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Balinese Arts-Paintings

There is actually no word for ‘artist’ in the Balinese language and painters consider themselves rather as artisans. In Bali, more than everywhere else, there is a clear difference between what is called sacred paintings (which are only created for a religious purpose) and  ‘fine art’ ( which is most of the time commercial art, without a negative connotation).

Traditionally, the subjects of sacred paintings are drawn from ancient Hindu epics which are ‘Javanese-Balinese adaptations’ of the classical Indian literature (Mahabharata, Ramayana) but also in legends, folktales, mythology. Depictions as we know it from classic western paintings such as landscapes, village scenes, real persons etc were not part of Balinese paintings from the beginning.

Accordingly, the content of the epics was drawn from the lontars (holy manuscripts made from the lontar leaves) and the painting in itself was created based on very strict rules regarding composition and depiction: certain postures, attributes, shapes, colours represent a certain demon or God and hence make them immediately recognizable. This style is usually defined as the traditional Wayang style (or Kamasan style).

Such paintings were not only following a set of rules during their creation but also in relation with their sacral meaning: offerings would be made and the painting, once finished, was consecrated with a ceremony. The paintings were however never worshipped, only the deities which are depicted in them.

Traditional paintings until the beginning of the 20th Century were only produced upon commission, may it be to adorn a village temple, the rear inside wall of a palinggih in a family temple or a ceremonial bale in the compound. The paintings could also be made on cotton cloth, on glass (reversed technique) or on paper. Rajas also used to commission sacred paintings for their traditional pavilions (for the headboards called ‘parba’ for instance).

The paintings were never considered work of arts which need to be preserved because they served a sacred purpose and being exposed to the elements, it was normal that they would alter over time.

Such pieces of art might be difficult to interpret and be appreciated by a western trained eye because the composition is very different from what we are familiar with. It also requires a certain understanding of the ancient epics from which they are drawn.

Balinese were used to pass down their ancestral knowledge orally or through their own experience as artisans so that paintings actually only evolve in very subtle ways over the course of time. More dramatic changes started to become apparent when, at the beginning of the 20th century, Bali began to attract visitors from abroad.

The artists Water Spies and Rudolf Bonnet are often associated with the very significant development which took place in the Balinese painting style of Ubud: they introduced to local painters new concepts such as correct anatomy, realistic perspective, how to play with light and shadow… Such concepts were absolutely foreign to the Balinese for the depiction of deities and demons were not related to ‘humans of flesh and bones’. Spies and Bonnet also brought in Western painting materials which differed from the traditional pigments which, for instance, were used to create colours. The most tangible input which they shared was to be most revolutionary: they encouraged young painters to exploit their own creativity and hence render their own individual interpretation of what they would see around them. This was the first step to depart from the very conventional rules set by the sacred paintings heritage and the ‘communal approach’ in their creation. There are nowadays still mixed feelings about the long-term impacts the introduction of such new concepts brought to the Balinese art.

In any case many young painters seized this opportunity and started a journey of discovery, defining their own style, which evolved and became more refined with time. New pieces were now depicting more secular subjects such as village scenes, barong drama, ceremonies, dancers… Anak Agung Gede Sobrat is a perfect example of such artist.

In the mid 30’s, Spies, Bonnet and the local artist I Nyoman Lempad created an artist guild called ‘Pita Maha’ under the patronage of the Raja of Ubud. Their aim was to ensure that although tourism meant a growing demand for Balinese paintings, quality, excellence and ‘profoundness’ should always remain the foundation for Balinese art. Through the association, they encouraged  painters to focus on creating really good quality pieces which they would select, display in selected galleries (such as the one of the Neuhaus brothers in Sanur) or facilitate to be sold abroad.

Later on, at the end of the 50s, another artist from the Netherlands, Arie Smit also became the key for a further evolution in the painting style around Ubud. He did not introduce concepts, dictate themes nor used any assertive approach but encouraged teenagers to play with colours and to fully spontaneously express their imagination. The paintings became very vivid in colours in an unconventional and rather imaginative way, creating a sense of livelihood and naïve painting. The group he supported in the village of Penestanan was to become famous as the ‘Young Artists’.

The painting subjects and styles have continued to evolve over the last decades and the most popular subjects currently tend to be bucolic village scenes, landscapes, ceremonies, dancers , tropical fauna but more modern, abstract pieces are also to be found.

Certain painters exhibit their own paintings in small galleries attached to their compounds or have gathered into communities such as the ‘Pengosekan community of artists’ under the lead of the fascinating Dewa Nyoman Batuan.

Through the area of internet, the globalisation and tourists coming from all over the globe, the younger generation of painters is absorbing a constant new flow of impressions and inspiration. Nowadays, certain artists still continue to live the sacredness of their art but the question which can be posed is whether the traditional sacred paintings and their sacral purpose can be pertained when the old masters still alive will depart.

Ubud has become since the Pita Maha association in the late 1930s one of the strongest cultural centre of Bali and offers the discerned travellers magnificent museums where the different painting styles can be discovered.

The Purist Villas are located in the small village of Kutuh Kaja, just off Ubud and are the perfect place to stay if you wish to discover Ubud and its incredible array of culture and arts. The villas are located in a lush set of gardens and have all been designed to display the most interesting artefacts from all over the archipelago: art, refined taste and a sensible approach to local style are definitely the credo of this elegant, peaceful hideaway just a few minutes from Ubud centre.

The Purist Villas warmly recommend you to visit:

The Neka Museum
The Puri Lukisan Museum
The ARMA Museum
The Rudana Museum
The Pengosekan Community of Artists
Tanah Toh Gallery

If you are interested in the Balinese Art of Painting, here are some books which we highly suggest you to read:

ð  Perceptions of Paradise-Images of Bali in the Arts (Yayasan Dharma Seni Museum Neka)

ð  The Folk Art of Bali- The narrative Tradition (Fischer & Cooper)

ð  Artists on Bali ( Ruud Spruit)

ð  Sacred Painting in Bali- Tradition in transition (Thomas L. Cooper)

ð  The Art and Culture of Bali (Urs Ramseyer)


Mireille Lefevre
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