Prior to 1920s, Balinese traditional paintings were restricted to what is now known as the Kamasan or Wayang style. It is a visual narrative of Hindu-Javanese epics: the Ramayana and Mahabharata. These two-dimensional drawings are traditionally drawn on cloth or bark paper (Ulantaga paper) with natural dyes. The coloring is limited to available natural dyes: red, ochre, black, etc. In addition, the rendering of the figures and ornamentations must follow strictly prescribed rules, since they are mostly produced for religious articles and temple hangings. These paintings are produced collaboratively, and therefore mostly anonymously.
In the 1920s, with the arrival of many western artists, Bali became an artist enclave (as Tahiti was for Paul Gauguin) for avant-garde artists such as Walter Spies (German), Rudolf Bonnet (Dutch), Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur (Belgian), Arie Smit (Dutch) and Donald Friend (Australian) in more recent years.
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. These painters had developed increasing individuality.
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. During their stay in Bali in mid 1930s, Bateson and Mead collected over 2000 paintings, predominantly from the village of Batuan. Among western artists, Spies and Bonnet are often credited for the modernization of traditional Balinese paintings. They provided painting media and introduced western painting concepts, such as western perspectives and techniques concerning picture and color composition and human anatomy. More importantly, they acted as agents of change by encouraging individual freedom of expression, and promoted departures from the confining traditional Balinese painting traditions. The result was an explosion of individual expression that led to the birth of the modern traditional Balinese painting. The Ubud painters particularly embraced it with courage and enthusiasm. This modernization took the forms of: (1) the shifting of the choice of subject matter from the narration of religious epics to the depiction of daily Bali life and drama; (2) the change of the patron of these artists from the religious temples and royal houses to western tourists/collectors; (3) shifting the picture composition from multiple to single focus. The latter is most evident in the works of Ubud artists. Despite the adoption of modern western painting traditions by many Balinese and Indonesian painters, the modern traditional Balinese painting tradition is still thriving and continues by descendants/students of the artists of the pre-war modernist era (1928-1942). The schools of modern traditional Balinese painting include: Ubud, Batuan, Sanur, Young Artist and Keliki schools of painting
bud has been the center of art for centuries, with the surrounding royal houses and temples as the main patrons. Prior to the 1920s, traditional wayang style paintings dominated the subject matters, although Jean Couteau believes that both secular and religious theme paintings have long been co-existing in the form of the expression of the unity of opposites (Rwabhinneda in Balinese belief system).
It was not until the late 1920s that this balance was tilted toward secular art by the arrival of western artists such as Miguel Covarrubias, Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur, Theo Meier, Walter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet. The last two artists were often credited as the agents of change that brought Balinese Art to modernity.
Their influence culminated with the founding of the Pitamaha Art Guild in 1936, with Tjokorda Gde Agung Sukawati as one of its founders. Its mission was to preserve the quality of Balinese Art in the rush of tourism to Bali. The board members of Pitamaha met regularly to select paintings submitted by its members, and to conduct exhibitions throughout Indonesia and abroad. Pitamaha was active until the beginning of the second world war in 1942.The subject matters shifted from religious narration to Balinese daily life. Ubud artists who were members to Pitamaha came from Ubud and its surrounding villages; Pengosekan, Peliatan and Tebasaya. Among them were: Ida Bagus Made Kembeng of the village of Tebesaya and his three sons Ida Bagus Wiri, Ida Bagus Made and Ida Bagus Belawa; Tjokorda Oka of the royal house of Peliatan; Anak Agung Gde Sobrat, Anak Agung Gde Meregeg, I Dewa Putu Bedil, I Dewa Nyoman Leper, Anak Agung Dana of Padangtegal; I Gusti Ketut Kobot, I Gusti Made Baret, I Wayan Gedot, Dewa Putu Mokoh of Pengosekan; I Gusti Deblog and I Gusti Nyoman Lempad.
