Walter Spies | aziatische schilderijen | Ming Gallery

Balinises Painters: Walter Spies

The First World War was a traumatic experience for many Europeans. Millions of young lives had been destroyed and confidence in western culture was seriously weakened. The twenties were characterized by attempts to forget, through escapes to other cultures, and by fascination with exotic religions. Balicon­formed well to the age. It offered the dazed westerner the harmony and satisfaction which in Europehad been replaced by battlefields. Balibecame a popular destination due to tourists who spread the island's fame, at the same time wishing to keep the paradise they had discovered for themselves. Commerce quickly made use of the demand for exotic destinations. Voyages to Baliwere made by the Royal Dutch Steam Packet Company (KPM), which anchored off the coast at Buleleng. Except for the occasional civil servant or merchant, the steamers usually picked up pigs, which were plentiful on Bali. The pigs were floated to the ships on rafts and hoisted aboard, with much squealing, by means of 'trousers'. They were exported to Javanese ports and to Singapore. Because of the pigs the KPM run to Bali was nicknamed the 'Babi-express'.

In 1922 and 1924 the steamers Van der Wijek and Planeius were taken into service. These liners had good passenger accommodations and their Makasar­Surabaya-Palembang run included a stop at Bali. Tourists would be offloaded in small boats on the North coast which would take them through the surf, after which helpful Balinese would carry them onto dry land. After spending the night in Singaraja they would travel to Denpasar by car along the winding mountain roads. In 1925 the famous and chi que Bali Hotel was opened in Denpasar. In 1930 there were about a hundred tourists a year - ten years later that number had increased to about 250. For most tourists, just as for tourists in the present day, their stay on Bali was a five-day arrangement consisting of a trip by car from Singaraja to Denpasar and a stay in Denpasar with, at the most, some excursions to nearby temples or the coastal village Sanur. The program included a rijsttafel ('rice table', a sumptuous meal of many Indonesian dishes) and dance performances. The number of tourists - most of them wealthy - was sufficient to start a small tourist industry. Painters and wood carvers started to produce paintings and wooden sculptures that would be attractive to tourists and which could be transported easily.

Besides the tourists seeking adventure or distraction there were the artists and scholars who wished to learn about Balinese culture. They avoided the tourists, settled among the population for longer periods of time and interpreted the culture surrounding them from their own points of view. During the twenties and thir­ties there was a fashionable artistic and somewhat decadent circle of westerners. For a long time the German artist Waiter Spies was its central figure.

An Artist of Many Talents

Waiter Spies was born in Moscowon September 15, 1895, the son of a German diplomatic family. In contrast to Bonnet, he grew up in an intellectual and artistic environment. From an early age he showed a great interest in nature, music, dance and painting. He easily learned foreign languages, and he quickly mastered the choreography of exotic dances. He quickly became accustomed to oriental music. Usually he did not take the time for writing or painting. At age fifteen, to complete his education he was sent to Dresden. As young as he was, he became absorbed in the modern art forms which could be seen and heard in Dresden, which was then one of the major European art centres. He saw the experimental work of cubist and expressionist artists and listened to the music of Richard Strauss.

Both world wars strongly gave direction to Spies' life and at the same time gave him the chance to show his vitality and vigour up to his death in 1942. The First World war broke out when Spies was vacationing with his parents in Moscow. Spies' father was interned with the other Germans. For a year Waiter helped his mother nurse the wounded in their large house in Moscow. But as soon as he reached age twenty and was eligible for military service, he was also sent to a camp, far away in the Urals. This did not depress Spies - he enjoyed the countryside, listened to the music and melancholy songs of the Tartars and Khirgiz and amazed friends and enemies with his perfect performances of Russian dances. During the confusion of the Russian Revolution, Spies returned to Moscowand then to Germany to rejoin his family who had gone back there in the meantime.


Back in Germany, Waiter Spies became absorbed in the blossoming cultural atmosphere in the years after the First World war. In Dresden he met the painters Oskar Kokoschka and Otto Dix. He admired the work of Marc Chagall, traded thoughts with composers such as Paul Hindemuth and Arthur Schnabel and surprised the people around him with his virtuosity on the piano.

In the summer of 1919 he presented his first paint­ings at an exhibition and immediately received recognition and praise. Soon after, he left for Berlinand devoted himself to motion pictures and musicals. Sometimes he would make his escape from the boom­ing Berlinof the twenties to the islandof Syltor he would visit his Dutch friends, the conductor Schoonderbeek, famous for his performances of Bach, and his wife. He admired the modern art exhibitions in The Hagueand Amsterdam, had his own exhibition, and in the Amsterdam  Tropical  Museumhe was introduced to objects and pictures from the Netherlands East Indies. Slowly his environment became oppressive to him; he desired to leave Europe and to seek unknown faraway places. In 1923 he made his decision and boarded a ship for Java.

