As early as the turn of the century, the art of northern Bali had come
under European influence. But by 1930 Balinese painting was stagnating,
the art form no longer in demand by the Balinese themselves. The palaces
stopped commissioning artists, and the highly stylized, traditional hangings
were no longer painted. Bali was about to undergo a tumult of suffering
and chaos, but it was the period between the two great wars that brought
the heaviest changes and greatest surge of creativity.
Guidebooks have repeated the outdated fairy tale that was started in the 1930s by the Dutch scholar Sutterheim and the painter Rudolph Bonnet (1895-1978). The men published articles claiming that modern Balinese art was born during the years 1933-39 when it first made contact with Western painters. This premise was put forth to further the career of Bonnet, and it reflected a strong colonial bias that colored all Dutch scholarship in the first half of this century.
This legend is only half true. Bonnet, the German artist Walter Spies (1895-1942), and others did demonstrate to Balinese artists that painting could be free of set formulas. Rather than paint to a single stylistic convention, the Europeans introduced by way of example the concept of the third dimension, the imaginative use of color, modern graphic elements, and a wider range of subject matter. They also provided Balinese artists with new media and materials such as Chinese ink, bristle brushes, watercolors and tempera, steel pens, and European paper.
But the Balinese were not romantics given to passionate improvisation, expressiveness, and creativity. It was as much their exposure to modern stimuli, the economic inducement of the tourist industry, and their growing knowledge of the world at large that encouraged Balinese artists to stop painting according to rules and to start re-creating their own visual experience. Tourists began to request that their canvases be stretched and framed; this tended to limit the subject matter of a picture to a single scene instead of depicting episodes taking place in a series.
The extraordinary creativity of the 1930s pulled Balinese art out of its lethargy, but all the upheaval of WW II and the postwar Indonesian struggle of independence from 1945 to 1950 put a sudden stop to artistic activity. After the wars, Balinese painting entered another low period, with much of the original creative impetus of the 1930s dissipated. Subject matter was designed to appeal to tourists; artists churned out paintings with idealized, unrealistic legong dancers, women presenting offerings, men working the fields, and cockfights.
The Young Artists School
Suddenly, around 1956, a new style of modernism appeared. Under the guidance and encouragement of Dutch painter Arie Smit, young boys around Penestanan and Ubud began creating naive three-dimensional paintings based on scenes from their daily life: a village street, a woman feeding hens, people working the harvest or bartering at the market, ritual and dance festivals, birds and animals, a cremation-themes that had never been attempted before.
This movement became known as the Young Artists School, and the exuberant paintings in bright, bold, hallucinogenic colors found a ready market. Here was taking place a rekindling of artistic expression, a new realism that soon developed into a sophisticated, distinctive, naturalistic style.
A new generation of Balinese artists came to the fore-I Sobrat, Made Griya, Gusti Njoman Lempad, Ida Bagus Made, Ida Bagus Anom. Though they all had unique styles, these artists were traditionally talented. That is, their genius only found expression working within the general iconographic and formal framework of tradition. Their skills were still aimed at making recognizable shapes and characters that could be related to traditional stories or themes known to sell.
During this early period, pleasingly harmonized mosaics of spindly black lines washed with foreboding gray and black tones appeared. Canvases became crowded with dark fantastic forests; strange ghostlike animals; tenuous, halftone figures of villagers almost hidden amid shadowy jungle vegetation; or nightmarish visions of monsters with snakes for genitals.
Towering over the group was Gusti Nyoman Lempad (1862-1978) of Ubud, a master artisan, carver, architect, and painter. He was both a strong advocate of conservative Balinese culture and an avid crosscultural innovator. Choosing as his medium paper rather than larger-sized cloth, Lempad was the first in the group to experiment with the single-scene format, rather than multiple narrative frames. His works illustrated episodes from Bali's rich folklore and mythology.
In 1936, together with Spies, Bonnet, and the nobleman Tjokorde Sukawati, Lempad helped found an art association, Pita Maha ("Great Vitality"). The group presented exhibitions in Java and Europe and maintained a high level of quality among its members. For the first time, art began to be bought by collectors and museums. At its peak in the 1930s, Pita Maha counted more than 150 painters, sculptors, and silversmiths among its ranks. By the time Lempad died at the bibical old age of 116, the society had emancipated Balinese painting from its comatose state.
Anyone who has an interest in Lempad should see the brilliant film made of his life and the magnificent body of art and architecture he left behind. Directed by John Darling and the late Lorne Blair, it is available through Mystic Fire Video Inc., Box 1092, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276 (tel. 800-292-9001).
Art critics have mistakenly compared Balinese painting with the eerie jungle scenes of Henri Rousseau, with the black-and-white ornamental illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, and even with the gruesome spooky fantasies of the 15th-century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. Although Balinese painting shares some similarities with the themes and techniques of these artists, it's almost certain that early Balinese artists never saw their works.
Beginning in the 1930s, an influx of foreign artists fell in love with Bali and did some of their most significant work here. The famous Dutch painter W.O.F. Nieuwenkamp traveled and painted on Bali long before Spies, Bonnet, or anyone else. In fact, it was he who informed Bonnet about Bali.
