liked the fact that not all the contemporary works in Spektrum Hendra Gunawan came accompanied with detailed wall texts — viewers are very much invited to draw their own roadmaps from Hendra’s practice and to decide how (and indeed, if) his works could be relevant in a contemporary Indonesian context.

This is a blockbuster of a show, and an absolute must-visit if you’re in Jakarta.

More details of the exhibition can be found hereSpektrum Hendra Gunawan closes on 16 August.



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