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Art is now an inseparable part of the Balinese web of daily life. Balinese art can be seen in painting, carving – both stone and wood – writing and the decoration of temples and Palaces particularly.


This present flourish of creativity was not always in evidence however.

Historically, Balinese art was simply a means of unremarkably producing religious objects and a means of covering the surfaces of dull royal buildings to distinguish them from dull civic buildings. Around 1300 AD the influence of the Indian Majapahit rulers in Java began to change art in Bali. This Indian influence introduced more richness to the colour palate, still derived from natural sources, and to the detail of new works that began to be recognised for their artistic qualities as well as their utilitarian functions. Paintings of the early 1900’s were still fairly utilitarian, as in the painting of everyday objects and wooden statues relating to the religion and mythology rather than painting as decorative and reinforcing art. In the utilitarian era there were long paintings like scrolls which were used to define the roof eaves of shrines and temples, large rectangular paintings used mainly as hangings to cover unadorned walls and painted calendars of the Balinese year highlighting the favoured days for various events of daily life. These paintings were of stories associated with religious or regal themes (which had Indian roots too of course) and lacked any vital spark of individual creative freshness. The formality and format of work in this era were confining and is recognised today as the wayang style, characterised by a restricted cast of characters portrayed in bright colours, halfway between full frontal and side views of the smiling faces for the ‘good guys’ and darker colours and animalistic features for the darker forces. The entire canvas surface is covered, with even the plain coloured areas decorated with a minute repeated pattern. The colours were limited to red, yellow, ochre, brown and black and white. The paintings usually told traditional stories with several episodes of the story depicted on the one canvas. These paintings were almost mass produced with a master outlining the whole work and several apprentices filling in the necessary detail and colour, a scheme of production which still happens today in many areas.

This traditional form, amongst the new painting fashions in Bali, is seen in the work of the Batuan School of artists. This form is easily recognised as it inevitably depicts all of the events of a day in the life of a person, the spiritual, the animal and the mundane, on a single canvas. Good and evil, common themes in Balinese culture, are often found within the work. On a larger scale the entire activities of the whole village will be arranged into a single scene. If the artist wanted to record the events of the whole universe, the only requirement would be a larger canvas!
Wayang works in the Batuan style gives you a lot of painting for your dollar.


In the 1930’s a number of European artists ‘found’ Bali and began to influence the work of younger painters who wanted to break out of the restrictive mould then in force and create their own works. Helping the emergence of the new order was the lack of traditional work required by rulers impoverished by conflict and from similarly disposed temple guardians of the time.

Prominent amongst the newly arrived artists were Walter Spies (still renowned today) and Rudolf Bonnet. Spies introduced western materials to the island artists, such as pads of paper, crayons and inks, canvas and picture frames while Bonnet, highly skilled in the traditional techniques, taught and encouraged the western style of painting directly with colours onto the canvas rather than colouring in an outlined drawing. Spies, however, discouraged the adoption of traditional European techniques in case the emergence and development of the artist's natural styles was diminished.  Both changes however fostered the acceptance of Balinese artists’ works in the island's developing tourist market and also in European galleries. The sales and commissions from tourists locally, and from Europe of course, made the artists and their works more acceptable amongst the locals in Bali also.


Following the occupation by the Dutch, the conflict of the Second World War, the Japanese and then the Indonesian revolution which led to independence, creative art withered. Copying of recognised works became rife and world interest waned as the vital spark of creativity within the Balinese artists waned. In the early 19th century Asian symbols and Japanese techniques became fashionable in some western art and western (European) artists (the influential Gauguin, Pissaro and Toulouse Lautrec amongst them) developed sufficient interest for artists to visit Bali. Under the influence of European artists who moved to Bali to live permanently in the 1950’s, a second wave of new young Balinese artists emerged. Perhaps lacking the experience and skills of the previous artists their work took on a simpler, broad brush approach. Colours were vibrant and contrasting compared with the subtle tones of before, and hard edge outlines were common.