The spirit of Pitamaha is well preserved by the descendents of these artists.Noted Ubudian artists include I Ketut Budiana, I Nyoman Meja, I Nyoman Kayun, A.A. Gde Anom Sukawati, I Gusti Agung Wiranata, and Ida Bagus Sena
The Batuan school of painting is practiced by brahman artists in the village of Batuan, which is situated ten kilometers to the South of Ubud. The Batuan artisans are gifted dancers, sculptors and painters. Major Batuan artists from the pre-modernist era include I Dewa Njoman Mura (1877-1950) and I Dewa Putu Kebes (1874-1962), who were known as sanging; traditional Wayang-style painters for temples' ceremonial textiles.
The western influence in Batuan did not reach the intensity it had in Ubud. According to Claire Holt, the Batuan paintings were often sultry, crowded representations of either legendary scenes or themes from daily life, but they portrayed above all fearsome nocturnal moments when grotesque spooks, freakish animal monsters, and witches accosted people. This is particularly true for paintings collected by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson during their field studies in Bali in 1936 to 1939. Gradations of black to white ink washes laid over most of the surface, so as to create an atmosphere of darkness and gloom. In the later years, the designs covered the entire space, which often contributed to the crowded nature of these paintings.Among the early Batuan artists, I Ngendon (1903-1946) was considered the most innovative Batuan School painter. Ngendon was not only a good painter, but a shrewd business man and political activist. He encouraged and mobilized his neighbours and friends to paint for tourist consumption. His ability in portraiture played an important role in teaching his fellow villagers in Batuan more than Spies and Bonnet. The major Batuan artists from this period were: I Patera (1900-1935), I Tombos (b. 1917), Ida Bagus Togog (1913-1989), Ida Bagus Made Jatasura (1917-1946), Ida Bagus Ketut Diding (1914-1990), I Made Djata (1920-2001), and Ida Bagus Widja (1912-1992). The spirit of the Pitamaha period is still strong and continues by contemporary Batuan Artists such as I Made Budi , I Wayan Bendi (b. 1950), I Ketut Murtika (b. 1952), I Made Sujendra (b. 1964), and many others. I Made Budi and I Wayan Bendi paintings capture the influence of tourism in modern life in Bali. They place tourists with their camera, riding a motorbike or surfing in the midst of Balinese traditional village activities. The dichotomy of modern and traditional Balinese life are contrasted starkly in harmony. I Ketut Murtika ( still paints the traditional story of Mahabharata and Ramayana in a painstaking details with subdued colors. His painting of the Wheel of Life viewed from the Balinese beliefs system shows his mastery of local legends and painstaking attention to details. I Made Sujendra, an art teacher at a local art school, depicts old Balinese folklore with a modern eye and a high degree of individuality. Rejecting excessive decoration and relying on the composition itself, I Made Sujendra is successful in depicting tensions in his work and the old Batuan style of 1930s
Unlike Ubud and Batuan which are located in the inland of Bali, Sanur is a beach resort. Sanur was the home of the well known Belgian artist Le Mayeur de Mepres, who lived with a Balinese wife (Ni Polok) and had a beach house in Sanur beach.
Tourists in 1930s came to Bali on cruise ships docked in Sanur and made side trips to Ubud and neighboring tourist sites. Its prime location provided the Sanur artist with ready-access to Western tourists who frequented the shop of the Neuhaus Brothers who sold balinese souvenirs and tropical fishes. Neuhaus brothers became the major art dealer of Sanur paintings.
The beach around Sanur, full of outriggers and open horizon, provided local artists with a visual environment different from the Ubud and Batuan, which are located in the hinterland.The playful atmosphere pervades the Sanur paintings, and are not dictated by the religious iconography. It is lighter and airy than those of Batuan and Ubud with sea creatures, erotic scenery and wild animals drawn in rhythmic patterns; often in an Escher-like manner. Most early works were black and white ink wash on paper, but at the request of Neuhaus, latter works were adorned with light pastel colors often added by other artists specializing in coloring a black and white drawings. Their name code is often found at the margin.
The Sanur school of painting is the most stylized and decorative among all modern Balinese Art. Major artists from Sanur are I Rundu, Ida Bagus Nyoman Rai, I Soekaria, I Poegoeg, I Rudin, and many others. I Rudin, who started to paint in mid 1930s, draws simple balinese dancers in the manner of the drawings of Miguel Covarrubias.
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