E.H. Gombrich begins his book The Story of Art, first published
in 1950, with the opening sentences, "There really is no
such thing as Art. There are only artists." The Mexican artist,
Miguel Covarrubias, and his wife, Rose, went to Bali in 1930,
visited Walter Spies in Ubud and wrote Island of Bali, the first
major book on Bali, which is still widely read today. He began
his chapter on "Art and the Artist" with the sentence,
"Everybody in Bali seems to be an artist." He also notes
that there are no words in the Balinese language for "art"
Art and artists
As far back as the 9th century AD there are royal inscriptions.
One provided a refugee for artists and exempted them from taxes.
The inscriptions refer to blacksmiths, goldsmiths, musicians,
singers, dancers and shadow
The temples were the main source of patronage. The arts were required,
and still are required, for the frequent temple ceremonies. The
artists congregated near the temples. So, in places where there
are many temples, there are many artists.
Balinese temples and the ceremonies within them are entirely given
over to the arts: sculpture, carving, music, painting, offerings,
dances, drama, poetry readings, shadow puppet performances and
It is often said that Ubud is the cultural centre of Bali. This
may be a slight exaggeration, but it is certainly true that Ubud
is a very good place, probably the best, to survey the vast range
of Balinese arts. Ubud has long been a centre of music and dance
and later painting.
There are many galleries and three excellent art museums, the
Neka Art Museum, the Agung Rai Museum of Art and the Puri Lukisan.
There are several distinct schools of art.
Classical Wayang Style
Painting probably started with wayang puppets for shadow puppet
performances and then strayed into painting hand-woven cotton
cloth. There was no separate art of Balinese painting. Until the
1930s there were not even artists, there were just artisans, multi-professionals,
who did everything. Some still do. There was not a word for, or
indeed a concept of, art. There were only concepts of religious
and court needs.
The resemblance to wayang puppets of the figures in traditional
Balinese paintings is clear. For details of the wayang puppets,
see the article entitled Wayang
Kulit: shadow puppet performances. Painters were usually Sudras
and formed themselves into communities called sangging. The kings
of Gelgel and Klungkung recognized them up to the beginning of
the 20th century. They supplied the courts with paintings.
The rules for wayang puppets are followed in the paintings: the
shapes, colours and headdresses of the characters, the positioning
of the noble and divine characters on the left, coarse and evil
ones on the right, as they would be in a performance from the
point of view of the audience. Animal heads are usually shown
in profile and humans in three-quarters view. Shoulders and chest
face the spectator, and legs and feet are pictured from the side,
one behind the other as if walking. Noble characters have long
thin arms and legs, delicate hands with curved fingers, narrow
straight noses and smiling mouths. Noble male eyes have the top
part of the eye curved and the bottom part a straight line. For
females, it is the reverse. A tree or rock is usually in the middle
of the picture, if it is not a battle scene.
Puppeteers tell stories orally. Painters do it by drawing trees,
buildings and even writing on paintings. Time is shown by depicting
the same characters at different stages in the story in the same
painting. The paintings can be several meters long and half a
metre wide and tied to the eaves of a building during a religious
ceremony - this type is called ider-ider.
The village of Kamasan in the kingdom of Klungkung in the south
became the centre for this kind of painting. The reason: court
patronage of the arts. See the article entitled Balinese History
- Pre-history to the Europeans for the details. The Majapahit
dynasty, following its arrival in Bali from Java, first established
itself in Samprangan, later Gelgel, and subsequently Klungkung.
Being descendants of the Majapahits, the kings of Gelgel and Klungkung
have always been recognized by other royal families as the spiritual
leaders, the "Dewa Agung". Their courts were the centres
of art and culture.
The Dewa Agung of Klungkung appointed the painters and sculptors
of Kamasan to decorate his palace and they then became established
as official court painters for generations. They received requests
from other kings and their style of art spread. Paintings would
also be used to decorate a household or a temple during ceremonies.
After the ceremony they would be put away and stored in baskets.
