Amsterdam, The Hague 1923
The Hague, Walter Spies, Het Haags Gemeentemuseum, 2 July - 16 August 1964, illustrated
Amsterdam, Walter Spies and Balinese Art, Tropenmuseum, 1980
Amsterdam, Rebel Nign Hart, De Nieuwe Kerk, 7 May - 18 June 1995
Franz Roh, Nach-Expressionismus, Muchen, 1925, p.126
Hans Rhodius, Schönheit und Reichtrum des Lebens: Walter Spies, The Hague, 1964, p. 506
Hans Rhodius and John Darling, Walter Spies and Balinese Art, Zutphen, 1980, p. 12
Although Walter Spies is considered to have produced his most outstanding paintings during his years in the Dutch East Indies, he created a seminal body of work in the early 1920s that already articulated all the important artistic concepts that he conveyed in his later work.
From early childhood, Spies had been subjected to heavy doses of artistic theory and learned how to draw according to rigid convention. Technique was favored over imagination. However the preconditions for his artistic maturity were already in place in this youth. Spies was born in Moscow in 1895 and grew up in the Czarist capital where his family had relocated in 1870, and which had become an important cultural and intellectual center up to the Fist World War. In 1905 Henri Rousseau exhibited The Hungry Lion at the Salon d'Automne in Paris, and introduced the world to naïve art and fauvism. In 1913 the avant-garde artist Alexander Shevchenko published in Moscow his manifesto, Neo-Primitivism: Its Theory, Its Potentials, its Achievements, which championed the simplicity and austerity of primitive art, such as the lubok (vernacular Russian woodcuts), and traced Russian art to that of Byzantium and its older Georgian and Armenian forms, and even to Indo-Persian painting. He sought to restore the spontaneous in art, and the naïveté and purity of a child's perception, as a reaction against the general disillusionment with the tyranny and strictures of bourgeois academicism in Europe, towards the search for more soulful, 'primeval' forms.
In 1914, at the outbreak of the Fist World War, Spies, as a German national, was interned at a camp in the Urals where nomadic tribes roamed. Spies learnt the ways of the Bashkir, Tartar and Kirgiz tribes, especially their music and language. Spies, who spent a few years in school in Dresden form the age of fifteen years, was exposed to artistic currents not only in Russian but also the those crating a storm in Germany-Futurism, Cubism and Expressionism. All these influences seemed to have distilled into something personal during the years in the Urals. "Even towards the end of my time in internment things began to emerge with greater clarity and began to assume more and more the forms of a simplified realism," the artist recalled in a letter (Hans Rhodius and John Darling, Walter Spies and Balinese Art, Tropical Museum, Amsterdam, p. 11).
After the war, Spies returned to Moscow but with the Russian Revolution in full swing, he left for Dresden in German, where he held his very first exhibition in 1919. Having exhausted all creative possibilities in the town, Spies left Dresden early in 1920, and spent the next two years moving from the hedonism and stimulation of Berlin, to quiet retreats in remote areas such as Grunewald, Sylt and Black Forest. During this time, Spies moved within the circle of the director Friedrich Murnau, through whom he was introduced to the world of film and cinematic effects. In the middle of 1922, he met a Dutch couple, the Schoonderbecks, who helped the artist hold two exhibitions in the following year, one in Amsterdam and the other in The Hague.
Die Schlittschuhläufer (The Ice Skaters) was one of the works exhibited in the Netherlands, and considered to have an autobiographical nature (Hans Rhodius and John Darling, ibid., p. 17). The painting exhibits all the characteristics of his passionate interests, especially in naïve art and the simplification of form. The center of the painting is occupied by a group of recreational skaters on a frozen lake, surrounded by columns of trees. The scene is set at night, and seems only to be illuminated by light from a wooden lodge in the foreground. On the left foreground, a long figure, which may be assumed to be the artist himself, observes the scene from a higher vantage point.
The strange perspectives and positions of the skaters, who almost appear to be floating at the center of the painting, seem to express the artist's fascination with primitive art and with the work of modern masters such as Paul Klee. This can also be seen in the folk-like depiction of the figures and trees. As Shevchenko declared in his manifesto, "Life without movement is nothing, and that is why we always try not to restrict the form of objects to a single plane, but to communicate their movement by representing their intermediate forms" (Shevchenko cited in T. Andersen, Art et Poésies Russes 1900-1930, Textes Choisis, Centre Pompidou, Paris).
The monochromatic quality of the work with its dominant blues and mysteriously luminous light and elongated shadows may have been influenced by the new aesthetics of cinema. The figure in the strange 'Oriental' costume and the rather odd character in a Chaplinesque bowler hat may also have been inspired by cinematic style.
The autobiographical nature of the painting is suggested by the male figure in the left foreground who surveys the scene below him. The convention of depicting a lone figure in the left foreground has its roots in Flemish painting, such as in the works of Pieter Bruegel, who also painted winter landscapes with ice-skaters. In one well-known print by Bruegel, Skating Outside St George's Gate (1558), the caption reads "The Slipperiness of Human Life". Perhaps in Spies' painting the male figure, who looks at the scene with a seemingly disparaging side-glance, head turned away, shares the same sentiments.
The composition of this work also seems to determine the development of many of Spies' Javanese and Balinese paintings. The lone observer before a landscape appears in many of the paintings, such a as Desadurchblick ("Village Vista", 1935), Iseh im Morgenlicht ("Iseh in Morning Light", 1938) and Die Schattenkuh ("The Shadow Cow", 1938). The elliptical lake occupying the center of the canvas and the perspective from higher vantage point are echoed in Die Krabbenfischer ('Prawn Fisherman', 1924), which has a very similar pictorial arrangement.
Walter Spies' interest in naïve art and in peasant art forms seems to have been a search for a way to articulate his deepest feelings. In his early works, it is evident he had already discovered a vocabulary that fused with his creative intentions. These works pay tribute to the freedom and exhilaration of the experience.