After an uneventful voyage Spies arrived in Bataviaand from there took the train to Bandung. In a lyrical letter to his mother, Waiter described the Indies, where he felt at home immediately. He admired the people he would paint so often in later years, for their beauty and natural grace. 'The people, the Sundanese and the Javanese, are so incredibly beautiful, so delicately built, brown and aristocratic, that everyone who is not one of them should be ashamed', he wrote in Bandung. Spies was less complementary about the Dutch: 'The Dutch here are the most hateful and small-minded peo­ple that one can imagine, uncivilized, haughty, stupid, bored, arrogant. I cannot find the words to express how I despise them'. Spies effortlessly learned Malay as well as the Javanese court language. From the begin­ning he was struck by game/an music, the court dances and the songs. From Bandung, Spies journeyed to Jogyakarta. There he landed in two worlds. To earn a living he played the piano in the band at the Dutch club De Vereniging ('The Association')  near the residential palace. But Spies' heart was at the other side of the square, where the sultan lived, surrounded by his many wives, children and servants and a western orchestra, as well as the most beautiful and largest game/an ensemble in Indonesia.

As a guest at the sultan's parties, one evening Spies found himself in the kraton, the sultan's court. He was enchanted by the dancing and the game/an music; these aroused passions in him reminiscent of those during the performance of Bach's Mattheuspassion in the Netherlands. The sultan was struck by how different Spies' reaction to the music was compared to the other nonchalant Europeans. He asked questions about the blond German and a few days later a carriage with princes and servants with pajongs stopped in front of Spies' humble boarding house. He was asked to become the conductor of the European orchestra in the kraton. Eagerly he assented and he received a pavilion in the kraton to live in. His wages were a hundred guilders a month plus food and rent and a young servant. Spies also conducted a choir and gave piano lessons.

In 1925 Waiter Spies participated in a group exhibition in Surabaya, with some dreamy landscapes, including the famous painting The Crab Fishermen. In that painting, Spies shook off Chagall's influence, with his characters floating through the air, as well as Rousseau's naive style. The Crab Fishermen utilizes a bird's eye view which is typical of Spies, to catch peo­ple in a beautiful environment going about everyday matters.

But Spies was more interested in the music and dance in the kraton than in painting. He could not get enough of seeing the elegant dancers move like 'Egyptian princesses' and was disgusted by the contrast when he was required to pound a foxtrot on the piano and watch the fat Dutch masses whirl around. Spies created a real masterpiece when he rendered a western interpretation of Javanese music. To the surprise of the Javanese he was then able to produce gamelan music on pianos which were tuned to the Javanese scale. The enthusiasm in the kraton was boundless when he arranged a piece in which the accompaniment for traditional Javanese song and dance was alternately played by a piano and the gamelan orchestra.

Spies thought he was in paradise and enjoyed every day of it. He thought he had found a place of absolute beauty, until a first visit to Baliin 1925 made him even more enthusiastic. For a month he travelled around the island, talked to priests, rulers and craftsmen and was amazed at the continual cycle of rituals and ceremonies which were more mysterious than those he was used to on Java. Breathlessly he watched the small girls in their beautiful clothes being carried around in trance, and was astounded by the rhythm and the singing of the men performing war dances. 'I hope to return for a longer period of time', he wrote 'because to me there seems to be no end to Bali'.

Balistayed in Spies' mind. In 1927 he no longer resisted temptation and asked the Sultan of Jogyakarta to relieve him of his position and left for Bali, where he was hospitably received by the Panggawa of Ubud, Cokorde Gde Agung Sukawati. Until he was taken away for internment in 1942, Spies remained on Bali, spending the larger part of his life there. He moved to the so-called Water  Palace, a house across from the puri of the ruler, and a year later he built a house in Campuan, where he found the peace and space to work on painting, photography and music. Spies became absorbed in various aspects of Balinese cul­ture, as was expressed in his drawings, articles about music, and especially his photographs which soon became well-known all over the world.

Together with the Dutch anthropologist Roelof Goris he wrote a book about Baliin 1931, commissioned by the Royal Dutch Steam Packet Company (KPM) for the world exhibition in Pariswhich included a Balinese musical and dance group. Goris wrote captions for Spies' photographs describing the culture of the island for a broad audience. Westerners had an oddly ambivalent attitude about Bali. On the one hand they were vocal in the praises of the beauty of Bali and made them known to the world at large with texts and illustrations. On the other hand they attempted to protect the island against external influences. In the KPM publication to promote tourism Goris wrote: 'Regrettably, during the last few years tourists have been offered silver trinkets for sale, such as silver corks, powder boxes, bonbonniers etc. These, however have no real artistic value. Of course everyone should be free to purchase what they wish. But still, we believe we should advise against buying such articles, for two related reasons. First, there is the self-interest of the tourist who believes he is getting something truly Balinese and instead receives a mass-produced article with no real value. Second, there are the interests of Balinese craftsmen: in the face of the demand for such trinkets, silversmiths neglect their real handiwork, and the diminished production of real Balinese works of art makes it harder for tourists to acquire them.'

Ironically, Spies, who admired Balinese culture so much, had much influence on Balinese artists. For example, the young man Anak Agung Gede Soberat who came walking in curiously one day was advised by Spies to paint something other than traditional themes. Soberat and others following in his footsteps, such as Anak Agung Gede Meregeg, would become well-known Balinese painters.


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