Manufactured cotton fabrics are used now rather than hand-woven
fabrics, on which the artist initially draws the outlines with
a sharp pen. This style of painting is also used on wooden panels
to decorate the back walls of shrines and offering platforms,
as well as bed heads, doors, windows, boxes, baby cradles and
The subject matter tends to come from the Ramayana and the Mahabarata
stories, frequently battle scenes and the story of Rama, Sita
and Rawana. Paintings in calendar form, depicting gods, demons
and mythical animals, are also popular.
Rivalry between the courts was a major stimulus to the arts. A
court's prestige was measured by its ability to do things in style.
The ceremonies had to be grand and the palaces had to impress.
Their power depended on it. Under Dutch rule at the beginning
of the 20th century, when the courts lost their power, patronage
waned and the arts declined.
There was a brief flowering when the Dutch employed Kamasan artists
to restore the palace at Klungkung, which the Dutch had destroyed
during their invasion. As a result art flourished in the 1920s,
but then declined again. A new patron was required and it was
The Pita Maha group of artists in Ubud, mentioned below, in the
1930s overshadowed Kamasan, but in the 1960s, Nyoman Mandara,
a local artist from Kamasan, established a school of traditional
Balinese painting, which is now supported by the Government, so
the style continues.
Famous Kamasan paintings of hell can be seen in all their glory
in wood panels lining the ceiling of the old law court, Kirta
Gosa, in Klungkung, recently restored by present-day Kamasan painters.
Their purpose was to edify and teach.
I Gusti Nyoman Lempad was the most remarkable painter that Bali
has produced so far. He was a Renaissance man. His father, Gusti
Nyoman Lempad, was also an excellent painter as well as being
talented in many other fields. He offended his patron and fled
to Peliatan. He received the protection of the court of Ubud.
Lempad was 13 at that time, 1875. From then on he lived in Ubud
and died in 1978 at the remarkable age of 116.
He was multi-talented, like his father. He originally painted
in the Wayang style, but moved to a more expressive, freer style,
painting and drawing in black Chinese ink on paper. The paintings
are full of energy, yet tremendously elegant. He painted scenes
of everyday life as well as religious themes. There are collections
of his works in the Museum Puri Lukisan and the Neka Art Museum,
He was also an architect and talented wood carver. After the bad
1917 earthquake Lempad and his father designed the royal palace
gate. It used to be very simple, but is now elaborate.
His was an early departure from the Kamasan style paintings. The
real explosion came with the arrival of the foreigners in Ubud
in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Spies, Bonnet and Pita Maha
Spies, German (1895-1942), himself an artist, came to Bali at
the suggestion of the royal family in Ubud. Spies told the local
artists that they were merely churning out the same old themes
and that they should paint scenes of daily life, the markets,
planting rice, harvesting, temple festivals and dance performances.
that time painting was in a crisis. The Dutch had taken away the
power of the rajas and the palaces and temples were not commissioning
works of art. The painters started to paint themes that were easier
for the tourist to understand than the traditional themes. For
the first time also they painted for a frame. Walter Spies is
discussed in the article entitled Balinese History - the Europeans.
to that time, Ubud had concentrated on music and dance and was
not a painters' colony. Klungkung was up until then the centre
of painting. Ubud became and still is an artists' colony thanks
to Spies and Rudolf Bonnet, a Dutch artist (1895-1978). Bonnet
also encouraged the local artists and gave them modern paints,
materials and canvasses and explained depth and perspective.
a while, the painters started to churn out sub-standard stuff
for the tourists. To maintain standards, Walter Spies and Rudolf
Bonnet used the Museum Bali in Denpasar, which opened in 1932,
as an outlet to sell the artists' work. Spies was the first curator
of the museum.
