A History of Balinese Painting

Adrian Vickers (2016) Balinese Painting and Sculpture From the Krzysztof Musial Collection. Singapore: Tuttle

In the field of painting, the full range of modes of art co-exist in Bali. Works that Balinese usually describe as “classic” stand alongside the modern art identified with the tourist centre of Ubud, as well as daring ventures into Contemporary Art by talented Balinese. Some of these works also served religious purposes, while even many of the very contemporary and ostensibly secular ones display a sensibility rooted in Balinese Hindu-Buddhism.

The term “classic” is applied to the painters of the village of Kamasan, in Klungkung regency, and is a way of avoiding the confusion about the use of “traditional” to describe an array of styles. Kamasan art is based on the wayang or shadow theatre, and its form and narratives go back to ancient Java. Although there were many villages in Bali that practiced this wayang style, Kamasan was the most famous, because of its close link to the highest-ranking royal family in Bali, that of Klungkung. The legacy of the works done to adorn this family’s great palace can be seen in the Kerta Ghosa (Hall of Justice) and Bale Kambang (Floating Pavilion) that stand in the remains of the great palace after it was destroyed during the Dutch conquest of 1908. The Kerta Ghosa’s multi-layered depictions of heaven and hell means it is often referred to as Bali’s “Sistine Chapel.”

Besides royal works, the painters of Kamasan produced paintings telling the stories of the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, for their own and other people’s temples. These works were stored and brought out to adorn pavilions during annual temple ceremonies. They did not function as icons of worship, but rather as beautiful narratives that both inform worshippers about their deities and other powerful forces in the world, and provide ways of connecting the human and the divine. The artists of Kamasan proudly continue to work in their old style, while constantly producing variations on the stories and their modes of representation. The painter I Nyoman Mandra was regarded as the master of the style until his death in 2018.

In Kamasan, as elsewhere in Bali, women played an important support role in traditional production of art. Male artists provided the initial sketch and overall composition, as well as the finishing elaboration of line that is the key to this type of art, and indeed to Balinese painting and drawing overall. Women were and still are colourists, who developed the initial sketch. In the twentieth century women began to take over the role of artists as well. Ni Made Suciarmi was the first of these, and since her work in the 1960s, subsequent generations have became prominent, notably innovative painters Ni Wayan Wally and Mangku Muriati.

Muriati is the daughter of Mangku Mura, one of the most prolific and inventive Kamasan artists of the second half of the twentieth century.

“Modern” art came to Bali in the late 1920s. Already artists in North Bali, such as the brilliantly creative I Ketut Gede, were experimenting with daring new ways of showing the world around them and the stories of the divine. I Ketut Gede worked in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and some of the best documentation of his work came from commissions by the Eurasian linguist H.N. van der Tuuk, who asked Ketut for illustrations of figures from various legends. Van der Tuuk’s collection, now in Leiden University Library, shows how rich the variations on tradition were throughout the whole island. While many traditional artists remain anonymous, Van der Tuuk’s documentation provides us with a few more names, such as Ida Telaga of Sanur. These were contemporaries for famous Kamasan artists such as Kaki Rambug.

The impetus for change in Balinese art came from access to new materials, notably European paper and paints. Kamasan artists had been given paper for extended illustrations of ancient literature from at least the early nineteenth century. Van der Tuuk’s commission spread the use of these new media. In the twentieth century, the small but growing presence of European artists on the island combined with new opportunities for tourist patronage. Pockets of experimentation sprang up throughout the island, for example in the village of Rangkan, in Gianyar. The artist who first captured outside attention as the creator of a Central Balinese modern style was Ida Bagus Mukuh from a priestly family in Tampaksiring. His depictions of temple festivals and other aspects of spiritual life influenced a group of artists in the Ubud-Peliatan area between 1928 and 1930, and these artists, especially I.B.Mukuh’s cousin, Ida Bagus Kembeng, produced what is now seen as the first truly modern style.

Western artists living in Bali at the time helped to promote the art to the newly-arrived tourists, and provided insights into the techniques of the West. One of these artists, Dutch Rudolf Bonnet, played a key role in helping set up the Museum Bali in Denpasar, then organising exhibitions of Balinese art in Java, and most importantly setting up an artists’ association for painters and sculptors, the famous but short-lived Pita Maha organisation. Much credit for these activities is given to Bonnet’s more famous and charismatic friend, German painter Walter Spies, who was influential, but less engaged that Bonnet. Bonnet worked closely with Balinese artists such as Anak Agung Gede Soberat and I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, both of Ubud, who began to extend the range and form of art. Soberat if famous for creating what is now known as the “Ubud style”, with his more naturalistic figures, although he began as a wayang artist. Lempad’s works were very different, pure line that again developed from wayang art, and explored higher dimensions of Hindu-Buddhist philosophy.

Both of these, along with Ida Bagus Made “Poleng”, son of founding artist Kembeng, continued to work from the 1930s until the 1970s, drawing in family members into the creation of Ubud as a centre.

