A one-of-a-kind, luxury edition for discerning art/book collectors of the most magnificent foreign artist ever lived in Indonesia. Winner of the prestigious "Benny Award 2012" for the best book in the world.
When he died 70 years ago, the artist Walter Spies was known to only a few close friends. Now he is prized as one of the finest painters of the tropical landscape.
This was one of many gifts that he made available to the people of Bali in the years between 1927, when he first settled there, and 1940 when he was interned as an enemy alien.
In the turmoil of war and the turbulence of the post-war years, his fate remained for a time unknown and his life and deeds in Bali gradually took on mythic proportions. He was remembered almost as a founding figure, one who had taken the arts of Bali to unprecedented heights.
There was some truth in this hyperbole; he had indeed made a massive contribution to the reputation of the island as a centre of special artistic excellence during the 1930s. He was not alone in this endeavour. Together with the Dutch painter Rudolf Bonnet
and Cokorda Gede Agung Sukawati he gave the initial impetus to the flowering of the visual arts in Ubud and district. His films and recordings brought his friends the Mexican painter Miguel Covarrubias
and the Canadian composer Colin McPhee
to Bali. The Covarrubias cultural guidebook, The Island of Bali, has accompanied generations of tourist visitors for the past seventy years, while McPhee joined Spies in stimulating the growth of musical culture in the Regency of Gianyar and furthered it in the West with his own compositions. The reputation of Ubud as a hub of cultural tourism continues to the present day. Its status is accepted by the Indonesian Government for its contribution to the island economy.
What remains of Walter Spies, the lasting documents of his achievement, are a mere handful of works, if we compare them with the prodigious output of many painters. In the years between 1920 and 1940 he completed no more than 80 major paintings, of which only about 40 are known to still exist. He usually painted very slowly, using a technique learned early with Otto Dix in Dresden following the practice of the Old Masters, first laying down a ground and then building up the painting with layers of pigments and glazes.
This technique was increasingly refined so that in his best paintings there is an intensity of hue and a subtlety of tone resulting in outstanding works that the camera finds hard to reproduce.
Spies’s works have always been prized by their owners and in the main they have remained in private hands. This means they were for a long time not generally well known and it has proved hard to bring them together for exhibition. However, larger exhibitions were held in the Netherlands in 1964 and again in 1980, with many works in the latter exhibition also shown in Germany.
These exhibitions were accompanied by two publications. In 1964, Hans Rhodius, a Dutch collector and patron of the arts, published Schönheit und Reichtum des Lebens, Walter Spies, Maler und Musiker auf Bali (1895-1942), Boucher, den Haag. This was essentially a collection of the artist’s letters to his mother, along with some to other people, a number of memoirs by friends who held him in high esteem and a series of connecting texts by Rhodius. Since the letters were mostly written in German, it made sense to publish the work in German, keeping a few in their original English. This monumental 600-page work (long out of print) contained 17 tipped-in colour plates and almost 100 pages of documentary photographs including black and white reproductions of many works.
In 1980 a much smaller volume in English, written by Hans Rhodius and John Darling, Walter Spies and Balinese Art, Terra, Zutphen, provided an outline biography of Spies, with some new material not included in the earlier volume, and a survey of work by the Balinese artists of the 1930s who had contact with him and had been influenced in their work by this contact. There were only eight colour plates in this 96-page book.
These exhibitions and publications drew attention to the painter as never before. During the 1990s, works that had remained with the original purchasers gradually came on the market and were eagerly acquired by discriminating collectors in Southeast Asia who had been alerted to the quality of Spies’s paintings and the historical context in which they were made.
This surge in awareness underlined the view that a new extensive publication in English was needed to do justice to the painter, his life and his art. John Stowell, author of the present biography, had started work thirty years ago on this project together with Hans Rhodius, drawing on wider sources than had previously been available and giving a fuller picture of the artist’s life in Europe, Java and Bali than had been possible before.
When Rhodius died suddenly, the work lay fallow for some years, only taken up again on an approach by a film producer wanting an option to make a feature film on the basis of the manuscript. This came to nothing, but the manuscript was ready when Lans Brahmantyo of Afterhours Books came forward with a serious proposal to make a definitive publication to recognize the achievement of this fascinating painter and his remarkable and talent-rich life.
The result of our efforts is now presented in this luxurious Collectors Suite
, a package limited to only 150 sets worldwide. Each set consists of two books, one reproduction print on canvas and a DVD of a film made for Dutch television in 1983 documenting the artist’s life and work, all encased in a handsome wooden box.
The larger book, XXL size, 40 x 50cm (portrait), contains in its 400 pages high quality reproductions of all of Spies’s known paintings in colour, except for the lost works for which black and white versions exist. The paintings are arranged according to themes within the three distinct periods of his life, in Europe, in Java and in Bali. A separate section brings a collection of many of the surviving drawings, with pages from early sketchbooks, caricatures and wildlife illustrations.
The 12,500-word text in this volume aims to place Spies within the context of the European art world and the very different context of his life in Java and Bali. An extensive photo gallery gives a visual impression of various phases of the artist’s life.