didn't work, so Spies, Bonnet, Lempad and two princes of the royal
family, Cokorda Gede Agung Sukawati and his brother Cokorda Gede
Raka Sukawati, created an artists' association, called Pita Maha,
which means "great vitality". It also means ancestor,
an idea that reverberates in the Balinese mind. The aims were
to provide guidance, maintain standards and guarantee the artists'
week the artists, who included sculptors, brought their work to
Spies and Bonnet. They discussed it with the artist and if they
thought the quality good enough, agreed a price and arranged for
it to be sold or exhibited. Until 1937 Museum Bali was the major
outlet. Bonnet also bought from them and finally donated quite
a lot of objects to the Puri Lukisan, Ubud Museum. Bonnet's pupils
are still around: see Balinese
the meetings, Bonnet, in particular, explained, if the work was
rejected, why it had not been selected. This led to an unfortunate,
unhealthy Bonnet-style generation of painters in Ubud, who copied
his style of half-turned torsos. Painters from outside Ubud, from
villages such as Kamasan, Batuan and Sukawati, were also members
of Pita Maha, but they retained their independence and were not
so influenced by Bonnet.
Maha organized exhibitions in Java and outside Indonesia, and
for the first time individual artists came to be recognized. They
started to sign their paintings. They were at long last producing
non-functional works, not merely objects for the temple.
association experienced some disruption when Spies was arrested
for immoral conduct, homosexual relations with minors, in late
1938. He was detained for almost a year. Then in mid-1940 he was
arrested for being a German national when Hitler invaded Holland.
Spies was deported and died when a Japanese plane off Sumatra
bombed the ship transporting him to Ceylon in 1942.
Japanese invaded Bali in February 1942 and Pita Maha came to an
end. During the Japanese Occupation, Bonnet was deported and interned
in Makassar (Ujung Pandang) in the Celebes (Sulawesi) in East
Indonesia. He returned after the War in the 1950s, but efforts
to revive the association failed. The Ubud Painters Group replaced
it, but it was a pale reflection.
The Young Artists of Penestanan
Dutch painter, Arie Smit, who was born in 1916, came to live in
Campuan, Ubud in 1956. He still lives in the area, just next to
the Neka Art Museum, where many of his Matisse-like paintings
hang. He gave teenage boys in nearby Penestanan paper and paints
and showed them how to prepare canvas and make frames, but that
was all. He did not try to teach them how to paint or suggest
subjects to them. They were absolutely free to do their own thing.
He even hid his own paintings, so they were not influenced. And
he did not praise their paintings either, as that would encourage
the kids to repeat what they had done to please him.
and frogs abounded. Bright colours in naive style filled the canvas:
yellow skies, pink oceans, green men. It was vital and it was
fun: ducks with hats, frogs riding bikes. There was a sudden freshness
in Ubud and Penestanan.
was no better expression of rural, peasant life in Bali. The paintings
were bought by foreigners mainly and embassies in Jakarta. The
Bali Beach Hotel in Sanur had one in every room. The famous science
visionary Buckminster Fuller, and anthropologist Margaret Mead,
were collectors of this school.
The Community Artists of Pengosekan
adjoining Ubud is Pengosekan, where, in the 1960s, another group
of artists saw a new demand in the market. Led by I Dewa Nyoman
Batuan the group became known as the Community Artists of Pengosekan.
so a new generation broke away from the Bonnet style and started
painting art for art's sake, just for the pleasure of it. Nature
inspired them. Birds, leaves, birds and insects, in beautifully
matching colours, were painted with exquisite refinement.
is a village that is not too far away from Ubud, but far enough,
so that tourists rarely visited, which meant that the Batuan artists
pursued a different style. They were also far from Kamasan. Much
of the subject matter is concerned with controlling the powers
of good and evil.
are at least three Batuan styles:
the 1930s some of the painters joined Pita Maha, but kept to
their old concerns, especially about mystical power, called
sakti. They added simple perspective and scenery and painted
in darker hues, which is not very Balinese, and may have been
due to Western influence. On the other hand, the painters were
poor and coloured paints were expensive.