The excitement of new styles, combined with the economic incentives of tourism, led hundreds of Balinese to become involved in art. Some turned painting and drawing into a vocation, others dabbled for a while, and then moved on. Some of the painters were also sculptors, or involved in the other arts, such as puppetry or dance-drama. One of the key centres of art was Batuan, where the radical I Nyoman Ngendon influenced his fellow villagers towards a new style of art that was filled with black-and-white images showing a dark side of the spiritual power of Bali. Batuan also had its practitioners of wayang style who provided a basis for the new developments. Foremost amongst the contemporaries of Ngendon was Ida Bagus Made Togog, who along with Ida Bagus Wija, made the transition to the post-War period. Because Batuan was such a centre of the arts, the famous anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson spent much time there in the late 1930s, building up a huge collection with Batuan works at its heart, but also leaving us with extensive documentation of all the artists of the period. As well as working very closely with Ida Bagus Togog, Bateson and Mead also collected many works by artists such as Ida Bagus Bala and Ida Bagus Jatasura.

Subsequent generations in Batuan have continued what these pioneers started. While other villages lost their vibrancy, this was not the case in Batuan. The present generation includes artists such as I Wayan Diana, and I Made Griyawan, the grandsons of one of the first generation artists. These artists work in a variety of types of ornamental art.

They follow the lead of older artists such as I Made Budi, who began to depict humorous scenes of tourist-Balinese interactions in the 1970s. The younger artists show a Bali overrun by tourism, alongside visions of rural life and the connection with the gods. Tourists and deities occupy the same space of the island.

At the same time as the painters of Batuan were inventing their dark style, others on the coastal village of Sanur were experimenting with variations on the dense style worked in Chinese inks. There were some 60 artists in this village, and they too benefitted from Western patronage and interaction. A key sales outlet for the thousands of tourists visiting Bali in the 1930s was a shop in Sanur run by the German Neuhaus brothers. Bateson and Mead acquired works through the Neuhaus brothers. A number of Western artists lived in Sanur, notably the eccentric Swiss painter Theo Meier, who invited local artists into his studio and provide materials and opportunities to interact. Works such as those by I Ketut Pugeg show the playful invention of Sanur artists, who were not afraid to experiment with a range of different styles and often bizarre forms. Like the sculptors of Sebatu, the artists of Sanur preferred the grotesque side of Balinese art.

Of the Sanur artists only a very few kept producing in the post-War period.

The most famous of these was Ida Bagus Nyoman Rai, whose long interactions with decadent Western artists produced original insights into the meeting of East and West. Ida Bagus Rai had been one of those closest to Theo Meier, but did not shy away from depicting him falling down drunk or in erotic dalliance with Meier’s Balinese wife. Meier frequently brought Rai up to his mountain house at Iseh, leading to Rai’s beautiful landscapes showing Bali’s most sacred volcano, Gunung Agung. Rai also continued to work with coastal scenes, notably in his series of works showing a whale beached at Sanur. In the 1960s he came into contact with Australian artist Donald Friend, and produced works showing Friend’s lavish and decadent lifestyle.

Ubud became the centre to which other artists came between the 1950s and the 1970s. Today the Ubud style is the dominant mode of art associated with the image of Bali, predominantly idyllic scenes of rice-fields, temple festivals and the style of Balinese life now rapidly disappearing with urbanisation and the intensity of tourism. The younger generation that has continued the work of Soberat includes artists such as I Wayan Turun and I Ketut Gelgel.

In the 1960s a new style came out of Penestanan, a village adjoining Ubud. This “Young Artist” style moved towards a decorative abstraction that was to prefigure the Contemporary art of the next generation. The “Young Artists” such as I Ketut Tagen came from poor peasant families, for whom art presented new social opportunities. They benefitted from the patronage of Dutch-Indonesian artist Arie Smit, who provided them with materials and licensed them to pursue his own use of bright colours. The advent of art institutions highlight Balinese art has been important to Ubud. These began with the Museum Puri Lukisan, founded out of Bonnet’s collaboration with the lords of Ubud. In the 1970s, notable art collectors Suteja Neka and Agung Rai transformed their galleries into Museums that continue to be the best place to see the range of art in Bali.

Within the older Ubud style, new forms are emerging.

In the last decade or so, the area of Keliki, on the fringes of Ubud, produced a new style identified with the name of that village. Artists such as I Ketut Sana have taken elements of the Batuan and Ubud styles, but refined them into an increasingly miniature form combining technical accomplishment with new forms of expression. The Keliki style represents a high point in one path of Balinese art. It has its origins in the new developments of the 1930s, but equally represents an expression of what it means to be Balinese in the twenty-first century.

Modern and contemporary art forms that are more nationally- and regionally-based also have a home in Bali. Some of Southeast Asia’s most successful artists come from this island. Their path to success, however, has largely been through leaving the island. Most of these successful artists have studied in Yogyakarta, central Java.

Following the lead of modernist pioneer I Nyoman Gunarsa, subsequent generations of Balinese have reached the pinnacle of fame. Many of these, however, have returned to Bali. Gunarsa himself has founded a Museum, which includes a collection of traditional paintings. Younger artists such as Mangku Putra prefer more urban settings in Denpasar, to keep close to their Balinese origins.