The 344 pages of the smaller book, 24 x 32cm (portrait), present a fully documented biography in an 80,000-word text. It places the works and related documents in chronological order and supplies a catalogue of all the known works, including mention of those that have been lost, and an analytical index. The author’s aim has been to provide a readable text consistent with the ascertainable facts, making frequent use of the artist’s own words in translation.
The biography, which is also available as a separate volume, traces the remarkable life of an exceptional individual whose career touched at many points the challenging issues of the first half of the twentieth century.
For two generations the Spies family had enjoyed wealth and status in Imperial Russia as successful business entrepreneurs and diplomats before World War I and Revolution stripped them of their wealth and forced their return to Germany.
Rusticated as an enemy alien to Sterlitamak in the southern Ural Mountains region, the 20-year-old Walter Spies used his linguistic and pianistic skills to befriend the local tribespeople and appreciate their music and their nomadic way of life. In the aftermath of the Revolution he made his way back to Moscow and briefly enjoyed the post-revolutionary outburst of cultural freedom before friends advised of the dangers to Germans in Russia. United with the family again in the defunct utopian garden colony of Hellerau outside Dresden, he started painting in earnest with some guidance from Otto Dix and in association with the breakaway artists of the Sezession. Ideas brought from Russia helped him in designing avant-garde sets for the newly democratised State Theatre.
Less than a year later, he was in Berlin at the centre of the stimulating artistic scene there, exhibiting with the cutting-edge Novembergruppe, consorting with the most advanced musicians and taking lessons himself from the celebrated pianist Artur Schnabel. For a time he was artistic adviser and partner of Friedrich Murnau, master of the silent cinema. Techniques of camera angles and montage are clearly seen in Spies’s compositions.
But in 1923, despairing of the social anarchy in Weimar Germany, he set out for the East in search of a more authentic life. He had seen attractive images of Bali in a book by Gregor Krause and was armed with letters of introduction to contacts in Java when he left Hamburg on a collier, pretending to be a Russian sailor with a poor grasp of German to cover up the fact that he had no idea about life on a ship.
Arrived in Tanjung Priok, the port of Batavia, now Jakarta, he jumped ship and soon found himself a post as the Director of the Western orchestra of the Sultan of Yogyakarta. This gave him an entrée to the highest level of the tradition of gamelan music. In typical fashion, he learned to play all its instruments, successfully developed a system of notation and adapted the music so it could be played on several pianos. Recordings he arranged in Java and later in Bali helped to spread awareness of this sophisticated form of music throughout musical circles in the wider world.
To some extent, painting took second place to music in the three years Spies spent in Java, since he was obliged to act as accompanist to touring celebrity musicians and give piano lessons to eke out his minimal salary in the Keraton. But by the time he moved to Bali at the invitation of the Sukawati family of Ubud, he had become so familiar with the world of tropical nature and so in tune with life in the court and the kampung, that he could deploy it confidently in the work he exhibited on a number of occasions in Java.
Once established in Bali under the patronage of the royal house of Ubud, he found happiness and fulfilment. He travelled all over the island, making friends and contacts wherever he went and learning the local language. He became expert in all facets of Balinese arts and customs, recording and collecting traditional ways, archaeological remains and artefacts, helping to establish a museum as its curator, stimulating the development of musical talent, encouraging young artists to explore new avenues of expression such as might appeal to tourist visitors and giving advice and support to administrators, anthropologists and other scholars who came in ever-increasing numbers as the 1930s progressed.
As a scientific fieldworker, he recorded new species of marine creatures, spiders and dragonflies, making accurate and elegant watercolours of them before the days of colour photography. He even funded an aquarium so visitors could share in his delight at the myriad forms and colours.
His brilliance as a photographer and experience in the world of film was put to good use in the collaboration in 1931 with Baron Victor von Plessen
in making Insel der Dämonen (Black Magic), a film that drew the attention of Europe and the USA to the then remote corner of Southeast Asia and starting the craze for the famous kecak, or monkey dance, that has now become a sort of iconic marker for Bali. This talent also found full employment in the images he took for what is still the standard work: Dance and Drama in Bali, which he wrote together with the dance expert Beryl de Zoete in 1936.
By 1937 these manifold interests had become a burden and Spies found it necessary to spend time at a mountain retreat near Sidemen in northeast Bali to make some time to paint. Over the next two years, armed with advice from visiting painter guests on technical matters and given the increased focus on his work, he produced a number of paintings on which his reputation now rests, jewelled landscapes exhibiting a chiaroscuro of light and dark, a balance of primeval jungle and the shaping hand of human habitation and the resonances this contrast implies.
Spies’s progress as a painter was abruptly cut short by the advent of World War II. He was once again interned as a German enemy alien in May 1940. In detention he kept up his music and painting as best he could, but lost his life when a ship taking civil internees to safety was sunk by a bomb from a ‘friendly’ reconnaissance plane. There were reports that Spies was heard playing the piano as the ship went down.
The drama of Spies’s life and the quality of his paintings are captured in the two publications of the Collectors Suite. It is a matter for regret that he was not spared to paint on into his full maturity. Even in internment in Sumatra he was writing of a new beginning and turning to biblical allegory, producing a Vision of the Prophet Ezekiel, a painting that has not survived. But it is a matter for gratitude that so many of his works have survived to document his splendid vision of the Bali that existed between the wars.