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Romualdo Federico Locatelli (1905-1942/43) – Along the shore (Singapore)

By 26 oktober 2020No Comments
Romualdo Federico Locatelli (1905-1942/43)
Along the shore (Singapore)

Romualdo Federico Locatelli (1905-1942/43)
‘Aan de kust (Singapore)’
Along the shore (Singapore)
oil on canvas
99.5 x 84.2 cm
(January) 1939
signed and annotated lower right ‘Locatelli / Malacca’
Orsini, G., Romualdo Locatelli, Eternal Green under an Eternal Sun, Wilco Art Books, Amersfoort, March 2019, illustrated full-page, p. 39 and p. 173 (full-page detail); described and illustrated in chapter 4.2, Selected Works from Java and Bali (oeuvre catalogue), p. 159, and described in Appendix I, pp. 180-181.
Exhibitions and Provenance:
– exhibited, Bataviasche Kunstkring, Batavia, Java, 5-29 May 1939, as no. 22 ‘Aan de kust (Singapore)’
– exhibited, Bandoengsche Kunstkring, Bandung, Java, 3-11 June 1939, as no. 18 ‘Aan de kust (Singapore)’
– one of 18 paintings shipped by the artist from Manila to New York (USA), August 1941, numbered 18 by Locatelli
– exhibited, 24 September – 1 November 1941 at the Douthitt Gallery, New York, as no. 13 ‘On the River. Painted in Singapore. Malays navigating a river boat near Singapore.’
– one of 13 paintings vested by the American Alien Property Custodian (APC), 14 December 1942
– auctioned, 20 July 1944 by the APC, New York, as no. 8 ‘On the River’ (C-5294)
– private collection, New York, USA
– private collection, the Netherlands
€ 70.000 – 90.000
‘I have the feeling that I have left something very dear, but so complicated behind me. It seems that I have been freed. Released. But from what? I don’t know. Maybe from the ties of the past. Anyway, I love the sensation of moving toward something new.’
(Romualdo Locatelli, during his two-week trip (1938-1939) from Rome to Batavia, in: Locatelli Rogers, 1994, p. 14)
Romualdo Federico Locatelli was born on 4 April 1905 in the North Italian town of Bergamo, into a dynasty of painters and sculptors. He was destined to become an artist. His extraordinary talent, however, made him rise high above mediocrity. At the age of twelve, he started assisting his father Luigi Locatelli (1883-1928), a fresco painter, to decorate churches in the region. Romualdo was trained at the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, under Ponziano Loverini (1845-1929), who immediately spotted his gift. At the age of 20, a striking portrait of his father, ‘Il Dolore’, earned him the Silver Medal of the Italian Ministry of Public Education, and a nomination for the prestigious Prince Umberto Award. This catapulted the young artist into the spotlights of the Italian elite. He made study-trips through Italy and to Tunesia, Algeria and Tripolitania (present-day Libia) and became a well-respected portraitist. In 1931, Locatelli was able to have a villa-cum-studio designed and built on Mount Bastia, near Bergamo, and during the 1930s, Locatelli’s portrait commissions got him acquainted with Italy's royal, political, and religious elite. 1938 marked the pinnacle of his career in Italy: within a single year, he painted portraits of the Crown prince's two children,of Benito Mussolini's daughter, and of a Vatican Cardinal, while a portrait of the later Pope Pius XII was already commissioned. In that same year, the portrait of Prince Vittorio Emanuele of Savoy was exhibited at the prestigious Venice Biennale, and Locatelli married the love of his life, Erminia Zaccheno (1908-2005) along the way.
Fame and fortune have their disadvantages though: Locatelli was harassed by tax inspectors, cheated on by art dealers and haunted by the Italian elite. On top of all this, the political climate in Italy and the threat of a war in Europe were decisive factors for him to leave. This explains why Locatelli, on his way to the Dutch East Indies, mentioned he felt ‘released from the ties of the past’.
However, it was nothing compared to the tragedy ahead, in Southeast Asia. The narrative of Locatelli’s life would in fact make a ‘perfect’ movie script. The final four years of his brief existence tell the story of a genius painter who reached fullest artistic bloom in the turbulent period when Southeast Asia was plunged into World War II, who tragically and mysteriously disappeared there at the age of 37, and thus, during the following decades, attained a status that evolved to mythological proportions.
On 28 December 1938, Romualdo and Erminia were driven from Rome to Naples. There, they boarded the Dutch Indies bound Ocean Liner M/V Victoria. The newly-weds didn't travel the customary long route through Cape of Good Hope, but instead through the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, Bombay (Mumbai), Ceylon, and the Strait(s) of Malacca. In Singapore, they switched to a smaller ship. It had become clear that Romualdo needed some time to relax, physically and spiritually, but after he'd done so he created a number of paintings while en route. Just before arriving in Singapore, while crossing the Straits of Malacca, Locatelli painted the current lot, which he signed ‘Locatelli / Malacca’, and described as ‘Malays navigating a river boat near Singapore.’ (Romualdo Locatelli, 1941)
Malacca (or Melaka) is a harbour city in western Malaysia, along the Straits of Malacca, a mere 200 km north-west of Singapore. Without a doubt, the ocean liners passing by would make a short stopover to take fresh water and food aboard, and to allow passengers to visit the city. Considering the shallow waters near the harbour, either could only be realised using smaller ships.
The Malay shipper on the larger proais bending forward, while mooring his vessel to get alongside the ocean liner. He seems to be unpacking or loosening a big burlap bag, possibly filled with vegetables or other basic needs for the ocean liner. Notably, he is only wearing a simple sarong and a conical hat. In Malaysia these hats are referred to as terendak, mostly woven from cane or bamboo. On the left, the proa is carrying bamboo or tree trunks, on the right a large tarpaulin or similar rugged cloth. The smaller boat in the distance is a sampan, which was typically used to transport people from the ocean liner to the shore and back. We see the shipper navigating the sampan toward the M/V Victoria with a scull. The tropical sun lights up a parasol, probably held by a passenger of the ocean liner on the way back from a short sightseeing at the Malacca shore. Locatelli suggested this shore with some ochre brush strokes in the upper right corner, subtly leading the spectator’s eye through the diagonal composition.
