Bali offers access to Indonesia’s modern art (1989)

Astri Wright
artdesigncafé - art | 3 January 2012
This article was previously published in the Jakarta Post, on 17 April 1989, p. 9.

Bali offers access to Indonesia’s modern art

Bali is known throughout the world for its wealth of traditional visual and performing arts, flourishing ever more under the accelerated influx of tourists from all parts of the world. What is not so well known, yet, is that Bali also offers easy access to Indonesia’s modern art world, at least as far as modern painting goes.

It is a fact that the art-lover who wants to learn something about modern Indonesian painting and its various schools and leading personalities can do this more easily, more efficiently as well as more pleasantly in Bali than anywhere else in Indonesia.

This may be due, in part, to the existence in Bali of an unbroken and highly alive Hindu-based art tradition, dating back more than a thousand years, which was not disrupted by the import of Islam. It is, moreover, an art tradition which includes a painting tradition, both the older one exemplified in the royal, mythological and highly stylized Klungkung style of painting and the more recent one inspired by Western artists living in Bali during the thirties, the more naturalistic genre— and landscape scenes exemplified in the styles evolved in the villages between Batuan and Ubud.

Another reason why Bali rather than Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, or the old cultural capital Yogyakarta, provides the best introduction to modern Indonesian art, is the enormous number of tourists that pass through there each year. Many of these are people who know little about Indonesia beyond the word “Bali”, but who fall in love with the lush and accommodating beauty of the place and may return year after year without ever thinking of going anywhere else in the archipelago. The tourist population in Bali is a multifarious one— it seems you can meet the whole world in Bali.

And Bali has something to offer everyone. From wildly erotic art with an exotic veneer to traditional illustrated Hindu-Balinese calendars; from instant antiques to genuinely old carvings and cloths; from standard depictions of the trance-dance performed for tourists to nostalgic-beautiful landscapes or modern abstract oil-paintings, it is all here, for the asking.

Thus, rather than drive [all] over heavily-trafficated and polluted Jakarta, shuttling from Central to South in search of the capital’s few galleries and exhibition spaces, hardly any of which have permanent displays that are representative either of the "greats" in Indonesian art or of the "upcoming talents", the art-lover can in Bali browse leisurely in beautiful, stone-carved buildings, set intimately in lush tropical gardens, in the island’s four major collections. And if that is not [enough], the Art Center on the outskirts of Depasar also offers several halls filled with painting and sculpture, both historical as well as contemporary.

Located in the three neighboring villages of Ubud, Peliatan, and Tegal, these four [collections] can be seen in a day’s trip from Sanur Beach where most of the high-class hotels are located. Or they can be studied at a more leisurely pace in two days.

Originally developing around the now-legendary figure of Walter Spies, the Austrian painter who matured in Russia and spent the last decade of his life teaching painting in Bali, local craftsmen and farmers who had no word for "artist" in their language eagerly embraced the new media of canvas, tempera and oils. Bali had, after all, a millennium-long tradition of "the integrated man", who cultivated his own rice and, whatever his caste, took an active part in all aspects of village affairs, including the artistic activities centering around the frequent temple ceremonies. These activities, divided between men and women householders, in close cooperation with their priests, included creating sculpture, reliefs, textiles, decorations and intricate offerings of perishable materials, as well as a wide variety of music performances and spectacular magical dance-dramas, some of them performed during trance.

After Walter Spies died a victim of World War II, the Dutch painter Rudolf Bonnet replaced him as the major foreign art-patron and teacher in Ubud, a role he played till his death just a few years ago. So much a part of the local community was he considered to be, that his close painter friend, Lempad, who had died a few years earlier, had ordered that he was not to be cremated until Bonnet could be cremated with him, so their souls could be released into the next stage of the journey together.

Today many of the paintings displayed in permanent collections are from Bonnet’s private collection— paintings which would probably have been destroyed by the climate and neglect if he had not collected them and kept them carefully.

Puri Lukisan
Starting in Ubud, which since the 1930s has developed into the center for paintings, we first visit the Puri Lukisan— the Palace of Painting. Here we see a historical display of masterpieces of Balinese painting and sculpture from the early thirties on. We can see the strongly composed and vigorous monochrome paintings of I Gusti Ketut Kobot and of Ida Bagus Togog, two central early figures. We can see examples of Ida Bagus Nyana’s most exquisite sculpture, such as the spindly, brilliantly conceived Person meditating, an unprecendented style [which] has been copied endlessly and still is, in highly mannered sculptures, at the art studio of his now-famous son Tilem located in Mas village, not to speak of in the tourist shops everywhere.

I Cokot’s Tiger is another vibrating piece of wood-carving, though the energy, rather than flame-like in its fragile spiritual intensity as in Nyana’s piece, is primal and imbued with an almost magic vigour, reminiscent of Scythian or Viking depictions of animals on the hunt.

Presented with consecutive generations of Balinese painters, who far outnumber the sculptors, we can follow the changes in style and medium from room to room. One painter that marks himself, both in this collection as well as in all of the others, is Dewa Nyoman Batuan, in his late forties. In a style that at first glance looks traditional, he paints large mandalas of basically tantric orientation, with images of man and woman, phallus and vagina, snake and monkey, all intertwined. As one looks closer, modern elements have also been incorporated into the picture: amidst the naked meditating figures, a phallic-looking airplane is butting its ways in; [elsewhere] we see the voluptuous curves of an old car.

Ngurah K.K., in his early forties, stands out with his garish interpretation of old themes, his paintings of people working the ricefields have a stiff simplicity to the design, which along with the color bring to mind the Chinese peasant painters. He is the center of a whole group of young painters in Ubud to day.

