Lot 1021
  • 1021

WALTER SPIES | Berge und Teich (Mountains and Pond)

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  • Walter Spies
  • Berge und Teich (Mountains and Pond)
  • inscribed by W.G. Hofker on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 71.5 by 59.5  cm; 28 1/4  by 23 1/2  in. 
  • Executed in 1938


Collection of M.van Wassem, thence by descent
Sotheby's Singapore, 29 March 1997, Lot 88
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Private Asian Collection 



Ruud Spruit, Artists on Bali, Amsterdam, 1996, p. 70, color illustration
John Stowell, Walter Spies: A Life in Art, Afterhours Books, 2011, p. 207, 276, 315, color illustration


This work is in good overall condition as viewed. Evidence of light wear and loss along the edges of the work due to abrasions with the frame. There are a few pin hole size paint losses at the bottom area of the work and one at the left edge, but these are only visible under very close inspection. Examination under ultraviolet light shows a few spots of restoration primarily at the edges of the work and at two small horizontal lines coming from the right edge, likely due to the natural imperfections of the canvas. Framed.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Berge und Teich (Mountains and Pond) is a striking and rare work that embodies the apex of Walter Spies’ artistic career. With its vivid interplay of light and shadow, radiant palette, and alluring subject matter, this masterpiece immediately captures the viewer’s attention. It invites the eye to trace the multiple elements in the image, which altogether produce an atmosphere that is soothing and psychedelic at once. Given the variety of influences that the maestro explored during his many sojourns, it took years before the artist developed his mature artistic style in the 1930s.  By the time he attained the pinnacle of his aesthetic, he had already mastered sundry techniques, such as the ability to capture the silhouettes of flora against back lighting and achieve the dramatic contrast of light and shade in moonlit scenes. Painted in 1938, Mountains and Pond demonstrates Spies’ dexterous artistic aptitude and his ability to create compositions that are at once whimsical and transcendent. The grandiose mountains that dominate the composition are a nod towards the mountain hut refuge that Spies had built in the village of Iseh. Around the 1930s, Spies had gained a widespread reputation as the expert of Bali and was sought after by distinguished globe-trotters for his tours and introductions to Balinese life. While he maintained activities with the Pita Maha group in Campuan, Iseh soon became Spies’s personal enclave where he would be able to paint freely with fewer distractions. Indeed Spies had gained a comfortable financial situation, such that he could paint without the onus of making money, but purely in response to the inspiration he found in his rich surroundings. The discreet abode was ideal for Spies, close to one of his favorite subjects, Gunung Agung, and hidden within the thick jungles of Bali. He completed some of his best works during this period, including Berge und Teich, which stands as an exceptional example by the artist at the height of his opus.

Wholly immersed in the landscape of Bali, Spies marvelously portrays the serenity and calm of his remote environs in the present painting. The only glimpse of human activity is suggested by the inclusion of the temple grounds in the distance. He paints the Meru towers (pelinggih meru) and a split gateway (candi bentar) as silhouettes delineated with a subtle play of reflected light and mirrored symmetrically on the perfectly still water below.

When arranging the visual elements of the picture, Spies deliberately contradicts western art principles of linear perspective. The horizon in the background appears at the upper left quadrant, lined with Balinese temple gates and structures overlooking an unruffled body of water. The earth at the bottom of the painting could be interpreted as the foreground, which appears to possess a formal structure in its own right, compositionally unrelated to the temples and pond in the backdrop. This foreground leads the eye towards a luminous mountain, rising tall until it reaches the lake above it. It remains curiously unclear whether the mountain is a reflection or submerged under water, coercing viewers to question their assumptions about what lies within the pictorial frame. In this regard, Spies utilizes multiple points of perspective, as opposed to just one. Lush foliage frames these scenes, amalgamating the background and foreground, confusing the eye and challenging traditional norms of representation. Evidently, the various facets of the vista exist in multiple planes simultaneously, and they cannot be characterized as the ‘background’ and ‘foreground’ in the traditional sense. This unconventional visual ordering adds a spiritual dimension to the landscape, which is surpasses the limits of the human eye. In this bewildering yet alluring manner, Mountains and Pond showcases Spies’ daring sense of imagination.

The artist’s distinctive technique of synthesizing multifarious scenes within a single composition is characteristic of traditional Balinese narrative paintings, which often feature disparate extracts from a single story occurring concurrently in different parts of the picture surface. Spies employs this frequently in the 1930s, also seen in Blick von Der Höhe (View from the Heights), 1934. In this way, he explicitly draws on traits of traditional Balinese art that resonate with him, which clearly shows the influence of Bali’s culture on his works.