The three initial 'schools' of painting from the 1930's that can still be seen today are -

** the Ubud style which has expressionist elements in it and an distinct mix of perspective in paintings using traditional elements in scenes of daily and even contemporary life, such as cockfighting, temple ceremonies, rice farming and animal husbandry. The significant change from the traditional art was the greater  attention now paid to accurate human anatomy, no doubt as result of the works by Spies and -particularly Rudolph Bonnet who was a skilled artist in the classical European tradition.

** the Keliki or Batuan style which was recognised by the very common use of a virtually fixed size of about 200 by 150 millimetres, or 8" x 6". The subjects are usually drawn from the old Indian epic the Ramayana and depict the struggle of good and evil with brave warriors and ugly demons. The colours were sombre browns, tans, dark reds and black and white, suited to the themes of the sinister underworld of Balinese religious beliefs.

** the Sanur style which was the only school to encompass marine subjects and themes, influenced no doubt by its location far from Ubud and on the southern coast and the market generated by the initial growth of tourism in the area after the second world war.


Subsequently other 'schools' emerged as the potential to derive income from the ever increasing tourist numbers and their dispersion more widely across the island became more apparent. Other styles followed and remain locally popular today including -

** the Penestenan style from the village of that name near Ubud is also known as the 'Young Artists' style. It was much influenced by the work of Arie Smit, a Dutch artist who lived there in the 1930's and used bright, flat colours on simplified outlines of common natural elements such as birds, butterflies, fish, leaves and trees, very much as young children see their world when fronting blank paper today. Smit rose to assume the role of mentor to this Young Artists School as it became known and he taught new techniques but made the artists find their own locally inspired themes and subjects giving rise to great diversity and renewed enthusiasm.

** the Pengosekan style which uses natural elements a the subject material, insects, butterflies, flowers, birds, trees and plants.

** Paintings from the village of Kamasan, just a few kilometres north of Klungkung are now somewhat unique in their revival of the old style and their traditional form which can be traced back to works done 500 years ago. The quality of Kamasan paintings is judged by the subtlety in the width of the line work and the delicate gradation of the ink shading used to give the appropriate variations in density to the final colour washes. The colouring is considered quite incidental and usually left to the master's children or apprentices to complete. The paintings have a common theme of good and evil, usually related by scenes from the Indian epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata, with good always portrayed on the right of the painting and evil on the left. This is a common arrangement on Bali, reflected in the Wayang puppet shows also, where the 'good' puppets are arranged and moved by the puppeteers right hand and those depicting evil on his left side. The goodness and magic of the right hand is known as white magic and the evil of the left hand is black magic. It is not so different to the dress in traditional American Western genre films which are still being produced, particularly in Italy as aficionados of late night TV will know too well.


Artist Made Karinnyasa at work in his 'studio' shed in the Monkey Forest at Ubud. This unfinished, traditional style painting (which now has pride of place in our living room) shows the varied line thickness and very intricate black ink shading that gives depth and contour to the plain  coloured washes, as seen here in the orange sarong at the bottom right. It took us nearly 20 years to get such a painting which we had admired but not bought on our first trip in 1976. Artists are not used to selling unfinished work and it took a bit of explaining before Made would sell us this one.



As in all places dubbed 'artistic' there is now a modernist art movement in Bali and some quite striking works are easily found in markets and streets everywhere.

The potential purchaser must make their own judgement on the conjunction of 'art' and 'striking' but if you like it enough to live with it then that should be enough. If you want to move it to another wall within 12 months of hanging it then maybe you should have a garage sale.

One such artist who has caught the eye of at least one tourist is Ketut Teker who has two shops now, one in the art market on Jl Tamblingan in Semawang village just north of the Double Dutch Pub in Sanur and the other in on the beach near the Hyatt Hotel.



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