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103 Meridian East » History »  Walter Spies ľ ?aáRussian Reformer ofáBalinese Art
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"I have little contact with Europeans here,
as they are only interested in politics and money,
whereas I am more interested in woods and the beautiful eyes of the Javanese."
Walter Spies about the island of Java

The name Walter Spies, in at least one of his many roles, is known to any educated Balinese person. Nearly forgotten in Europe, he is more likely to be remembered as a friend of Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward and Rabindranath Tagore, and as the person who introduced Bali as a popular place for work and play among the many big names of world culture. But he is virtually overlooked in Russia.

A Strange "German"

Reference books and encyclopaedias usually define Spies as a "German painter" or, at best, there may be a fleeting note stating that he was born "to the family of a German diplomat" on 15 September 1895 in Moscow, as indicated on the website dedicated to him.

I had believed this for quite a while until I learnt enough to start asking myself the following questions:
- What kind of "German" would spend 18 out of the 28 years that he lived in Europe in Moscow and the Urals region?
- What kind of "German" would feel homesick for his family summer cottage in Moscow's suburbs?
- What kind of "German" would urge his friends in Europe to call him "Walja"?
My research, in collaboration with Sergey Belenky, who lives in Pennsylvania and is deeply engaged in working with electronic archives, revealed that Spies' father wasn't "a German diplomat" but the honorary consul of Germany in Moscow and a citizen of the Russian Empire.

Russia's "Melting Pot"

The Russian Spies clan was founded by Walter's grandfather. Like many other Germans, lured by a flourishing Russia during the first half of the 19th century, he moved to Moscow in 1846 (or 1845) and later acquired Russian citizenship. Walter grew up and studied in Moscow, revealing a flair for botany, zoology, music, dancing and painting, which was not surprising since he came from a family whose salons were frequented by prominent people such as composers Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff, as well as writer Maxim Gorky.

In 1910, our protagonist went to Dresden to study but, every year, over the summer holidays, he went back to his parents' house. In Moscow in 1914, he was caught by the outbreak of World War I. Since Walter had reached the demobilisation age of 20, he was interned and deported to Sterlitamak (a town a mere 50 km away from the Ural Mountains). It was still Europe, but already fairly mixed with Asia.
I won't even repeat the cliché "those were such times" trying to explain the reasons for deporting Spies as well as other Russian Germans. If I may remind you, later, during World War II, Great Britain did the same thing to its citizens of German origin and the US to its Japanese nationals… And, moreover, speaking of Walter, I think the years spent in Sterlitamak ultimately shaped his future.
The city in which a lot of Tartar, Bashkir and Kirghiz people lived resembled a boiling melting pot, though not the notorious one that has resulted in the unified culture of McDonalds and Hollywood but, rather, a pot that mixes various cultures while allowing them to borrow the best from each other and yet maintain their own identities. Our protagonist was very keen to learn about the lifestyles of the locals and their music. His letters to his family reflect the charm of this simple and sincere way of life, as well as the tunes and songs.
Spies described his walks, nature sketches and efforts to learn the Tartar and Kirghiz languages and Arabic literature. He made his first attempts at painting, and notated Bashkir and Tartar folk tunes.
But the traditional lore of the Ural people differs fundamentally from the arts of Western Europe. "No one knew who wrote the songs that they had sung for many generations. And Spies began to believe that 'in most folk art, truth is hidden in anonymous works'," says Miyuki Soejima, a well-known Japanese researcher of the works of Walter Spies. But this totally corresponded with what he would see in Bali soon!
Then the war was followed by the revolution…

Bandmaster of His Highness the Sultan

I won't take up your time describing how our hero spent the next several years in Europe. It's more important how he felt there — I had mentioned it at the beginning of my story. Spies became a rather well-known musician; in 1934, his sister Daisy, then prima ballerina of the Berlin Opera, performed A Song of Bashkir — it is obvious who had been behind the number's creation and staging. At the same time, Walter was busy painting and his first exhibition was successfully held in Dresden in summer 1919, followed by two shows in Holland in 1923. In the capacity of art adviser, Spies joined the team of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, a 30-year-old German director, who up to this day is hailed as "the greatest master of silent movies".
Then, suddenly, Spies left everything behind and fled to Dutch India, as Indonesia was called then. "After my difficult and dangerous sea trip as a sailor on a cargo ship, I reached Java and ran away from the vessel!" he wrote in his letter home.
Walter first arrived in Bandung, a young city in the mountainous heart of Western Java known as "Javanese Paris". There, he worked as a pianist in a local cinema and, of course, painted. A number of splendid mountain landscapes dating to that period depict the Preanger region, or the Abode of the Gods, as it's called by the Sundanese, natives of Western Java. Java instantly enchanted Spies. "These people, the Sundanese and Javanese, are so incredibly beautiful, so slightly built, brown and aristocratic, that all who are not these kinds should be ashamed of themselves," he wrote.