Willem G. Hofker and Bonnet became masters at painting the female form. Bonnet worked mainly in crayon on paper and his paintings today fetch very high prices. Theo Meier (1908-1982), inspired by German expressionists, painted vibrant and colorful religious ceremonies.
All the works of these Europeans today command much higher prices than any Balinese artist of that era. Paintings by Spies, who died at age 47 and painted few canvases, sell for as much as US$500,000. Any of the others' work can easily fetch US$50,000.
The canvases of contemporary painters also can fetch astronomical sums. Australian Donald Friend (1915-1990) was a gifted writer and wrote several books which he himself illustrated. The flamboyant hilltop home of Antonio Blanco (b. 1926) is a shrine to erotic art and illustrated poetry. Han Snel (b. 1925), a Dutch soldier who refused to fight the Indonesians in their war of independence, owes much to his teacher, Theo Meier. Arie Smit (b. 1916) paints mainly landscapes and temples in oil or acrylic. Smit has always been prolific though now that he's nearing the age of 82 he is slowing down somewhat.
Javanese, Sumatran, and Western artists have started moving into the area between Mas and Ubud, setting up shop and selling paintings to tourists-competing with the Balinese on their own turf. Each year new art styles come into vogue, then fade out. See under "Arts and Crafts" in the Ubud section (Gianyar Regency chapter) for more on individual painters working in the area.
The Academic Painters
Modern Balinese art is now expanding and developing in two different directions: the art of artisans and the art of academicians. Academically trained painters are concerned with a distinct personal style and a national identity. With formal training in the European tradition from art academies on Java and in Denpasar, they exhibit a diversity of styles. Only in subject matter, not in ingenuity and skill, do they differ from their European or American counterparts.
The captivating erotic sketches of Nyoman Gunarsa have been very well received. Though he has had academic training on Java, Gunarsa has also been heavily influenced by the traditional wayang style. His museum and gallery are just before Klungkung (if traveling from Gianyar), but he spends a lot of time on Java.
Wayan Lotra is self-taught, but paints in an academic style and has been much influenced by Hofker and Bonnet. Abdul Aziz, Lee Man Fung, and Basuki Abdullah employ Balinese and Javanese motifs and diverse techniques (including painting on batik), and have a tendency toward abstraction.
A growing number of Balinese artists, particularly those affiliated with government schools like STSI, are breaking away from modern traditional (kreasi baru) and are producing advanced and sophisticated experimental art. With the strong support of an emerging Balinese urban middle class, they have created a distinct local version of an international, cosmopolitan artistic culture that is only partly Balinese. Young artists to keep your eye on, all of whom show a strong and unique creative vision, are Made Sumadiyasa, Ngakan Rai Lanus, Ketut Budiana, Nyoman Cakra, and Ketut Soki.
The Non-Academic Painters
Non-academicians have learned their trade by serving as apprentices under established masters. These artists, though not formally trained, often display extraordinary technical skill. Their work is eclectic and can't be easily classified, but most still paint in the traditional style for the tourist market.
You need at least a rudimentary knowledge of Balinese literature to appreciate them. Subject matter includes detailed scenes from Buddhist mythology, bird-and-banana leaf panels (the current rage), and vivid depictions of the natural world. The art comes straight from the heart.
Among the most eminent are I Made Nyana, Bendi, and Budi, whose paintings cost up to US$1000. These painters work in the Batuan-style-naturalistic, heavily shadowed figures, and miniatures of paper with little leftover space. Another extremely successful artist is I Nyoman Meja, whose studio is in Taman near the Nomad Restaurant (if coming from Peliatan, turn right). He asks US$2000 for one of his phantasmagoric, exquisitely executed paintings.
The women of Bali are freeing themselves more and more from being mere objects of paintings to being active painters themselves. There are women's gamelan orchestras, women carvers, and a gallery in Ubud, Seniwati Gallery (Jl. Sri Wedari 2 B, Banjar Taman, tel. 0361-975485, fax 975453), devoted solely to art by Balinese and Indonesian women and girls. The gallery is open 1000-1300 and 1400-1700; closed Monday and Friday.
Dewa Biang Raka studied under Bonnet, and was the only female artist among 10 pupils who used to go into the rice fields with him to paint. Now she lives like like a hermit and paints monochromatic works, yet the subtle colors grow on you. Raka doesn't sell her works because she wants to know where they are and who buys them. Some paintings you may buy but may never sell.
Motherhood is a favorite theme of Tjok. Istri Mas Astiti, whose works often depict pregnant women with children. In her paintings, Astiti also examines the roles of women in different societies and relationships. Her moving work is reminiscent of the social realism found in the art of modern China and Vietnam.
A well-established artist in the Batuan-style is Gusti Ayu Natih Arimini, who paints lively pictures full of charming details and enchanting stories. Sri Supriyatini has gained recognition for her dark, gloomy paintings which have a rough, textured surface, almost like a bas-relief.
