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A Fusion of Traditional and Modern

Modern Balinese "export" art has been charming visitors and collectors around the world for many decades now, and is generally far more popular than the traditional, sacred and ritual pieces that the Balinese originally produced for themselves. One should realize, however, that while displaying many Western and other influences, modern Balinese art has important traditional roots.

Art of the tradition

In the past, Balinese artists were patronized by kings, princes and temple councils. The majority of their works served ritual and magical functions, emphasizing the symbolism of a temple ceremony or domestic sanctuary, or supporting claims of divine authority by the ruler. Traditional calendars, with their attendant astrological symbols, also formed an important category of works.

A major center of traditional painting was and still is located at Kamasan, near Gelgel in Klungkung regency. Village craftsmen here once served rulers who reigned over the whole of Bali. Other centers were located in Gianyar, Bangli, Karangasem, Tabanan, Sanur and Singaraja, where local rulers resided or were influential. After the Dutch took over Bali in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the authority of the rulers waned and new patrons had to be found. As a result, modern influences soon manifested themselves.

Traditional drawings for magical purposes (rerajahan) were inscribed with a stylus on palm leaves, potsherds and metal, then blackened with soot. Others on cloth or paper are executed in black ink. The ink was formerly made of soot, and paints were handmade from natural dyes. At present, Chinese ink and imported paints are used. Cloth paintings were only displayed during religious ceremonies; the subject matter being chosen to harmonize with the intent of the ritual.

Artistic conventions were passed down from father to son. There are fixed elements of style, ornamentation and overall composition. Human figures were represented in the so-called wayang style, a reference to the leather figures in the wayang kulit puppet play. The figures have characteristic clothes, jewelry, coiffures and headdresses, and their facial features and figures indicate their class, age and character. Sky, rocks and ground are indicated by specific shorthand ornaments. There is no perspective.

Stories are often depicted, the scenes being divided by rock ornaments, which act as frames. A back-to-back arrangement of the figures is another way of indicating different scenes. Important scenes are placed in the center and those containing gods are at the top, with demons or animals at the bottom.

The subject matter of traditional paintings derives from religious texts, in particular Old Javanese and Balinese versions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics, the Pancatantra fables, Javanese tales about the wandering Prince Panji, and Balinese folktales such as the one about Pan and Men Brayut who were blessed with many children.

The oldest extant Balinese paintings are on two wooden planks in the Pura Panataran and Pura Batu Madeg temples in Besakih. They date from A.D. 1444 and 1458 and depict a small lotus flower and the elephant-headed deity, Ganesa. The next oldest work is the wooden cover of a Ramayana manuscript dated A.D. 1826, containing painted scenes from the epic at the top and sides. Cloth paintings dating from the 1840s can be found in museums in Denmark and Germany, depicting among other things, scenes from the Ramayana.

Traditional Balinese art should not be thought of as static. Important innovations occurred at the end of the 19th century. In drawings from Sanur and Singaraja of this period some perspective is used, and figures and scenery are given naturalistic features. More important innovations date from the end of the 1920s, when a naive, naturalistic style incorporating wayang elements developed in the Gianyar area. Apart from traditional subjects, scenes from daily life were also depicted on paper in crayon or gouache.

The influence of Western artists

German artist Walter Spies (b. 1895, d. 1942) settled in Campuan, near Ubud, in 1927 and was the first and most influential of a number of Europeans who settled in Bali around this time. Dutchman Rudolf Bonnet (b. 1895, d. 1978) visited Bali in 1929 and settled in Ubud in 1931. 'Me paintings of these two exerted a great influence on local artists. Spies dense landscapes are characterized by trees with bright leaves, stylized animal and human figures and double or triple horizons. Bonnet painted naturalistic, romantic portraits. The Mexican painter Miguel Covarrubias, who spent the early 1930s in the Sanur area, was another important figure.

Three modern art centers developed in the 1930s, each with its own characteristic style and subject matter. The first of these was at Ubud, whose style is characterized by refined, polychrome wayang-type figures surrounded by Spies-like scenery or Bonnet-like men and women, naked to the waist amidst plants and trees. The figures are harvesting, planting, making offerings and dancing. Witches and scenes from the Old Javanese and Balinese epics were also popular. Famous artists from the Ubud area are: Ida Bagus Kembeng (b. 1897, d. 1952), Ida Bagus Made Poleng (b. 1915), Anak Agung Gede Sobrat (b. 1917), his cousin Anak Agung Gede Men egeg (b. 1902) and Wayan Tohjiwa (b. 1916).