Diametrically opposed to this is the misty dream-like work of I Regig, another old generation painter whose depiction of fisherman hauling nets above a sea-full of strange words is a small pearl. Regig’s favorite theme otherwise is Balinese genre-scenes, where frogs replace human beings, creating humorous versions of often-trite replicas of standard scenes: women at the market, farmers in the field, the village at a temple ceremony, Rama and Sita fighting Rawana in the forest.

[The] phenomenon of copying other artists’ successful work has always been present in Bali. With no traditional concept of "artist" as a separate and specialized category, naturally the whole Western baggage of surrounding concepts has not been easily embraced. Our idea of the importance of the "original" or the "new" in art, let alone of "intellectual property", may just not make any sense in a society which is based on communal values rather than individual ones, and a Hindu world view where time is cyclical and infinite in its return. Still, we come looking at Balinese art, especially the more modern forms, with modern Western eyes and minds, and this is why seeing the art in the Puri Lukisan and the other collections is the best way to enjoy art which at one time indeed was fresh and original in its conception. It is also the best way to orient oneself before one starts looking at what is commercially available, if one is intending to buy.

Were one to start looking directly in the shops and commercial galleries clustering around the tourist centers, whether in Sanur, Kuta or Ubud, one might quickly give up from sheer exhaustion, coupled with a feeling that Balinese painting remains on the level of "airport art". Indeed, among the plethora of people who wield brush and pigments as a vocation, there are only a few names that need be accorded serious attention. And looking only in the commercial galleries, one would miss entirely the more modern, academic painters.

In a new building, just opened this past February, the Puri Lukisan displays more contemporary works by young academic Balinese painters, and it is the modern Indonesian tradition that is the strength of the Neka and the Agung Rai collections.

Modern Indonesian art in Bali
In the Neka [Art] Museum as well as in the Neka Gallery located near the Ubud post office, excellent selections of both historical Balinese and modern Indonesian painting can be viewed— and in the latter place, bought.

In the Balinese section, we see more excellent examples of Kobot and Batuan. One important addition to our knowledge is the small room dedicated entirely to Gusti Nyoman Lempad. Lempad is said to have been 120 years old when he died a decade ago. Lempad’s son, now in his 70s, told me in a recent interview that his grandfather had been convinced that literacy was a major cause for the unhappiness of younger generations, and so Lempad had been brought up to work with his hands: he lived and died an illiterate. But as every Balinese child, he learned the rich and varied Hindu mythology through oral transmission, and this became one of the major themes of his drawings.

Whereas Gusti Nyoman Lempad’s mythological drawings are done in a fine, graceful pen-line, with ornate detailing and touches of gold, his most original contribution was [his] depictions of people at work. In strong, simple lines, often doubled with a brushstroke line a lighter value of grey, and with none of the sweet romanticism found in most Balinese genre-paintings, he drew men working on a fence, women in the kitchen, farmers in the field. Some of his best work dates to the thirties and forties, but it has a vivid and timeless presence, a life that hovers somewhere between fold— and contemporary master— drawing.

Otherwise it is the more modern works that are remarkable in the Neka Museum and Gallery in Ubud and in the Agung Rai Gallery in Peliatan and the Rudana Gallery in Tegal.

An artist that works in a traditional Balinese style but distinguishes himself with his contemporary subject matter is Wayan Bendi, who also has his own small gallery in Batuan. His densely filled compositions are dizzy with Balinese natives rubbing elbows with foreign tourists, laden with cameras, surfboards and certainly not with clothing; flaunting their bare skin in jeeps and in the villages, they appear a paler version of the native farmer, bathing in the stream. His depictions of dance ceremonies show how the sacred Balinese activity now caters to the secular world of foreign exchange; in large and small canvases, Bendi depicts, in high-quality rendition, and with an original [feeling], Bali as he sees it today.

[Made Wianta] is probably the most contemporary— and international— looking of all the Balinese painters, not only in subject matter but in his abstract designer’s style as well. Excellent works by him can be seen (and bought) at Agung Rai’s and at Rudana’s. The most promising young Balinese sculptor in the modern idiom is Nyoman Erawan, who creates sculptures and paintings from charred and burned wooden beams, painted and assembled into strong compositions. Working with an aesthetic of his own, inspired by the wood and colors burning, recreated by fire, at a Balinese cremation, he shows an artistic strength that belies his young age.

All the above-mentioned galleries have excellent examples of most of the established Indonesian painters, mostly living and working in Java. Works by Affandi and Hendra, the two greats, are displayed along with works by the greats of the next generations— Rusli, Ahmad Sadali and Widayat, among others, and Srihadi and O.H. Supono. Popular painters (taking sweetness to fresh and elevated Indonesian levels), such as Abdul Aziz or Huang Fong, are richly [represented], as is Indonesia’s answer to Gustav Klimt, Anton H. with his rich gold patterned, flattened forms of dancers. The younger generation is also represented, though less [thoroughly] and across the board: Sutjipto Adi’s recent work can be seen at Rudana’s amongst the work of a scattering of recently graduated art students who have not yet had a chance to make their mark. Absent from these collections are such painting stars as Ivan Sagito and Dede Eri [Supria], whose work would add a touch of completeness to these already wonderful collections.

But, for the most part, the banquet in Bali has been decked. It is now up to the individual art lover to go in search of that specific artwork which would complement their collections. Or just go in search of the aesthetic experience gallery-hopping can be, a gathering of mental honey, in the way that the hummingbird sucks the sweet nectar from the red and yellow hibiscus.