John Stowell, Walter Spies: A Life in Art, Afterhours Books, Jakarta, Indonesia, 2012, P.169, color plate 68
Blick von Der Höhe (View from the Heights) is demonstrative of the favoured themes and constructs that frequented the German artist’s paintings. Palm trees guide the eyes upwards, while vertically separating the landscape into miniature vignettes. Rice fields are woven into the fabric of the landscape, as the sky is reflected within the water beds. In the distance is Gunung Agung, the volcano a quiet presence as it observes the farmers slowly returning home.
Many of the works created during Spies’ lifetime were landscapes. This was reflective of the artist’s strong affinity for his natural surroundings, as well as his classical training as a painter. During the mid-thirties when Blick von Der Höhe (View from the Heights) was painted, Spies had already begun to experiment with different styles of composition. By separating the scenery into smaller sections, the artist was able to explore multiple horizons within a painting’s composition. The present work perfectly exemplifies Spies’ genius with shifting viewpoints in the composition.
Due to the artist’s untimely death at forty-six, there are unfortunately only a handful of oil paintings that are known to exist. Less than fifty of these works are representative of his celebrated island motifs, thereby rendering the present work an even more valuable, and important part of Spies’ creative legacy. “You can’t imagine what [Indonesia] looked like… It was the most fantastic thing that ever existed”, he had said1.
Spies had previously experimented with the aesthetic of having multiple scenes in his paintings. The painting Village Vista (Fig. 1) was created in 1933, one year prior to Blick von Der Höhe (View from the Heights). Comparing the two works side by side it is possible to see his creative maturation with different styles, and perspectives.
The artist also found inspiration in Pieter Bruegel’s landscape portraits, the 16th century Flemish artist whose “world panoramas” had transformed genre painting by having landscapes inspire the visual aesthetics of a piece. The composition in the present work is reminiscent of the painting The Gloomy Day (Fig. 2). Notably how the trees divide the landscape into smaller scenes, thereby instilling a deeper sense of depth, and drama into the narrative.
Throughout his career Spies had created works for his collector friends, including Charlie Chaplin and Barbara Hutton. Village Vista and Lakescape (Fig. 3) were works that the American heiress had requested Spies to paint for her. These commissions enabled him to meet and befriend like-minded intellectuals, as well as finance his trips overseas. A close friend and confidante of the artist was Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (Fig. 4), the German director respected for his avant-garde films, such as Nosferatu. He taught the painter how colours inspired different moods within a given narrative. He also had a hand in Spies experimentation with light and darkness in the composition of the paintings.
As a youth growing up during the era of European colonialism, Spies was familiar with Asia from the stories he heard from travellers. This fascination with the region was further nurtured when Spies saw artworks from the Dutch colonies at the Tropenmuseum (Tropical Museum) in Amsterdam. It was also during this period that Henri Rousseau and his primitive artworks were in vogue. Spies was attracted to the French artist’s depictions of tropical wildlife, and sought to incorporate this style into his own works. The stylized portrayal of the island native in the 1907 painting, La Charmeuse de Serpents (The Snake Charmer) (Fig. 5), foreshadows Spies depiction of the natural world in his landscape paintings.
At twenty-eight years old Spies joined a freighter crew and arrived to Java in 1923. The move proved beneficial for the young artist, for a mere four years later, Spies decided to permanently relocate to Bali. “Now that I am coming into contact with the Javanese and their incredibly advanced and fabulous culture, I am practically out of my mind”, he wrote. “It is hard to imagine that something of such beauty can exist! Oh, I adore them as I have never adored in my life before”2. He lived on the island as an “artist in residence” until his death in 1942.
In a letter to his family the artist wrote that “for a Balinese—and this comes from his primitive and unspoilt nature, his closeness to nature—life is the glorious, holy fact; religion is alive and it exits to teach how life is to be loved and lived, and art is alive and exists to praise the holiness of life and religion”3.
In Blick von Der Höhe (A View from the Heights) the farmer resting in the corner, his silhouette outlined by the last rays of the setting sun, represented the “everyman” that inhabited Spies’ imagination. In the painting the role is played out with quiet precision: A man observing the fruit of his labour as the day slowly comes to an end. Meanwhile, farther in the shadows are other villagers on their way home. It is a meditative study of a nocturnal moment, as realized by the individuals who inhabit the painting, their figures complimentary shapes in the darkness.
However, it is the landscape that is ultimately the main protagonist within Spies’ artworks. Figures and animals only highlight the omnipresent nature of a country’s geography. In Blick von Der Höhe (A View from the Heights) the island’s presence is felt even more intensely due to the lack of figures occupying the space.
The artwork is a vibrant portrayal of the Balinese countryside, coloured by tropical flora and fauna, the light and shadows duelling for dominance within the scene. As documented throughout his paintings, the works are a love letter to the people whom Spies befriended, and the country that he chose to become his adopted home. The artist’s oeuvre may be read as a magical realist fable, with each visual narrative rich in imagery, and symbolism.
1 John, Stowell, Walter Spies: A Life in Art, Afterhours Books, 2012
2 Refer to 1
3 Refer to 1
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