The next stop on his journey was Java's cultural capital, Yogyakarta, where he again initially worked as a pianist. But as his keen interest in Javanese culture drew the attention of Sultan Hamengkubuwono VIII himself, Spies acquired the position of European orchestra conductor of the court. He even turned out to be the first European to ever live in the Sultan's palace.
There, he continued to study the gamelan, a Javanese orchestra that consists of dozens different instruments; he learnt to play each of them and even created a system allowing the notation of the music played by such an orchestra. It was an insanely challenging task. The problem was that there was no such thing as a standard gamelan, and even general classification was complicated as the small island of Bali had at least 20 different types of orchestra. There was no standard tuning either; moreover, at that time, it was some kind of copyright that belonged to a certain performing group and couldn't be used by others. All this forced Spies to tediously pick out similar sounds on two pianos to write down the notes…
But it was worth it. This is his description of the orchestra: "The old imperial gamelan started to play, at first gently, like drops of water, deep rumbling strikes of the gong, so deep that it caused anxiety. First, a beautiful, flexible female voice started the song, then others joined in. Then a male chorus answered, and they were all accompanied by a large wild forest of marvellous, crystal-clear metallic sounds and wooden tones, which served as the 'flower'. Gently whining violins and a high, needle-fine coloratura of fine reed flutes in between. It was like all of these took turns; the one became lower, the other wilder and louder, and the excited drums in between and behind them. Sometimes all the music faded into nothing and then came back again, dropping in from somewhere…"
Spies was learning Malay and, more importantly, the most complicated multi-level Javanese language (this came in very handy when he moved to Bali where a related Balinese language was spoken).

The Best is the Enemy of Good

All of a sudden, our hero deserted an already-established life and career and moved again. This time to Bali. The first time Walter visited the island was in 1925, and he instantly fell under its charm so much that he moved there permanently one year after, settling in the current cultural capital, Ubud.
"Walter Spies was invited to Bali by my uncle, my father's older brother, who met him in the Kraton (Sultan palace – 103rd ME) of Yogyakarta," the current Raja of Tjokorda Putra Sukawati divulges on the terrace of Ubud Puri. "Of course, at first, Walter Spies lived in my uncle's palace but, after a year, he wanted to see other parts of the island as well, and since the transportation from 1927 to 1929 was a huge problem and Spies was eager to learn more about other places in Bali, he decided to move temporarily to Iseh village in Karangasem. In terms of aura, landscape and nature, Iseh and Ubud are very similar and, if I am not mistaken, Spies lived there for about a year. Then he returned to Ubud to stay there permanently. Our family presented him with a piece of land where he built his house." A humble house located in Tjampuhan, close to the confluence of two rivers always covered by a misty veil and considered sacred by the Balinese people, soon became a pilgrimage site for hundreds of local artists.
"At that time, there was no Balinese word for 'painter'. Those deeply involved in the arts were called 'unagi', but they also built houses or carved wood," continues Raja. "Balinese fine arts were very traditional and painting subjects were taken only from wayang shadow puppet theatre stories.

Village Landscape by contemporary Balinese
artist I Gusti Agung Wiranata

The same thing applied to colours, where only religiously-significant red, black and white were used, so the arts were constrained and didn't reflect everyday life. Moreover, Balinese painters were not aware of anatomy, proportions and perspective, and only with Spies' arrival in Ubud Puri did they start to discover Western art".

