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RUDOLF BONNET (1895-1978) ’Ardjuna Bertapa’

RUDOLF BONNET (1895-1978) ’Ardjuna Bertapa’, signed, titled and dated ‘Bali 1953’ upper left, crayon and pastels on pigmented paper. 67 x 49 cm. € 50.000-70.000

Auction 8th of June 2017

‘Art is the permanent and sublime expression of the creative power inherent in a nation’s character.’ (Rudolf Bonnet, on the development of Balinese art forms. In: De Roever-Bonnet, H., Rudolf Bonnet, een Zondagskind, 1993, p. 22)

The complex background to this magnificent drawing by Rudolf Bonnet can be best summarized by his friends, Beryl de Zoete and Walter Spies:
‘A favourite theme of the drama which generally follows the old style of Djanger is the ascesis of Arjuna, the most famous of the five Pandava brothers, whose adventures form the main theme of the Mahabharata. […] …we have some one wrapped in meditation on a mountain at the very moment when his help is needed to destroy a ravaging demon. In this case the demonking Nivatakavaca had received from Shiva the boon that he should be invincible by gods, demi-gods, demons, and rishis. In their dilemma, the gods turn to the mortal Arjuna. Indra sends a bevy of divine courtesans to beguile him, with Suprabha and Tilottama at the head. They are rejoiced at the failure of the nymphs, and submit him to various other tests, all of which he passes successfully, and is recognized by the gods as their appointed saviour.’ (Arjuna Vivaha, from: Beryl de Zoete & Walter Spies, Dance & Drama in Bali, 1938, p. 282)

The title of the current lot, Arjuna Bertapa, literally Arjuna the Ascetic, is written in Bahasa Indonesia by Bonnet. This is remarkable, as the original text is part of an old Javanese writing, Arjuna Wiwaha, in which he is referred to as Arjuna matapa, or simply Arjuna tapa (stemming from the Sanskrite word tapas, meaning ascetic). Be as it may, Rudolf Bonnet was well aware of the backgrounds of his subjects. After his formal education at the Amsterdam Royal Academy of Fine Arts, he lived and worked in the Italian village of Anticoli Corrado during the 1920s. He also traveled through northern Africa, before embarking on a journey to the Dutch East Indies. Bonnet visited Java, Bali, and Nias in 1929-1930, and finally found his second home in Bali, in 1931, after being mesmerized by Balinese dance performances. Bonnet developed an intense connection with Balinese culture and art forms. He formed Pita Maha in the mid 1930s, together with I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, Walter Spies and Cokorde Gde Agung Sukawati, preserving, developing, and at the same time maintaining a high artistic level of the arts and crafts of Bali. He initiated and designed Puri Lukisan, and was highly respected by President Sukarno.

Three Ardja dancers, photographed in 1939, the center one representing the legendary hero Arjuna. The two girls at the sides are the heavenly Nymphs, trying to seduce the hero who resists their advances. Note: the (female!) actor representing Arjuna wears a keris, and has a meditative hand position, similar to the one in Bonnet’s drawing.

The dancer enacting Arjuna is adorned with an elaborately decorated headdress, necklace, and arm bracelets, all of which are made from buffalo hide, in a similar way that wayang kulit puppets are made. The leather is perforated in beautifully geometric patterns, gilded and decorated with small pieces of mirrored glass to give a suggestion of diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and other precious stones. In the dancer’s neck, a stylized Garuda is attached to the headdress. Garuda Mungkur, the mythical bird Garuda pointing backwards, protects him from evil spirits. Arjuna’s hands are in a hand position (mudra) called muspa. Although the drawing does not depict a flower in the dancer’s hands, a few other cambodja flowers are tucked in the top part of the headdress, that must have been held in his hands shortly before as part of the meditation ceremony. The incense, burning softly in the lower left corner, completes the drawn suggestion of this ceremony. The keris that is tucked into the dancer’s breast garment is worn high, rising above the owner’s shoulder. This is adat for Balinese men, whereas Javanese men wear their keris around the waist. The keris itself is a remarkable combination of known shapes, both wrangka (boat) and ukiran (handle). The wrangka is and old type of Patun Poh (the modest kidney-shaped gayaman boat) and Serengatan (the extraverted type of ladrang boat). The handle seems to be an archetypical Bebondollan shape, but it also holds elements of a veiled Durga handle, representing the evil witch Durga, veiling her forbidding face. Bonnet might as well have used some fantasy here, in order to create an aesthetic balance. This idea is confirmed by the way the actor wears his hair: usually, Arjuna the Ascetic wears his hair long.

Rudolf Bonnet captures the character of Arjuna during his moments of deep meditation. Admiring the beauty of the Balinese people, he typically draws the male actor in side view, catching his attractive face en profile. Bonnet mastered the skills of making a side view into a suggestion of perspective, using three-dimensional elements like the incense bowl, the keris, the subtle lines suggesting the right arm, and hatching the space behind the actor’s face in darker tones, thus creating depth and suggesting the surroundings of the cave to which Arjuna retreated. The spattering that Bonnet started using in the early 1940s also adds a sense of rich atmospheric depth to the drawing.

Rudolf Bonnet visualized Balinese actors and dancers many times throughout his life. From the early 1930s until his passing in 1978, Bonnet drew and painted Arja, Keris, Gambuh, Joged and even Legong dancers. With his background as a fresco painter, he was imbued with a sense of drama, and was always searching for the perfect moment of quietude to catch in his art. The current lot is a fine example, containing all the elements of beauty and composition that Bonnet cherished.

Gianni Orsini, May 2017

More information about our Indonesian auctions (Indische veilingen):

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