Bali offers to the visitor an extraordinary richness of styles of painting, the product of many influences, traditional and modern. Until the 19th century fine arts were mainly instruments of religious expression for the Javanese courts and agrarian communities of the island. They illustrated the Hindu Buddhist mythology along lines similar in form and narrative to those of the puppet show theatre. The arrival of the Europeans, from the mid19th century onward, transformed this system. Not only did the Dutch take destroy the courts and introduced the seeds of commercialization, but there was also a direct process of Western artistic influence. This started in Ubud, which became in the 20s and 30s a haven for expatriate artists and literati. There, Walter Spies (1895-1942), a Russo-German musician, writer and painter of considerable talent, and Rudolf Bonnet (1895-1977), and Dutch academic drawer, took to distributing material, providing advice and finding markets for the village painters and sculpture. Their action, support by the local House of Sukawati, led to the Pita Maha renaissance, called by the name of the association (1935) which regrouped the main artists of the period.
The themes, techniques and function of painting were transformed : naturalism became more important than symbolism, individual expression than collective, and art was now created for its own sake; instead of myths and gods of the past, painting now talked of daily life and nature too. Pita Maha was centered around the villages of Batuan and Ubud/Padangtegal. After WW II, new trends appeared: toward miniaturization, naturalism, accentuation of colour etc. No less important, artists trained in the academies of Java, some Balinese, others from Java and other islands, introduced "modem art to Bali. As a result, Bali has now become the main centre of fine arts in Indonesia, and one of the most important in SEA.
The Balinese Style
When looking at a Balinese painting, the first thing that strikes out is its unique concept of space. There is no real focus. The surface of the canvas is "full" to the point that nothing stands out, either thematically or "visually". The eye is like "blinded" by an accumulation of elements over the surface. Another feature is systematic pattering. A Balinese painting is "surprise less". It combines ready-made forms distributed all over the canvas. There are for example is three or four types of eyes, five or 6 postures, eight or seven types of head-dresses, tress etc. And each is reproduced in a limited variety of ways: smaller or bigger, symmetric or parallel, all based on the same original pattern of reference.
These features points to a comic-stripe type of art. And, of course, Balinese painting is basically storytelling: When it doesn’t tell the episode of a wayang (puppet-show) narrative, it depicts a situation of "happy Bali": market scenes, women at bath, natural life, etc…, This is an art where the [art of the collective is more important than that of the individual. And it is the legitimacy of this collective mind-frame that we have to accept if we ever to understand Balinese painting. It is within their patterned world, constraining as it seems, that the Balinese artists find their "liberty of expression To fully appreciate a Balinese painting, one should stop expecting a "visual focus", and let instead the eye roam freely over the surface, gaze at a patterned detail-the face of a woman, for example, dig into it, identify a component sub pattern - the woman’s shawl - and then roam again on the search of another detail, following step by step the lines of identification of the drawing.
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