Hans Rhodius, Schönheit und Reichtum des Lebens Walter Spies (Maler und Musiker auf Bali 1895-1942), LJC Boucher, The Hague, 1964, p. 149
Sekaten 1926 is one of a limited number of oil on canvas works by the artist remaining in private hands. There are less than fifty oil works depicting Spies’ seminal Indonesian themes, of which twelve were destroyed or their present whereabouts unknown, and seven are in museums or institutions. The present work’s rarity and unconventional subject matter and composition, truly makes it invaluable.
In theme, the work is more akin to Spies’ earlier works, such as The Merry-Go-Round (1922) from his Russian period. John Stowell, author of Walter Spies, a life in art, wrote that it was one of the happiest paintings by the artist, full of life and filled with people’s interaction with the wonderments brought by the fair. The present work expresses the people’s same sense of marvel and elation. Sekaten is a week-long annual celebration comprising a festival, fair, a night market and traditional ceremonies. It is very likely that the fair had brought back a sense of nostalgia for Spies.
In the foreground, Sekaten 1926 depicts the Javanese interacting and being amazed by a laterna magica (a magic lantern that projects and enlarge transparencies onto a wall or a screen). The warm light from the box bounced off the skin of the people, casting a glow on their figures and enhancing their sculpted muscles. In the distant background, the silhouette of a gate was visible amid the velvety night, under the beam of hanging light while a carousel sparkled against the trees. Spies suffused the painting with the two tones that he favoured most: the teal blue shade he often imbued his skies with and the fiery orange he used to describe the glow of sunset, a combination rarely found in the artist’s other paintings.
Prior to his arrival in Java, Spies was an artist immersed in the intellectual currents of European modernism. His talents and interests, nurtured by an artistic upbringing in a privileged, liberal expatriate German household in Moscow, later brought him into contact with many of the leaders of the Berlin and Dresden avant-garde in the 1920s, such as the painters Oskar Kokoschka and Otto Dix as well as the film director Friedrich Murnau and the famous musicians of the day (Spies was an accomplished pianist). His second exhibition of works at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1923 showed bold, ‘primitive’ paintings influenced by Rousseau and the manifestos of the neo-primitivists that, as reactions to the claustrophobic culture of bourgeois academicism, seemed to express a freedom of spirit the artist had experienced earlier, during his internment in the Russian Urals at the time of the First World War.
Four months after his exhibition in Amsterdam, the artist set sail for Java, and settled first in Bandung where he found work as a pianist in a Chinese cinema. In no time he secured a more challenging position as the music director of the Sultan of Yogyakarta’s European Orchestra.
To say Spies’ style changed is an understatement. He seemed to have experienced in Java a profound awakening, as though he had found that perfect fusion between the primeval spirit of nature he sought to express in his works and the poetry and nobility of a high culture in tune with these natural surroundings. Spies seemed mesmerized by the landscape, the jungles, the natural dignity of the people, their art and culture, especially the hypnotic court dances and gamelan music. This passion about his new ‘home’ is something he wrote effusively about in letters to friends and relatives.
Spies travelled extensively in Java, and especially the jungles and paddy fields north of Yogyakarta. The abstract, ‘primitive’ style he had been working in somehow did not seem able to convey his excitement and newly found passion. Instead Spies sought a new language inspired by the great landscape artists of 16th century Europe, especially Pieter Bruegel. In Sekaten 1926, figures of all heights gather in the foreground while in the background, the lights of a carousel twinkles against the velvety night sky. On the upper right, a detailed, pointillist description of foliage, are also present. Perhaps Spies saw in Bruegel’s attention to detail and respect for nature a kindred spirit that the simplifications of abstract neo-primitivism could not adequately articulate.
On October 14th 2009, John Stowell wrote in a letter:
“Werner’s observation that the string of lights marks the line connecting the Kraton and the Sultan via the tugu to the seat of power of Merapi is compelling. The painter surely knew his Jogja and the ceremonies of Grebeg and Sekaten and may well have listened to the gamelan sekati through many nights (Spies selected a piece peculiar to it for Mrs Hofland). But what use is made of this?
The kraton buildings are reduced to a tiny slit of light, with the dark profile of roofs (as in the Karussell) against the night sky. As I hear, the night sky is now revealed to be sown with stars. Do they set off (enhance) the string of lights? Reduce them? I would love to see. What is foregrounded is the human activity. The group on the right may be seen as a picture of innocence, the naked child playing with a doll against the background of the happy brightly lit merry-go-round, (a familiar Spiesian theme from his German period). The left side is altogether darker. Two young people crouching to take their turn at seeing what is in the peepshow, one looking across at the world of innocence, the other in the striped shirt is too dark on my reproduction to judge as to expression. But the stunned look of the one just looking into the scene is striking. Two things are most dominant: the machine itself on its spindly stand is some sort of monster, with two eyes and a thrusting threatening presence to match the gleeful provocation of the knowing showman, who is leading these youths astray. Is there a moral lesson or is it an ironical take on the intrusion of the modern world on the traditional cosmogony? I do not think the painting could be interpreted as endorsing the divine order.
I think this ambiguity is what makes the painting interesting and I could easily see links back to the early paintings such as The Watchers… It is a work unlike most others he produced, in that the main players in the scene are recognisable people. His pencil portraits are clearly realistic or caricature, but the figures in his Balinese paintings are part of the staffage, idealistic lay figures as part of the landscape. But there are similarities with Heimkehrende Javaner (Javanese Returning Home)… One constant seems to be the dedicated attention to precise rendering of foliage and here I would expect the ‘handwriting’ of the artist to reveal identity over several works.” (EXCERPT FROM A CORRESPONDENCE DATED OCTOBER 14th 2009)
Few extant painting by Spies focuses so much on the human figure and the human emotion. Sekaten 1926 should not be seen as a nostalgic work. Perhaps in experiencing Java, the artist seemed to have abandoned the discourse on modernity, delving deeper into issues that seemed to him more profound and real.
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