… paints us a picture of the renowned and revered Batuan artistic tradition in his recent book on the subject, Inventing Art.
BRUCE, why a book on the paintings of Batuan, and why now?
First and foremost the book features Batuan paintings because they are marvelous creations and unique works of art. In many cases they are the connoisseur’s choice among Balinese paintings and have a devoted audience throughout the world. However, in recent years there was a decline in the production of these paintings. Very few if any younger artists wanted to learn this very difficult style because the market for Batuan paintings was decreasing. These paintings were being crowded out by other types of paintings that have flooded the marketplace – the mass produced paintings you can see along the side of the road and spilling out from countless art shops. The younger artists didn’t figure it was worth their time to study a style that would make them work harder, with less possibility for success. So this book was intended as a way of introducing the Batuan style to a wider audience, and hopefully a wider market as well.
What’s the background to Batuan painting? It’s remarkably dense – so much going on.
This style is actually not a deeply rooted Balinese tradition, Batuan paintings are quite new, being invented in the 1930s. It is the result of a collaboration between a small group of Balinese artists and a smaller group of Western artists and anthropologists. The motivation to start this experiment was the increasing number of visitors to Bali at that time, and their interest in purchasing some piece of Balinese art to take home with them. At that time there was no art form existing in Bali that would be suitable for this new clientele, so the Balinese artists (who were musicians, dancers, carvers, ritual specialists) experimented making paintings on paper specifically for sale to outsiders. Their foreign collaborators helped them to market these new paintings to both foreigners visiting Bali and to audiences in Europe and America.
The subjects depicted in these early paintings cover a wide range, from simple views of daily life to intricate studies of ritual life and belief. But it must be remembered that this was a commercial art and the tastes of the audience were always in the minds of the early painters – if a painting did not sell it was useless to them. There was a predominance of certain types of subjects that sold easily, legong dancer portraits, village views, erotic subjects, etc. But in Batuan the situation was slightly different. Between 1936 and 1938 two of the most influential 20th century anthropologists, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, were living and working in the village. As part of their project they commissioned more than 800 of these new paintings for a Freudian-based analysis of the Balinese psyche, and wanted the widest range of unusual subjects they could get. This helped to increase the complexity of the subject matter in Batuan painting into the density you mentioned, and this now has become a defining feature of Batuan art.
Some of the paintings are so incredibly detailed…they must take months to complete.
They are incredibly labour intensive, and can be easily ruined by a simple mistake. It’s hard to say exactly how long they take to finish, considering all the work interruptions by temple and family obligations, but it often takes months to make a large painting.
Who is the greatest proponent of the style?
That is a good question and hotly debated too! Most of the Batuan painters will agree that there were two pioneers – Dewa Putu Kebes and Nyoman Ngendon. Kebes was a stone carver and mask maker and helped the first group of painters understand the soul of Balinese art – in whatever art form they chose to work in. Ngendon was the first great innovator, he had an insatiable appetite for the new ideas being introduced to Bali at that time and his paintings were by far the most experimental.
Who is your personal favourite?
I like another of the early painters, Dewa Kompiang Kandel Ruka. He is Batuan’s great formalist, exploring the extremes of the new style. Sometimes his paintings are so dense that they look like solid dark fields of colour with no individual shape standing above the rest. Other paintings take perspective conventions into startling directions, twisting and turning walls like they were made out of rubber. He seems to have relished pushing the limits of his art as far as they would go, in that sense a very ‘modern’ artist.
How long have you been studying art in Bali? In fact – what brought you here in the first place?
I was first introduced to Balinese art when I studied Asian Culture at the University of Northern Thailand at Chiang Mai in 1981. Motivated by curiosity to find out more, I made several trips to Bali in the early 1980s and finally settled here in 1986.
What kind of prices do the best examples of Batuan paintings fetch? We’re assuming they are collected internationally.
I really don’t know much about the prices, other than they are going up at the moment. During the many interviews I made with Batuan painters during the research for this book I never once discussed price, just to keep the conversation focused on the process of painting. But from what I understand, the simplest paintings sell around US$500 and the finest of the early and more contemporary paintings can reach prices in the tens of thousands of dollars at auctions around the world.
OK if you were to give us a crash course in the paintings of Batuan – in three sentences – what would they be? …
How about four sentences? Batuan paintings are remarkably dense, with deeply saturated tones. The images are often dark and sometimes macabre, but they are are always carefully made and finely balanced.The forms in the paintings swirl and intertwine; they repeat and expand outwards, transforming into new shapes and new patterns. They create labyrinths of pulsating light that leave little room for the mind or the eye to rest.
And finally – where can we buy your book?
It should be in most bookstores in Bali now!