Hendra Gunawan returns to Indonesian public (2001)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 23 January 2012
This article was previously published in the Jakarta Post on 16 September 2001 with the title "Hendra Gunawan ’returns’ to Indonesian public".

Hendra Gunawan returns to Indonesian public

Astri Wright, an associate professor at the University of Victoria in Canada and a long-standing researcher of modern and contemporary Indonesian art, is the co-author of Hendra Gunawan: A Great Modern Indonesian Painter, a new work on the life and oeuvre of Hendra Gunawan, the famous Indonesian nationalist painter who was kept out of the public eye for nearly four decades due to political circumstances.

In the following article she discusses the continuing importance of his work.

No one knows what course history will take or how it will impact directly on their own lives. There were many changes in Hendra Gunawan’s life from 1918 to 1983 and these led to visible changes in his art.

Hendra Gunawan could not have imagined that he would spend most of his last two decades in jail. Nor could he have imagined the crowd that showed up to celebrate the launching of the first book about him on Sept. 1.

On the night of the book launch, Indonesian and foreign art lovers, collectors, artists and others, were able to meet Hendra Gunawan— most for the first time, others again.

With the publication of this book, it is hoped that the era of serious Hendra Gunawan scholarship and evaluation can now start, in Indonesia and abroad.

Ideally, this publication will also pave the way for a major retrospective exhibition to be organized and perhaps travel the world, since all informed sources place Hendra Gunawan among the handful of early Indonesian modernists of world status.

What is the experience of encountering Hendra Gunawan’s work? Everyone who encounters Hendra’s paintings has their own reaction. For me, in the stillness of standing before his paintings, my spirit is pulled into motion. Seduced by the dance of Hendra’s lines and the clash and glow of his colors, I am pulled into the canvases.

My soul wiggles at his jazzy gestures, my throat fills with laughter at his zany visual jokes and puns; words fail as his unlikely color combinations leap out and tickle my aura.

My historical consciousness is expanded as the emotions and fates of people of all ages and backgrounds, struggling to survive against poverty, oppression and war, and giving their utmost energies to create a new nation, are laid out in evocative colors and lines before me.

Humanity and empathy are actively engaged by Hendra Gunawan’s broad historical panoramas and intimate contemporary close-ups of Javanese, Balinese and other Indonesians enduring revolution and hunger, negotiating the relationships of daily life and celebrating its most intense moments, ritually and festively.

Hendra Gunawan’s most jazzy surreal paintings put me in a trance-like frame of mind where suprarational insights are possible. Once, while I was researching Hendra’s iconography, a strange thing happened.

Musing over the dragon-like patterns painted on so many of Hendra Gunawan’s figures’ batik clothing and the numerous animal heads included in his self-portrait I the Ten-Faced One, led me to think of ancient animistic/tribal cultures, such as those represented in the ancient Chinese system of horoscopes. At the time of the Chinese New Year, since I knew Hendra had a great interest in contemporary China, I looked up what animal year Hendra was born in and discovered he was a Horse.

I read: “A person born under the auspices of the passionate Horse will have a strong, magnetic and commanding personality...” (Wow, that fits! I think.) I further find that a Horse will be “partial to bright colors and striking designs to the point of occasional gaudiness”. (Amazing! I think. That description fits his paintings to a T!)

Next I learn that, while the Horse can be “self-indulgent”, with its need to be free to move on at whim, the Earth Horse (1918, Hendra Gunawan’s birth year) is the one most capable of making serious commitments and of not neglecting his responsibilities. (Here I nod to myself. Indeed, that fits: Hendra never did neglect his main, overarching, most deeply passionate love— his love for the beauty and vitality of the land and people of Indonesia.)

Now I am beginning to feel a prickling presence at the back of my neck, as if an electromagnetic charge has been established between the artist and the book. The author, [Theodora] Lau, a Chinese-American woman, most likely never heard of Hendra Gunawan or saw his work. Yet from her knowledge of this ancient Chinese system of personality analysis, her description has by sheer coincidence captured something of Hendra Gunawan’s essence.

As I begin to read the poem of the Horse, the seventh sign in the Chinese lunar cycle, an image suddenly appears before my inner vision. In a moment of surreal vision, I see a long, deep space in the ground filled with darkness... smells of must and decay rise up from it... And down there, I see a green face, covered with varicose veins like pink dragons and purple snakes, turning slowly toward me.

Hendra Gunawan lifts his head, looks back over his shoulder, and looks right at me. There is a twinkle in his eye... He raises his color-splattered palette up high— and at THAT moment his palette becomes a solar disk! ... And it is reflecting the light of the world and the whole universe! At that moment, I hear these words, intoned in the voice of the timeless poet:

I am the Kaleidoscope of the mind. I impart light, color and perpetual motion. I think, I see, I am moved by electric fluidity. Constant only in my inconstancy, I am unshackled by mundane holds, unchecked by sturdy, binding goals. I run unimpeded through virgin paths. My spirit unconquered— my soul forever free.

The image of the artist and his historical era fades. But Hendra Gunawan’s paintings remain. May they be safe and accessible, may they be taken well care of. May their juices flow and their meanings multiply, for the sake of the Indonesian art community and beyond, and for the common good in Indonesia and the world over, now— and for ages to come.