A second center developed around Sanur, whose style is characterized by softly-colored or black-and-white ink drawings with half wayang, half-naturalistic animals in human dance poses, huge insects and birds (for instance I Sukaria, Gusi Made Rundu, I Regig) or naive village scenes and landscapes with trees bearing huge leaves (Ida Bagus Made Pugug, Ida Bagus Rai).

The third center was Batuan, characterized by its stylized half-wayang, half-naturalistic figures with pronounced, heavily shadowed vertebra, leafy Spies-like trees, and a very distinctive use of perspective. Originally only black ink and crayon were used on paper. The idea of coloring with crayon came from the Neuhaus brothers, who began selling Balinese drawings from their art shop in Sanur in 1935. Toda, watercolors, gouache and canvas are used as well. Typical early representatives are Ida Bagus Made Djata(sura) (b. 1910, d. 1946) and Ida Bagus Made Togog (b. 1916, d. 1989).

Some Balinese painters refused to imitate Spies or Bonnet. I Gusti Nyoman Lempad (b. 1875 or 1862, d. 1978) made naturalistic but highly stylized flat human figures with almost no scenery. I Gusti Made Deblog (b. 1906, d. 1987) placed figures clad in wayang gear in romantic landscapes.

In the 1930s, many paintings were already being sold to tourists in art shops in Ubud, Denpasar and Sanur. At this time, Spies, Bonnet and the Dutch archaeologist W.F. Stutterheim feared that tourism was having a negative impact on the quality of paintings and drawings being produced, and so with the help of the Cokordas Raka and Gede Sukawati they formed the Pita Maha artists association in Ubud on January 19, 1936. About 150 painters, sculptors and silversmiths became members, with Lempad playing an important role. The main aim was to organize sales exhibitions in Java and abroad, and to make the artists aware of the importance of quality standards. In this way modern Balinese art began to be purchased by collectors and museums abroad.

The Pita Maha ceased operation in 1942 following the Japanese occupation. Spies died as a prisoner aboard an Allied troop ship; but Bonnet returned to Bali from a Japanese prison camp in 1947 and tried to reorganize the artists. With the help of Cokorda Gede Sukawati, he formed the Ubud Painters Club (Ratna Warta) and painters from Batuan and Sanur began to work as well as before.

A new style of painting was introduced by Dutch painter Arie Smit (b. 1916), who came to Bali in 1956 and became an Indonesian citizen. In Penestanan near Ubud he taught groups of young boys. Their naive style, characterized by strong colors and primitive, naturalistic human figures soon became well known - their subjects of daily life, festivals, animals and birds are now widely imitated. The group was dubbed the "Young Artists" and recently a third generation has emerged.

Balinese painting today

As Bali opened up to tourists after 1965, Young Balinese painters and sculptors as well as many Javanese, Sumatran and Western artists settled in the area between Mas and Ubud. Almost every year a new art style (pop Art, Macro Art, Magic Realism) emerges and new materials and techniques (batik, silkscreen) have become highly fashionable.

Only a small number of Balinese painters receive formal art training either abroad or at the Indonesian art academies in Yogyakarta (operating since 1950) and Denpasar (founded in 1965). Formally trained artists work in styles and with subjects that differ completely from those of other Balinese painters.

The work of the non-academic painters is still heavily influenced by stories from the epics and folktales, to the extent that many cannot be understood without a knowledge of Balinese literature. All painters, however, are fond of depicting daily Balinese life with its rituals and dramatic performances. Most non-academic painters produce primarily for the tourist market. Many less talented ones, often children, engage in mass production of imitations of works by their more talented colleagues for sale in "art markets" and shops.

Balinese art is now displayed in many galleries and several museums in Bali. Through Bonnet's efforts, a museum for modern Balinese art, the Puri Lukisan, was built between 1954 and 1956 in Ubud. Sales annexes were added in 1972 and 1973. In 1979, an Arts Center, also designed for tourists, was opened in Denpasar. Expositions of paintings and sculptures are now held there, especially in conjunction with the yearly Arts Festival from July to August.

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