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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOVEMBER 26, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 47

When Bali Cast A Special Spell
On exhibit: pre-war originality before mass tourism brought by-the-numbers kitsch

I Made Soekarja's painting shows a nymph whose clothes have been stolen, and is unable to fly off with her sisters. Anthropologist Margaret Mead bought many of the Sanur artist's work Asiaweek Pictures
On his first visit to Bali in 1930, the Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias noted that local paintings served primarily religious or ceremonial functions. They were used as decorative cloths to be hung in temples and important houses, or as calendars to determine children's horoscopes. Yet within a few years, he found the art form had undergone a "liberating revolution." Where they had once been severely restricted by subject (mainly episodes from Hindu mythology) and style, Balinese artists began to produce scenes from rural life. What's more, these painters developed increasing individuality.

A few European residents - especially German painter Walter Spies and the Dutchman Rudolf Bonnet - had introduced the Balinese to alternative themes, the idea of personal expression. And to better materials. The results were magic. The indigenous artists combined these influences with an idiosyncratic way of rendering anatomy and perspective to produce fabulous, sometimes darkly surreal works - a village scene composed around a fatal stabbing, for instance. In giving rein to their imagination, argues Dutch art expert Leo Haks, the Balinese made the transition to modern art.

Magic from Bali's early revolutionaries
• Pioneers
The only women's art gallery in Indonesia

How Pusan morphed from port city to movie capital

Is soya the next "wonderfood"?

Jackie Chan in combat with a bad-image problem

The Krung Thai mess spreads farther

Visions of China: China Art Gallery
The Avant-Garde Has Its Moment of Glory (11/05/99)

Haks, one of the brains behind the Insight travel guides, lived in Singapore for 16 years until 1984, and made frequent visits to the island. The exposure inspired an enduring interest in its art. After returning to Amsterdam, he became a dealer, first in rare books and later paintings from the region. Haks and his partner Guus Maris spent some 12 years gathering and annotating a collection which demonstrates that the work of these early Balinese artists transcends what is often termed primitive art. First shown at the Kunstal Rotterdam in June, their "Magic and Modernism" exhibition is on at the Museum Puri Lukisan in Ubud until Nov. 30. The collection is to go to the Netherlands Cultural Museum in Jakarta in January. Art lovers who miss the exhibitions will have to resort to an accompanying catalog, Pre-War Balinese Modernists 1928-1942, and CD-ROM.

According to Haks, this groundbreaking period of creativity reached a peak in the late 1930s. A stream of famous visitors, including Charlie Chaplin and the anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, encouraged the talented locals to create highly original works. Much of the buzz emanated from three villages: Ubud, where Spies settled, Sanur on the southern coast, and Batuan, a traditional hub of musicians, dancers, carvers and painters. The artists painted mostly on paper, though canvas and board were also used. Often, the works featured repetitive clusters of stylized foliage or waves that conveyed a sense of texture, even perspective. Each village evolved a style of its own. Ubud artists made more use of open spaces and emphasized human figures. Sanur paintings often featured erotic scenes and animals, and work from Batuan was less colorful but tended to be more "busy." The arrival of World War II in Bali ended this vibrant movement. Because of their quality and rarity, the early modernists' works are appreciating steadily: In 1996, for instance, a painting by Anak Agung Gede Sobrat fetched 11 times the estimate at Christie's auction in Amsterdam.

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