In Bali, our protagonist once again encountered what he had seen before with the Bashkir and Kirghiz people — that the arts were still anonymous. Even the idea that one could put his signature on a painting and create something to sell was absolutely new for unagi. In 1936, together with a like-minded Dutchman, Rudolf Bonnet, who arrived in Bali several years after Walter and Raja Sukawati, he founded the Pita Maha society, which became a catalyst for the impetuous transformation of Balinese art. Apart from purely artistic goals, the society also aimed to assist artists with money by helping them sell their works, even overseas. Pita Maha held the first exhibition of Balinese art in Batavia (Jakarta's name at the time), then in Europe in 1931. To top it all off, Spies was the founder of the first museum of fine arts in Bali, now known as the Ubud Palace of Paintings.

"Melting Pot" from the Inside and Outside

Painting was far from the only thing Spies was engaged in when in Bali. "Under Spies' influence, wayang became considered real theatre where, for example, the Mahabharata was shown. And then kecak was born," says Raja.
The most famous Balinese dance in the world, which is often sold to tourists as "traditional", was staged by Walter especially for the film Insel der Demonen (The Isle of Demons). Recognised as one of the best films of 1932, it was directed by Baron Viktor von Plessen, who came to Bali without a script, meaning that all the credit for creating the image of the Calon Arang witch and Bali as the island of demons belonged to Spies, the film's art director and scriptwriter.
Walter also faced the challenge of adapting the complex language of a Balinese dance, which can go on for longer than a day, to European viewers, as each finger movement and each glance is full of unique meaning clear to the Balinese but absolutely meaningless to outsiders. Spies undertook a daring experiment: he used the Ramayana story about the monkey army and interwove movements of traditional Balinese warrior dances within it, while increasing the number of dancers to more than a hundred. And, of course, he added rhythmical "monkey" cries of "Chak! Chak!", performed by men sitting deep in trance in concentric circles, which gave the dance its name.

Spies' works – main lots at Christie's

It is hard to name a field in which Walter Spies didn't leave a trace. He wasn't just a painter, film director and choreographer, but also a musicologist, archaeologist, ethnographer, writer, zoologist, botanist, photographer and linguist. In collaboration with British national Beryl de Zoete, he wrote the book Dance and Drama in Bali, and helped the Canadian musician and composer Colin McPhee to write Music in Bali. He was also considered a "father" of the famous "elongated" wood-carving style and of Bali's main museum situated in Denpasar, of which he was the first curator.
"Walter Spies became one of the few Western guests who could adjust the most to a different world using puri as a bridge to Balinese society. Bonnet and Hoffner, for example, communicated less with Balinese people. Apparently, it is a character trait. I think the fact that Spies grew up in Russia and then moved to Germany prepared him to comprehend multi-nationalism," concludes Raja Sukawati.

But soon World War II broke out. Germany invaded the Netherlands and in turn the colonial government interned all people of German origin. That was how Walter entered an internment camp for the second time in his life, first in Java then in Sumatra. On the ill-fated day of 18 January 1942, he boarded the ship Van Imhoff, which was supposed to bring those arrested and interned to Ceylon. However, the day after, the ship was attacked by a Japanese torpedo boat and sank near the island of Nias. The Dutch crew left the ship without letting the transported prisoners out.

Instead of the Afterword

The newspapers announced: "In Sotheby's auction of Southeast Asian art (Hong Kong, 8 April 2008), the top lot was Walter Spies' oil painting Buyansee", which fetched US$ 703,000. Sotheby's Hong Kong October 2008 sale saw Heimkehrende Javaner (Javanese Returning Home) sold for US$ 1.2 million.
During Christie's Hong Kong Autumn 2010 auctions that ended on 2 December, Spies' Balinese Legend (1929) fetched US$ 2.17 milion, which beat the previous prices of his artworks.
I believe the artist who lived in a simple wooden house would have been pleased to know this. But I also think he would be even more pleased to learn something else. Thanks to the kind permission of Suteja Neka, owner of Neka Art Museum Ubud Bali, I have a photograph of the painting Village Landscape by contemporary Balinese artist I Gusti Agung Wiranata from Bandung. The painting's plaque says: "The aesthetic influences from German [well, it can't be helped!] artist Walter Spies are obvious in the dramatic use of light to create depth and mood… There is a divine sense of warmth shining on the temple and coming out of it that reflects a Balinese feeling of the sacred."

By Mikhail Tsyganov, a RIA Novosti correspondent in Jakarta
(together with Sergey Belenky), exclusively for 103rd Meridian East


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