Every now and then, in my readings and class lectures, I am introduced to an artist whose work just catches my eye and grabs my attention.
Walter Spies (1895-1942) is one such artist. Born to German parents in Moscow, he made his way to the Dutch East Indies in 1923 and never returned to Europe. In Java, after expressing an interest in gamelan music (something which I must say I enjoy very much as well), he was made Master of the Sultan’s Music and came to live within the grounds of the palace and to direct the sultan’s gamelan. He developed a written notation for the gamelan music – whether he was the first to do so, or the first Westerner to do so, and whether his notation continues to be used today, I have no idea, but I wonder. In any case, he moved to Bali in 1927, where he would remain the rest of his life. After a brief time living in a rajah’s palace, he established his own home.
Spies engaged in a wide variety of artistic activities, including painting, composing, and photography, and gathered around him a large circle of friends and acquaintances, as well as becoming something of a local celebrity. He is described as being appreciated by both the colonial Dutch and local Balinese authorities, and was active in a number of enterprises, including serving as curator of a Bali Museum for a time, and organizing an artists’ collective with as many as 150 members.
Sadly, in the 1930s, there came a wave of crackdowns on homosexual activity, which was illegal in the Dutch colonies as it was in most parts of the (Western?) world at the time. The Balinese argued on his behalf, as did renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead, that homosexuality was traditionally not considered a sin, crime, or abhorrence in their society, and the father of a boy with whom Spies had had relations likewise argued that he saw no problem with it. Still, in the end, Spies was imprisoned for some months. When the Netherlands fell to the Nazis, Dutch authorities in Indonesia rounded up and interned German nationals, including Spies, who was eventually placed on a ship to British Ceylon
the Netherlands. (Why would the Dutch send free citizens/residents of the free Dutch East Indies back to Nazi-occupied Holland, I don’t understand. But nevertheless, it happened…) Spies never made it there, however, as the ship was sunk by the Japanese.
Spies’ paintings really strike me for their unique style and forms, not to mention the exotic subject matter of the Balinese context. Academic 19th century “mainstream” Orientalist paintings of the Arab world, as typified by the work of Jean-Léon Gérôme are stunningly gorgeous in their own way, but I would argue that they lack a personal touch. They are so carefully detailed and realistically depicted, that they lack to some extent evidence of the artist’s personality or creativity.
Sadly, many of Spies’ paintings survive today only as black-and-white photos of the original works. On the other hand, perhaps one should say “luckily, black-and-white photos of many of Spies’ works which are otherwise lost, have survived.”
I’m not sure if this painting would reflect any particular Balinese myth or story, but the fantastic element is obvious, the incredibly tall, thin, form of a man extending up through the treetops and clouds, providing a sense of the magical which infuses many of Spies’ paintings and might be presumed to be an expression of the magic he experienced and enjoyed in life in Bali.
“Die Landschaft und ihre Kinder” (1939)
“The Travelling Salesman” (Date Unknown)
The dark greens and bright, pale, blues of many of Spies’ paintings creates a sense of the lush, verdant, environment, and a powerful sense of mystery and magic. I particularly like his figures, so extremely thin, with their broad hats, represented so similarly from work to work as to seem characters or caricatures.
In light of having seen numerous paintings of other tropes, such as Gerome’s of the Arab World, Chinese and Japanese paintings of their own respective landscapes, etc., this distinctly different scene of Balinese fashion, figures, and landscapes is all the more intriguing.
“Sumatran Landscape” (1941)
And then, sometimes Spies just does a straight-out stunning, picturesque, landscape largely absent of Orientalist elements.
While Walter Spies was by no means ethnically Balinese himself, and did not paint in a style which can be considered natively or traditionally Balinese, the magical and unique style seen in his work, distinct from any I have ever seen used to represent Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern, or European/Western subjects, as well as the actual content of his pieces, namely Balinese people and places, make his works feel distinctly Balinese. They inspire in me not an interest in Western painting, or even so much in Spies as an individual “master”, but in Bali, its people, its culture, and its landscapes, and in the romantic notion of “going bamboo” as Spies and so many others have.
All images courtesy of Geff Green’s wonderful Walter Spies Page. I am sure there is plenty else out there on Spies, particularly on blogs devoted to Balinese art, in catalogs produced for exhibitions of Spies’ work, etc. though I have not myself taken the time to go through them all. If you are interested, I invite you to pursue this… and to perhaps even come back here to share what you have found.