Oil on canvas
Private Collection of the Sukawati Family
Private Collection, Singapore
Sotheby's, Singapore, April 7, 2002, Lot 38
Private Collection, Singapore
Walter Spies arrived in the Dutch East Indies in 1923 and painted a series of mystical landscapes full of sparkling light and intriguing shadows. Pictorially they were of a more conventional sort of composition and perspective than his more avant-garde works in Europe. However, his first visit to Bali in 1925 was to change his life. Walter Spies found in the island everything he had dreamed of in a perfect world, and was inspired and excited by the dynamic relationship and co-existence of mystical opposites – light and darkness, gloom and cheer.
Spies' permanent relocation from Java to Bali in 1927 is a major turning point in Spies' intellectual and artistic career. Upon his arrival he was hosted by the legendary Cokorda Gede Raka Sukawati (1910-1978), the punggawa (feudal lord) of Ubud. The role that the Sukawati family of Ubud played in facilitating the artist's establishment in the island was a fascinating aspect of this phenomenon. The Cokorda, who was also a member of the colonial Volksraad (People's Council) in Batavia, was a great patron of the arts who later founded the great artists' society, Pita Maha, with Spies and Rudolf Bonnet. The Cokorda provided a suite in his puri (palace) for Spies then a few months later, a house immediately opposite. After about a year, the Cokorda granted land for Spies to build his own Balinese style house. As a token of his gratitude for his kindness and hospitality, Spies presented the Cokorda in the middle or end of 1927 with a painting, Waringin mit Zwei Jungen Baliern (Banyan with Two Young Balinese), which is widely believed to be the artist's first oil painting in Bali.
This painting is perhaps the strongest statement on Spies' predilection for the interplay between shadows and light as an important subtext in his body of work. In the dark shade of a magnificent, towering banyan tree with its curtain of long, aerial roots, two figures are preparing to take a bath in a languid stream. The last rays of sunlight seep through a lace of suspended roots, casting mottled golden patterns upon the stream, the earth and the trees. The light also illuminates the silhouette and bone structure of the central figure, a man frozen in the act of removing his udeng or headscarf while the darkness emphasizes his musculature and hides the other figure in the velvety shadows. Through the dense intertwining vegetation, a gold-tinged blue sky is visible although almost imperceptibly.
The all-encompassing nature of shadow in this work, however, seems rather to emphasise its opposite - light. The Balinese worship the sun, the earth and water as sources of life-giving fertility. In the present work, it is as if Spies is marking his new beginning by celebrating the place that combined life, art and spirituality into one unified existence. Few works have the ability to convey a sense of mystery, enchantment and glory as extraordinarily as Waringin mit Zwei Jungen Baliern. Walter Spies always celebrated the Balinese approach to life and art. In this regard, the painting with its shafts of divine light illuminating the earth, water and man, may be viewed as a work of great hope and optimism and a celebration of life.
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