Balinese Painting

Balinese Painting


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” and “artist.”

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 puppet performers.

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 so on.


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 bowls.

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 tourist.

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, Ubud.

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

Walter 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.

At 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.

Up 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.

After 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.

It 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’ livelihoods.

Every 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 Paintings.

At 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.

Pita 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.

The 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.

The 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

The 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.

Fishes 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.

There 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

Also 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.

And 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.


Batuan 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.

There are at least three Batuan styles:


In 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.


In 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.

Daily life

The 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

There 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.

Spies 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.

The 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.

There 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 Murni’s Warung.

Balinese contemporary art

There 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 younger artists.

Born 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 installation pieces.

He wrote an anthology of poems a few years ago.

His paintings are collected in Thailand, Japan, Australia, Germany, Luxembourg, France and Belgium.

Puri Lukisan

Bonnet 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 the gardens.

Puri 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.

The ex-king and Queen of Belgium visited and so did Rockefeller, the Vice President of the United States, in 1975.

There are now three buildings housing a permanent collection of Balinese art and often there is an exhibition.

Balinese Painting