Spies’ move to Indonesia was undoubtedly the most pivotal turning point in his artistic development. In letters, he reflects that the purely ‘primitive’ style he previously adopted could neither adequately convey the beauty of Indonesian panoramas nor express the overwhelming excitement that he felt upon reaching Java, and later, Bali. The zenith of Spies’ style bears some resemblance to Naïve art, with elements of his earlier adopted forms of primitivism. As such, many of his landscapes are akin to those of the French post-impressionist painter Henri Rousseau, who would also include stylized tropical greenery, simplified into shapes. Much like Rousseau, Spies delighted in the splendor of the natural world. He often went on trips to study the flora and fauna around him and capture their minute details in his drawings. In Mountains and Pond, the artist draws from his botanical studies and meticulously paints the vegetation, one leaf at a time, in order to depict abundant greenery that appears to teem with life. Additionally Spies manages to emulate Rousseau’s style of layering the foliage to create a sense of density to the landscapes.

The trees emerge from darkness, illuminated with orange and lemon strokes that delineate their shapes. This stark juxtaposition of light and shadow can be seen in many of Spies’ works, highlighting the important features of the picture with a dramatic effect. As someone who found his métier in theatre, it is not surprising to see Spies casting histrionic lighting on all the elements of his two dimensional pictures as well, staging his subject matter on the canvas. In order to achieve this vibrant effect, the artist employs chiaroscuro to lend body to each entity in the painting. Yet there is a simple solidity in his forms, Spies delineates each leaf and branch in intense tonal contrast. Additionally, small trees peppered on the mountain range come alive with the application of white pigments mixed with variegated yellow shades. White and black, light and dark, real and reflected are all applied with impressive attention to detail, conjuring a striking yet nostalgic depiction of Bali’s landscape.

Glorious and iridescent, the majestic Balinese mountains, which dominate the  canvas, are rendered in incandescent shades of bright yellow and warm orange. Gunung Agung or Mount Agung was often depicted in the far distance in Spies’ landscape works. The artist had an intimately privileged view of Gunung Agung, which  is likely depicted in Mountains and Pond. Set against the dimmed, shadowy environ and flanked by dense jungles, the peaks radiate with an otherworldly glow. The fiery hues suggest the drama of an erupting volcano, while the delicate forms and still waters are reminiscent of the quiet solitude Spies found in Iseh.  Evoking a transient sunset, on the brink of a dark peaceful night, the skies above blush with a deep residual orange; the waning sun is beginning to give way to the dark spirits of the night.  Despite the shadowy setting, the mountains in the foreground stand in alluring grandeur, vivid as ever, as if emanating light from within.

Spies was deeply engrossed with Balinese culture and rituals. In his affectionately penned letters to friends and family, Spies made it clear that he was enthralled by the natural beauty and culture of Bali.  “You can’t imagine what [Indonesia] looked like… It was the most fantastic thing that ever existed”, he wrote effusively.[1] In Bali, Spies was ensconced by an environment that constantly fascinated him and stimulated his creativity. It is plausible that he chose to include these volcanic mountains as they play a significant role in Balinese Hinduism, which decrees that mountains are the dwelling places for the gods. The temple structures in the background also allude to the motif of mountains in Balinese culture. The principle shrine of a Balinese temple (pelinggih meru), easily recognized by its multiple thatched roofs, as well as the gateway entrance (candi bentar), split down the middle, both draw their shapes from mountain forms. In this way, Spies artfully devises a parallel between the temples and the mountains, the spiritual and the natural—both so profoundly intertwined on the island of Bali.

Having lived through both World Wars, Spies’ life was affected by the conflicts despite his attempts to retreat into distant countries. Yet in his marvelous Balinese paintings, the artist shows a world brimming with life and enigmatic beauty. Radiating a conviction of artistic vision, Berge und Teich is a supremely rare testament of the pioneering spirit and technical verisimilitude of Walter Spies, who had played an irreplaceable role in Indonesia’s cultural history by the young age forty-seven. Unearthed from the artist’s scarce oeuvre, this stellar masterpiece hails from the apogee of the artist’s brief yet significant career. Sotheby’s is privileged to offer Berge und Teich, a museum quality work that will forever remain a paragon in the annals of art history. 

1 John Stowell, 1st ed., Walter Spies, a Life in Art, Afterhours Books, Jakarta, 2011