Life and Work of Artist Who Dreamed Bali

By Jamie James 26 May 2012

The life and career of the German artist Walter Spies presents the classic model of the tropical romantic. Soon after he arrived in Bali on his first visit in 1925, he determined to live there and devote himself to the island and its culture. He did so with the passion of a lover, with talents that were many and varied.

Spies celebrated the island’s natural beauty and pastoral way of life in paintings executed with the exquisite technical perfection of a Baroque master. He described Bali’s glorious dance traditions with sensitive precision in words and photographs, and his musicological studies resulted in some of the earliest successful transcriptions of gamelan music. Spies was an accomplished architect—he made valuable contributions to the study of tropical wildlife and was the first curator of the Bali Museum.

Yet Spies’ most enduring legacy is his contribution to the creation of the modern myth of Bali. The dream of the island as a utopian paradise had many fond parents, but Spies was the mother of them all.

There has long been a need for a comprehensive biography of Spies—now the Australian scholar John Stowell has produced a fine one, the fruit of some 30 years of research. “Walter Spies: A Life in Art” is well-written and superbly illustrated, and considerably enriched by generous quotation from Spies’ extensive correspondence with family and friends.

No one could explain Spies’ vision of Bali better than the man himself. In a letter to his brother Leo, he wrote, “For a Balinese—and this comes from his primitive and unspoilt nature, his closeness to nature—life is the glorious, holy fact; religion is alive and it exists to teach how life is to be loved and lived, and art is alive and exists to praise the holiness of life and religion.”

Like all myths, the dream of Bali is based upon profound truth. Today, romantic phrases like “primitive and unspoilt nature” are as taboo as the insulting racialist stereotypes they replaced. By contemporary standards, such language is seen as patronizing; now we must find new ways of expressing the principle that isolation nurtures cultural integrity.

One question raised by the life of Walter Spies is whether his sympathetic immersion in the life of Bali had the positive effect of recording the pristine state of a culture that was about to be engulfed by world war and a global economy, or whether he and his idealistic crew simply accelerated the contaminating influence.

Stowell’s biography covers the whole of Spies’ fascinating, abundantly dramatic life, from his childhood in Russia, the son of German expatriates, to his tragic death in 1942, at the age of 46, aboard a Dutch ship transporting German internees, which was sunk by a Japanese bomb.

The book devotes as much detailed attention to Spies’ career as a rising young artist in Germany and his tenure as orchestra director at the court of the Sultan of Yogyakarta as it does to the Bali years. Stowell is well-grounded in subjects as disparate and recondite as the tuning of the gamelan and the insects and echinoderms that Spies painted in meticulous scientific illustrations.

The book’s picture research is equally impressive. Period photographs do as much to reconstruct Spies’ life as the written record—a double-page spread of Spies’ living room at the sultan’s palace in Yogya is the archetype of the tropical-romantic lifestyle, which survives in the swanky villas of Ubud and the better crashpads of Kuta.

Stowell also makes a major contribution to art history with the first catalogue of Spies’ entire artistic output, reproduced in the best available images and beautifully printed. However, the book suffers somewhat from the author’s decision to sequester virtually all the analysis and interpretation of Spies’ art to a final chapter. In the main text, the commentary on even major works is cursory, which creates an awkward disparity.

The book would also have benefited from some insight into Spies’ private life, which resulted in him being sentenced to eight months in Dutch colonial jail for having sex with underage boys. The charges against him were no doubt trumped-up, as Stowell proves, but the argument might have been strengthened by some glimpses into the reality of life at Spies’ compound in Campuan. No call for titillating gossip, simply a clearer idea of his personal life.

Nevertheless, the book generally does a good job of bringing the artist to life as a man of flesh and blood, a charismatic idealist who devoted himself to one lover—Bali. Spies’ greatest pleasure was dressing her up and showing her off in tours and entertainments staged for the famous visitors who thronged to Bali, as word spread about the charming, erudite artist in residence who could provide direct access to the island’s inner life.

Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Margaret Mead, Cole Porter, Leopold Stokowski, assorted American millionairesses—the list goes on, and most of the celebrity sightseers bought a painting.

If Spies’ life presents the paradigm of the dream world of the tropical romantic, it also reveals its tragic dilemma. Bewitched by his exotic mistress, the romantic wants all the world to come and admire her; but when the visitors arrive, he wants the world to go away and leave them in peace.

As the year 1938 drew to a close and world war threatened, Spies complained that “tourism, ever on the increase,” was having a “fairly fatal effect” on Balinese music and dance. “Things get abridged, modernized, adjusted to suit the tourists’ taste.”

He described the prospect of success for a new plan “to curtail or even stop tourism” in Bali as “indescribably glorious. I can only hope that [the] Balinese will be able to see it in the same way and be in a position to express the same jubilation as we who are so obsessed with Balinese culture.”

The tragedy of the tropical romantic is that of all lovers who want the beloved never to change. Walter Spies learned that Bali, like every great beauty, had a mind of her own.