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Walter Spies: the legacy of a banished demon

Walter Spies with Owl ca 1936Kadek Krishna Adidharma, Ubud
The Jakarta Post, Features - June 2006

In creating the image of Balinese idyll, the influence of German painter, photographer and musician Walter Spies (1895-1942), who was banished by the Dutch from his adopted home, is still visible and tangible today.

June 9 (2006) saw the Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA) in Ubud celebrate its 10th anniversary with a gala celebration that included the opening of Walter Spies 111, a two-month long exhibition of photos from the private collection of the Spies family celebrating what would have been his 111th birthday.

As a young man, Walter Spies moved in high society; the avant garde culture of pre-war Moscow, then in Berlin and Dresden, Germany, to where he moved in 1918.

However by 1923 he no longer felt at home with all the decadence of Europe. In his journal he wrote: "I then decided to just go somewhere, anywhere, to a faraway land. And after going on a challenging and formidable journey as a sailor in a cargo vessel I arrived in Java where I decided to jump ship!"

Arriving in Bali to live permanently in 1927 after a stint as court conductor for the Sultan of Yogyakarta's European orchestra, this Russian born son of a German businessman-diplomat settled in Ubud as a painter where with Tjokorda Agung Sukawati he eventually founded the Pita Maha Arts Society, the catalyst of modern art in Bali.

A pavilion of his home is preserved as part of Hotel Campuhan, and at the ARMA, you will find two large buildings - named "Walter Spies" and "Pita Maha" - housing an impressive collection of original works of art, reproductions of important work from private collections as well as a reproduction of a priceless Spies paintings that has been "missing" since 1942.

The gala anniversary event also featured the screening of Baron von Plessen's thriller Island of Demons. Saluted as an exceptional film event of 1932 Germany Island of Demons is perhaps the only feature film of the 20th century to really showcase the details of daily Balinese life hence providing the West with a glimpse of Bali packaged as a dramatic thriller. Filmmakers Baron von Plessen and Friedrich Dahlseim came to the island with no script, only a brief list of what to feature: agriculture, harvest, religion, cockfighting, the Rangda and Barong.

Balinese amateur actors were chosen from the village of Bedaulu and the script developed in-situ. As art director of the film Spies explored the darker side of Bali through a reinterpretation of Calon Arang, the widow-witch and her beautiful daughter.

Some scholars blame Spies for the simplification of the Rangda as Calon Arang. Of over 30 versions of her story many of which were lessons of dharma, or of charity and redemption, he elected one that denied her humanity. For the European audience perhaps, the witch had to become an embodiment of evil that must be defeated.

For Island of Demons Spies also supervised the choreography of what would become the modern ketjak dance popular to tourists with its now familiar syncopated chanting.

Though he credits this combination of classic dance forms to a local dancer it was Spies who made the form famous by requesting the performance of the dance for the likes of comedian Charlie Chaplin, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton as well as anthropologists and writers such as Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and Vicki Baum. Variations of the dance are still performed for tourists today.

It was around this man that the image of Bali became crystallized during the golden age of Bali tourism, the late 1920s to 1930s. Hosting the European and American glitterati, scholars and even Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore at his Campuhan home, Spies presented his version of "real Bali" as a rich culture based on an authentic folk tradition.

In terms of the world's perception of Bali, Spies' greatest influence can be seen through his Mexican visitor, writer and painter Miguel Covarrubias, whose book Island of Bali has outlasted all other travel books to become the key descriptive work on Bali.

Spies also researched the arts in great depth. With Beryl de Zoete of Britain he co-authored Dance and Drama in Bali while he shared his musical interests with Canadian musician and composer Colin McPhee, author of Music in Bali.

Spies's stay in Bali ended in 1939 when he was taken to court and jailed for homosexuality during a morality-driven witch hunt by the Dutch government. While imprisoned in Surabaya he painted his best work hailed as magical realism depicting changes in feelings and subconscious attitudes: The Landscape and its Children.


The work shows the painter's longing for Bali and the tricks the mind plays as a place once called home fades into distant memory. In 2002 this painting sold for over US$1 million through Christie's Singapore.

His Scherzo for Brass Instruments, reputedly painted in a half-trance state contains many incarnations of the artist as he explores an inner landscape from various points of view. In a letter to Carl Gotsch, Spies describes the process of painting Scherzo as a spiritual and sacred purification of the soul akin to rebirth: "The funny thing is I really feel as if this is my very first painting. I really feel as if I am beginning a new life."

Scherzo for Brass Instruments 1939
Scherzo for Brass Instruments by Walter Spies, Oil on Board, 1939

Dedicated to Leopold Stokowski, then the conductor of Chicago's Philharmonic Orchestra, Scherzo was shipped from Surabaya to America but never reached its destination. Today's reproductions are from photographs taken by Spies in prison.

In his fatherland this German artist is probably better known as the art advisor to several movies such as Friedrich Murnau's version of the Dracula story, Nosferatu. Yet despite living only a fraction of his life in Germany Spies' citizenship twice caused him to be interned during war.

Born in Moscow and raised mostly in Russia he was interned in the Ural Mountains during the first World War. He was also interned by the Dutch in Ngawi, East Java and Kotatjane, Sumatra during the second World War.

Along with other prisoners of war Spies drowned in 1942 when the ship Van Imhof was bombed en route to Sri Lanka by the Japanese and was sunk close to the coast of Nias, off West Sumatra.

While his body has gone to a watery grave, Spies' legacy lives on: His paintings, photographs and writing continue to be published, the ketjak has evolved into many incarnations and modern art is flourishing in Bali fast attaining international acclaim.

His life and times in Bali continue to be celebrated at the ARMA and at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne, home to the Spies Archive of the Walter Spies Society Germany.


Walter Spies 111 ran until Aug. 8, 2007
at the Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA),
The permanent collection of Walter Spies paintings is worth visiting!
Jl. Bima, Pengosekan, Ubud, Bali 80571.
Tel: 975742, 976659; Fax: 975332.


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Last updated Saturday 2 June 2007 at 12:05 PM (+8 GMT)

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