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While spending a blustery summer afternoon in Bali's artist hub Ubud, I dropped into the Museum Puri Lukisan. After walking past walls of finely drawn demonic figures, I was not very inspired. But then suddenly a rainstorm burst overhead and the lights went out. The storm was so violent that I was drawn to watch it tear through the trees from the entrance of the pavilion. After 20 minutes, sunlight emerged framing the tall palm trees in front of me. This is what I love about Bali, and what I can see in much of the art here: all-encompassing shapes of plants, trees and rice paddies shaped by the light, and the people small within it.

Back inside, finally one painting drew my attention. It reflected back to me something like what I had just seen:  a beautiful depiction of a sunset reflected in palm-fringed, water-filled rice paddies at that point of the evening just before darkness has fully enveloped all colour. It was framed in a round passepartout, adding to the looking glass effect. I could have looked at it forever. It was by Walter Spies, a Russian born German artist who spent 9 years (1927-1936) in Ubud obsessively painting and drawing, eventually influencing the development of Balinese art in a big way. He encouraged young artists to go beyond the traditional boundaries of Hindy mythology and instead depict everyday life scenes.

Now that I am living in Bali, I am blessed to ride home at sunset every day past similar water-filled rice paddies, reflecting those dark pinks and oranges just before the lights on the day go out, exactly like he painted so many years ago. So I decided to find out more about this artist. What can I learn from someone so obsessive about his art who was also an immigrant, and then found a new home in a place that inspired his work, like me?

Walter Spies was born to diplomats in Moscow prior to moving to Germany where he devoted himself to painting, film, and music. Escaping the post-war turmoil in Europe, Spies traveled East. In 1923 he came to Java, living first in Yogyakarta where he moved into the Keraton from where he could study gamelan music. He went on to invent a way to transcribe the gamelan music to paper and led the Keraton's European Orchestra. Upon the invitation of the Prince of Ubud, Tjokorda Raka Sukawati, Spies moved to Ubud in 1927. There he co-founded the Pita Maha artists cooperative, through which he shaped the development of modern Balinese art and established the Westerner's image of Bali that still exists today.

Needing some space from the busy social scene in Ubud, Spies moved to Iseh at the foot of Mount Agung in Karangasem, East Bali, where he painted “Iseh in Morning light” in 1938, one of his most famous masterpieces. He still entertained high-profile visitors such as Charlie Chaplin, and even today, the house has attracted guests such as David Bowie and Mick Jagger. From Iseh, Spies had a daily view of Mount Agung, the majestic volcano often hidden in fog and clouds, the same mountain that left a lasting impression on me during family holidays in Karangasem when I was a kid. In a double loop, Walter Spies now inspires me to be more passionate about pushing my inky lines into new shapes and places.

 

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