For many foreigners, Bali is the face of Indonesia. This island is often regarded as a representation of the culture, traditions and exoticism of this country. That's all you can find in every corner of Bali; on the narrow streets of Kuta, on the southern coast, in the sparkling performances of the Kecak dance in Denpasar, to the villages of Ubud that offer unmatched coolness.

The Island of the Gods, as Bali is often called, is a magnet for local and foreign tourists. Every time, they came in droves there; looking for a pinch of pleasure and hope the party continues to sing until the sun rises.

Walter Spies, German Painter Who Introduces Bali to the World
Walter Spies

The beauty and exoticism of Bali, of course, was not born from empty space. Apart from the fact that this island has abundant potential to be big, one thing that makes Bali's popularity soaring is the contribution of Walter Spies, German artist and painter. Thanks to its contribution through the arts, especially fine arts, Bali is slowly known to the world.

Fighting Inner Struggle
Spies was born and raised in Moscow, Russia. Since young, he has been interested in the art world. The works of art that he always observed were works by Marc Chagall and Henri Rousseau. Over time, Spies began to explore the world of art seriously, especially after getting to know the folk art of Baschkirian when he took part in military service in Sterlitamak, an area south of the Ural Mountains. It was this combination of Chagall, Rousseau and Basckirian influences that later shaped the artistic character of Spies.

When Moscow was devastated by the war, Spies decided to go to Germany, precisely in Dresden, the place where his parents came from. There, Spies increasingly dissolved in the world of art. He joined the art community called Hellerau and became acquainted with sculptor Hedwig Jaenchen and painter Oskar Kokoschka who would later become his mentor.

The environment in Germany, according to Geff Freen in "Walter Spies, Tourist Art and Balinese Art in Inter-War Colonial Bali" (PDF), makes his ability to develop well. Spies can even hold a number of exhibitions (one of them Novembergruppe in Berlin) and sell several paintings. Not only that, Spies's works were also praised by critics, one of whom was Frans Roh.

Driven by a desire to dig deeper into the artistic side, Spies decided to wander around the world leaving behind his already well-established career. He wandered to Africa and Asia, before returning to Europe. Another factor driving him to travel was life in Europe itself. For Spies, Europe is so grim and stiff.

"You have absolutely no idea how unhappy I am living among quiet and emotionless people in Germany! Everything is fake and full of engineering, "Spies said in a letter written to his friend.

In August 1923, Spies, along with his friend, writer Heinrich Hauser, departed by ship to Batavia via Cardiff.

Upon arrival in Batavia, Spies immediately explored several areas before finally settling in Yogyakarta. In that city, Spies established close relations with the court aristocrats and spent more time studying gamelan instead of painting.

Even so, Spies still make paintings and sold on several occasions. One of the famous is the painting titled Laterna Magica , which is considered to mark the transition between European painting styles and preoccupation with Asian exoticism.

Arrived in Bali and made a breakthrough
Spies first came to Bali in 1925 at the invitation of Tjokorda Gde Raka Soekawati, a nobleman from Ubud who was known to be pro-Dutch. By Raka, Spies was treated at Puri Ubud. Both of them were involved in the meeting with warm conversation. Most talk about art.

The visit left a deep impression on Spies. He fell in love with Bali and its people. As a result, in 1927, he decided to move to Bali. For a time, Spies occupied Puri Ubud before finally being allowed Raka to build a house in Campuan. As such, Spies became an early generation of expatriates who settled in Bali.

Spies spent the first few years in Bali networking and learning about Balinese culture as a whole. In the process, as Jamie James wrote in the article entitled"Ubud, the Heart of Bali" (1999), Spies found the condition that the idea of ​​art, for most Balinese people, sounded unfamiliar. The Balinese, for example, do not have the word to say "artist". Painting, carving stone and wood, weaving, playing musical instruments, and, above all, dancing is what a person does when not fishing or working in the fields.

Instead of feeling alienated, Spies is actually motivated to explore various local cultural treasures. He took a careful photograph of the reality of Bali, which he then poured into canvas strokes. In Bali, writes John Stowell in Walter Spies, a Life in Art (2011), Spies gained a turning point in his artistic development.

Like his idol, Henri Rousseau, Spies loved the natural panorama. Rows of mountains, forests, to the rice fields so neatly captured. There is a simple density stored in each image. Spies makes the images come alive with stunning color processing; white and black, bright and dark, real and reflected, all processed with attention to impressive detail — giving rise to a striking and nostalgic Balinese landscape.

This can be seen when Spies painted Gunung Agung. In his hand, Mount Agung looks so majestic. Spies presents it with bright yellow incandescent and warm orange shades that dominate the canvas. Mount Agung like emitting light from another world while symbolizing its greatness as a pillar guarding the universe.

While in Bali, Spies has produced several works, such as Balinese Legend (1929), Buyansee (1934), until A View from the Heights (1934). The artistic peak of Spies can be seen in the Mountains and Pond (1938). Through this painting, Spies is considered to have succeeded in presenting the complete tranquility of Bali.

Not just painting, Spies is also actively involved in projects and other artistic activities. He became a choreographer, designer, naturalist, photographer, curator and film consultant. A series of these titles make Spies like a celebrity. With this status too, Spies is often a guide for foreign guests who want to see Bali directly, not just from the frame of the painting. Spies' guests were not careless people: movie stars, billionaires, to nobles.

This is what then made Bali's popularity slowly skyrocket overseas. The story of those who had traveled to Bali spread so massively. On average they have the same opinion: in the Dutch East Indies, a land that spans thousands of kilometers from Europe, there is a heaven on earth.

Entering the late 1930s, Spies's popularity encountered serious obstacles when he was arrested by the colonial authorities because he was considered to have sex with minors. Spies himself is a homosexual. The rules of the colonial government cannot tolerate such behavior. If convicted, a sentence of five years in prison is awaiting. Luckily, Spies was only detained for approximately two months.

Tragic End on the Van Imhoff Ship
After his release, he had lived in Bali for several months and returned to painting. However, the turmoil of World War II led to bad luck. As a descendant of Germany, he was captured by the Dutch East Indies government along with hundreds of other people, the impact of the German attack on the Netherlands. Spies then transported to the ship Van Imhoff and thrown to Sri Lanka as a prisoner of war.

Nahas, while sailing in the waters of western Sumatra, the Imperial Japanese Navy fleet sank Van Imhoff . The incident occurred on January 19, 1942, right today 77 years ago. The Japanese Navy did not know that the ship he attacked was a ship carrying prisoners of war. Spies who were in it instantly died at the age of 47.

The journey to explore the art taken by Spies must end tragically. But, Spies has left an important legacy for the Island of the Gods. During nearly 14 years living there, he contributed to changing people's perspectives on art and introducing Bali to the outside world. All done because he was so fascinated by the natural beauty and culture of Bali.

"You cannot imagine what [Bali and Indonesia] are like ... That is the most fantastic thing ever," he said in a letter.

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