After the two weeks' voyage, Romualdo and Erminia arrived on 11 January 1939 at Tanjung Priok, the harbour of Batavia, where they were welcomed by their hosts, John and Gertrude de Jong. This Dutch couple, who resided and worked in Bandung, Java, had been on leave in the spring of 1938. Visiting Locatelli’s exhibition in Rome, they’d been so impressed by his work that they had invited him over to Java to paint and hold exhibitions. The Dutch couple would arrange everything. Locatelli accepted the invitation, and so two exhibitions were planned, first at the Bataviasche Kunstkring, then at the Bandoengsche Kunstkring. Romualdo had taken a number of representative works from Italy, showcasing his talent, and spent 3.5 months in Java complementing his exhibition portfolio with free work. Romualdo Locatelli was used to painting on large canvasses, and working in the scorching sun. Moreover, his sharp eye and academic training made him fast and decisive. At the opening of his Batavia exhibition, on 5 May 1939, Locatelli presented sixty large paintings, almost fifty of which were made on Java, or en route to Java; ‘Aan de kust (Singapore)’ -Along the shore (Singapore)- was listed as no. 22. From 3 June 1939, fifty paintings were exhibited in Bandung, the current lot being no. 18.
Locatelli’s exhibitions, both in Batavia and Bandung, proved successful. Tout le Beau Monde, including Governor-General Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer and his wife, were present at the opening of the former, while the latter boasted a luxurious 16-page brochure containing three reproductions and some quotes from reviews of the Batavia exhibit. These reviews were all laudatory:
‘Romualdo Locatelli is a painter blessed by the Gods, one who was born with a gift fully-formed. To him, life itself is an expression of art. He possesses a matchless talent, which leaves the spectator awe-struck with admiration.’ (Het Nieuws van den Dag voor Nederlands-Indië, 6 May 1939)
‘Aan de kust (Singapore)’ was also specifically praised:
‘The plasticity of ships and bodies is suggested through some apt touches, which strengthen the impression's spontaneity.’ (De Ochtend Post, 10 May 1939)
Even the illustrious author and journalist Henri Carel Zentgraaff (1874-1940), who was widely feared for his mercilessly critical articles, was profoundly impressed by Locatelli's work. He penned the oft-cited words:
‘For Locatelli, there are no vital issues other than the beauty of the abundance of life. Here, one will find no profound or metaphysical concepts. Instead, he – magnificently – reveals the beauty of both the human body and Nature’s scintillation. Here, no sorrow is present; instead, its antipode, the happiness of the world, is being hailed. Here, one does not descend into any subconscious depths, nor are any voices heard from some mysteriously complicated psyche…… only pure pleasure of the senses is presented. Here, the wonder of the flesh and the wonder of light are enunciated in a simple, almost tangible manner. Beyond a doubt, this art will be appreciated by many.’
(H.C. Zentgraaff, Bataviaasch Nieuwsblad, 6 May 1939)
It’s no surprise that following the exhibitions, Locatelli was asked to make numerous portraits, the most prestigious of which was the commission to paint both daughters of the Governor-General. The money Locatelli earned from these commissions was more than sufficient for him and Erminia to move on to Bali, of which they had heard so many enticing stories. Once more, Locatelli wanted to escape the European elite, and the continuous requests to paint their portraits and join their soirees. In September 1939 they travelled to Bali and settled in Sayan (Ubud). Here, Locatelli was able to create more free work. Within five months he organised an exhibition of his Balinese oeuvre in Surabaya. Unfortunately, in May 1940, shortly after Germany had invaded The Netherlands, the Locatellis were advised to leave the Dutch East Indies, because of the impending war situation. Together with their Italian friend and fellow-artist Emilio Ambron (1905-1996) they left the island, head over heels, and ended up in Manila, late July 1940. One month later, Locatelli was able to organise an exhibition in Manila at the University of the Philippines, which was opened by Manuel L. Quezon (1878-1944), then President of the Commonwealth of the Philippines. This exhibition, with only twenty-one paintings on display, proved successful too. Consequently, Locatelli was asked to portray Quezon’s two daughters and worked on a monumental portrait of the Quezon family as well. In 1941, he was offered the opportunity to exhibit his work in New York at the Manhattan-based Douthitt Gallery. Ambitious to make the best possible impression in the United States, he selected his favourite eighteen paintings from Rome, Singapore, Java, and Bali, and had them shipped from Manila to New York.
‘In selecting these pictures I have tried to pick my best works that were in condition to ship.’
(Romualdo Locatelli, in a letter to Douthitt, 4 August 1941)
Only thirteen of them were exhibited at the New York gallery, the current lot being no. 13. Soon after, World War II started in Southeast Asia, and within 3.5 years, both the Japanese and the Americans bombed Manila, destroying most of Locatelli’s work. In 1942, during the turmoil of war and in the same time frame Locatelli mysteriously disappeared, his paintings were vested at the Douthitt Gallery by the US Alien Property Custodian, and auctioned in 1944 at the APC office in New York, at a fraction of the market value. After the war, Locatelli’s paintings were left at the buyer’s Manhattan storage for many decades. The current lot, truly a ‘barn find’, was discovered inside that very storage. It is one of less than thirty known ‘Southeast Asian paintings’ by Locatelli.
In fact, a truly unique opportunity is offered to acquire the only painting, known-to-exist, Romualdo Locatelli made on his way to the Dutch East Indies. He described it as ‘a medium [size] canvas, showing Malays navigating a river boat near Singapore. Painted in Singapore.’ We can derive from this description that Locatelli started the painting ‘en plein air’ on the M/V Victoria, at the harbour of Malacca, and finished it during his stop-over in Singapore. It not only portrays the wanderlust that Locatelli felt during his short life; more importantly, it embodies ‘the sensation of moving toward something new’. Remarkably, the painting itself travelled around the world over the past 80 years, from Singapore, Java, Bali, Manila, New York, to the Netherlands.
What will be its next destination?
Literature references