Javanese-born Yannar Ernawati is known for her expressive, surreal pictures and unusual colors. Ni Made Suciarmi (b. 1932) is a master of traditional Kamasan-style paintings, adapted from wayang kulit. Made started her career mixing paints for her uncle during the renovation of the original Gerta Gosa masterpiece in Klungkung in 1938. One of her high quality one- by one-and-a-half-meter paintings costs around a million rupiah. Even her students charge this much!
A visit to the following artists is recommended to familiarize the visitor planning a purchase: Han Snel in Siti Bungalows (Ubud), Antonio Blanco (Campuan), Ida Bagus Tilem (Mas). Ida Bagus Made (Tebesaya) is still crazy, still the best of the old masters. He doesn't care about fame or money so you won't find his paintings in galleries, only in museums. He won't sell his work but if he likes you he may give it to you. Also visit Nyoman Sumertha and Nyoman Ada in Peliatan, one km east of Ubud.
Founded in 1979, the Taman Werdi Budaya or Denpasar Art Center is on Jl. Nusa Indah in Abiankapas, on the road to Sanur. It's a center for painting, mask, and woodcarving exhibits where Balinese and Indonesian artists are featured. Each year from mid-June to mid-July the Center also hosts a summer art festival with painting expositions.
An event worth attending is the Walter Spies Festival put on by Yayasan Walter Spies each February at Denpasar Art Center; get the foundation's newsletter by writing Stichting Walter Spies, Steenstraat 1, 2312 BS Leiden, Netherlands.
For a thorough discussion of the traditional Kamasan painting style, see "Kamasan and Vicinity" under "Vicinity of Klungkung" in the Klungkung Regency chapter. The following books are definitive references to Balinese painting: The Sukarno Collection of Paintings (Jakarta, 1959), a catalog of great Indonesian paintings in the collection of the late President Sukarno; Perceptions of Paradise: Images of Bali in the Arts, published by the Neka Gallery (1993) with text and photographs by Garrett Kam; Willem G. Hofker, Painter of Bali, a helpful treatise; and Walter Spies and Balinese Art by Rhodius and Darling (Amsterdam, 1980), an excellent introduction to the man and his extraordinary life and work.
Indonesian Art by Joseph Fisher is a catalog produced for the "Year of Indonesia" traveling exhibit of 1991. It includes a section on Balinese painters. Balinese Painting by A.A. Djelentik (Oxford University Press, 1986) is a tiny book that tries to wrap up the whole subject. Good try. For more information about the origin of Klungkung-style paintings, refer to Idanna Pucci's exhaustive study of the Gerta Gosa paintings called The Epic of Life (Van der March, 1985).
Mystic Fire Video (225 Lafayette St., Suite 1206, New York, NY 10012, tel. 212-941-0999) sells a 60-minute color video called Lempad of Bali (1979) directed by Lorne Blair. This film captures some of the strength and genius of this remarkable artist who was known throughout Europe in the 1920s for his religious and erotic art.
You'll soon learn that many galleries call themselves museums but are really display rooms selling paintings. The real museums are well known. Preeminent among them is the Bali Museum in Denpasar (east side of Puputan Square), which contains many masterpieces tracing the development of Balinese painting. This venerable museum, the ultimate repository of Balinese culture, also frequently exhibits contemporary artists.
To familiarize yourself with high-quality historical works, visit the Puri Lukisan Museum in Ubud. Founded in 1954 by Tjokorda Sukawati and Rudolph Bonnet, this "Palace of Art" houses a permanent collection of many early treasures of modern Balinese sculpture and painting-from impressionism to abstract expressionism. Displayed in chronological order, the museum gives the viewer an idea of the stylistic trends in Balinese art over the past 25 years. One wing is devoted to new work, where it's possible to meet the artists.
Framing and Shipping
If you don't want the frame to the painting you're buying, you can often buy it without the frame, but bear in mind that frames here are real bargains compared to prices in the West. All Balinese frames are different; sometimes they're plain with no carving, sometimes they have very ornate carving. But for the most part, Balinese framing is heavily carved-not the austere sort of thing that would go well in a minimalist New York apartment.
When visiting galleries, be aware that the frame could add substantially to the price of your purchase. The most elaborate ones cost around Rp15,000 per meter-works of art in themselves. For the lower-cost paintings, you might find that the frame may cost you more than the painting. The price of the frame also depends on the wood used and who carved it.
The gallery will (or should) break down your frame into four pieces, roll it up safely in cardboard, and package it for carrying or shipping. Up to 10 paintings can be rolled into one mailing tube without damage (frames should be packaged separately). Stationery stores in Denpasar sell plastic or cardboard tubes. Some galleries will even package and ship for you, either through an air-frieght company or via surface post through the Indonesian post office (which takes a lot longer but is safe and cheaper).
Gati is a first-class frame maker who works off Jl. Raya Kuta. If you're coming from Ubud, take a left on the street just before Neka Gallery in Padangtegal (one km east of Ubud's center). Gati's house is on on the left. His asking price is Rp7500 per meter. For more detailed information on shipping crafts, see "Information and Services" in the Introduction.