There is a lot of detail and the canvases are often covered
in many miniscule characters. The linear interweave may have
been influenced by Balinese Perada textiles, on which designs
were traced in gold paint. See the article entitled Balinese
Dress and Textiles. To a great extent they kept to the old Ramayana
and Mahabarata stories, but there is a disturbing feel of black
magic in the air. Often there is a contrast between life in
the village and life in the forest, between areas of security
and areas of danger.
the 1950s more colours were used and in the 1960s another style
appeared, still Wayang figures and mythological stories, but
treated in a fantastical manner.
third genre is a style of small figures, often in dark colours,
and fine attention to detail, but instead of mythological figures,
modern Balinese life, including cars, helicopters and tourists,
is the subject matter.
Western artists in Bali
have been excellent Western artists living and painting in Bali,
but they have not influenced Balinese art much. Only Spies, Bonnet
and Smit had an influence and that was because they involved themselves
in the local artistic community.
and Bonnet have already been mentioned. So has Arie Smit in connection
with the Young Artists of Penestanan. Smit arrived in Indonesia
in 1938 on a military contract. He had been assigned to the Topographical
Service as a lithographer. Following the Japanese invasion of
1942 he was taken as a prisoner of war to forced labour camps
in Singapore, Thailand and Burma. After the Dutch finally acknowledged
Indonesia's sovereignty in 1949, he stayed and became an Indonesian
citizen in 1951. He taught graphics at the Institut Tecknologi
in Bandung, Java, before finally moving to Bali in 1951 at the
invitation of Bonnet and James Pandy. He then became a full-time
painter and developed an understanding about Balinese community,
rural life. Coastal areas and the hills inspired him. He still
uses the environment as his main theme using pure colours. The
largest collection of his works is in the Neka Art Museum.
main Western artists in Bali, who painted very beautiful, sometimes
romanticized paintings with Balinese themes, were the Swiss painter,
Theo Meyer (1908-1982), who lived in Selat, the Austrian Roland
Strasser in Kintamani, the Belgian aristocrat Adrien Le Mayeur
(1880-1958) in Sanur, the Dutch painter Willem Gerard Hofker (1902-1981)
in Denpasar, Australian Donald Friend (1915-1989). Dutch Han Snel
(1925-1998) and Catalan Antonio Blanco (1926-1999), who both married
Balinese ladies, who survived them, lived in Ubud.
are examples of their paintings in the art museums in Ubud. Blanco
and Snel's paintings can also be seen in their personal galleries
at their homes in Ubud, Their widows still live there. Blanco
designed a museum, but did not live long enough to see the opening
of it, the Blanco Renaissance Museum, in 2001, which is next to
Balinese contemporary art
are many painters in Bali, especially in the Ubud area. Many come
from the rest of the archipelago and overseas. Along with Nyoman
Gunarsa, Made Wianta, who is in his Fifties, is considered the
pioneer of Balinese contemporary art. His works have influenced
in Apuan village in Tabanan, Wianta graduated from the ASRI Yogyakarta
Arts Institute in 1974. He quickly left classical Balinese painting
styles and adopted abstract art, using symbols and forms. Yet
they are still spiritually Balinese. He also has created various
wrote an anthology of poems a few years ago.
paintings are collected in Thailand, Japan, Australia, Germany,
Luxembourg, France and Belgium.
still wanted to maintain the quality of the arts and had long
been looking to build an art museum. The idea first formed before
the Second World War. Cokorda Gede Agung Sukawati donated the
land, which is now in the centre of Ubud, and Bonnet designed
Lukisan opened in 1956 and has been very successful. Many heads
of state visited. President Prasad of India visited in 1967. The
same year President Tito and Madame Tito of Yugoslavia visited.
In 1968 Ho Chi Minh, in a white Chinese jacket and black pants,
visited from Vietnam - he did not say a word. Later the same year
the King of Thailand and Queen Sirikit came. Then the Vice President
of Egypt visited and after him Bobby Kennedy, the Attorney General
of the United States. In 1971 the Queen of Holland paid a visit.
Then Prince Philip arrived from England, but he just visited Cokorda
Gede Agung Sukawati and not the museum.
ex-king and Queen of Belgium visited and so did Rockefeller, the
Vice President of the United States, in 1975.
are now three buildings housing a permanent collection of Balinese
art and often there is an exhibition.