– Romualdo Locatelli, Tentoonstelling Schilderijen en Studies, Bataviasche Kunstkring, Batavia, 5-24 May 1939 (exhibition leaflet).

– Romualdo Locatelli. Expositie in Kunstkring, Het nieuws van den dag voor Nederlandsch-Indië, 6 May 1939, eerste blad, p. 3.

– Z. (Zentgraaff, H.C.), Romualdo Locatelli – Met schilderijen en studies in den Bataviaschen Kunstkring, Bataviaasch nieuwsblad, 6 May 1939, eerste blad, p. 3.

– H.W.A., Romualdo Locatelli – Schilderijententoonstelling, De Ochtend Post, 10 May 1939, p. 2.

– Romualdo Locatelli, Schilderijen en Studies, Figuurstudies uit Italië en uit Indië, portretten en landschappen, Bandoengsche Kunstkring, Bandoeng, 3-11 June 1939 (exhibition leaflet).

– Exhibition of Romualdo Locatelli, Paintings of Bali and South Pasific Islands, Douthitt Gallery, New York City, 24 September – 1 November 1941 (exhibition leaflet).

– Markham, J.E., Notice of Sale, James E. Markham, Alien Property Custodian, Lots nos. 1 to 13, property formerly owned by Romualdo Locatelli, Vesting Order No. 513, dated December 14, 1942, 14 June 1944 (sale announcement leaflet, 55 lots), pp. 1-5.

– Locatelli-Rogers, E., Romualdo Locatelli, The Ultimate Voyage of an Italian Artist in the Far East, Memoirs 1938-1946, Darga Fine Arts Editions, Jakarta, April 1994.

– Orsini, G., Romualdo Locatelli, Eternal Green under an Eternal Sun, Wilco Art Books, Amersfoort, March 2019.

Gianni Orsini MSc., October 2020

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