WALTER SPIES WAS a remarkable artist and scholar in so many fields. Finally, with John Stowell’s Walter Spies: A Life in Art, we have an extensively documented, well-written, and beautifully illustrated account. The most comprehensive work on Spies had previously been Hans Rhodius’s Schöneit und Reichtum des Lebens, Walter Spies . Originally Stowell had planned to translate this 600-page compilation of letters and memoirs, mostly in the original German and Dutch. Stowell edited Rhodius and John Darling’s Walter Spies and Balinese Art (1980). With so much new material in the 1980s, Rhodius and Stowell planned a biography but Rhodius died in 1988. Fortunately Stowell persevered, giving us – especially English readers – a comprehensive insight into a very rich and complicated life.
Spies is probably best known for Dance and Drama in Bali that he wrote together with Beryl de Zoete, first published in 1938, reprinted often, again out of print. Spies was acknowledged as a source on Balinese life by many, most notably (among English writers) Miguel Covarrubias, Jane Belo, Colin McPhee, Claire Holt, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson, as well as Vicki Baum, all of whom worked in Bali in the 1930s.
Stowell covers Spies’s life from Moscow through what ended up being only the last third, from 1924 in Java and then from 1927 in Bali. These were the most productive and happiest years of his life. Surprisingly, he seems to have lost none of his inquiring spirit during his last three years that included eight months in prison and, after release for only eight months, his remaining life in internment camps in Java and Sumatra. This was cut short when in 1942 a ship hastily outfitted to carry 411 internees to another camp in India was sunk off Nias by a Japanese aircraft.
Spies was twenty when, as a German citizen, he was sent by the Russians as a prisoner of war to the Ural Mountains, where he spent the next three years appreciating the simple life of the nomads and documenting and performing songs of the Tatars and others. He escaped during the Russian Revolution and made his way to Dresden, bringing him in contact with many musicians, painters, and the film world when he worked with Frederick Murnau on some of the latter’s famous works, including Nosferatu. But Spies became dissatisfied with the film industry and longed to get away from a changing Germany. In 1923, he talked a friend into getting him a working passage on a ship, planning to skip ship in Java. His musical talent led to accompanying silent films in a Chinese cinema and within a few months to a position in the Yogyakarta palace as director of the Sultan’s Western orchestra. This introduced him to the wonders of Javanese gamelan, to learning various instruments, and transcribing the music.
During the Ramadan vacation of 1925 Spies made his first visit to Bali with an introduction from musicologist Jaap Kunst. Spies wrote an article after watching a performance of the sanghyang dedari trance in the Ubud palace. Kunst included it as an addendum to the second part of his De toonkunst van Bali II. (Note that there was not an English edition as indicated on page 95.)
In Europe, Spies was already known as a painter. Many of his works are scattered throughout the world as Spies often painted on commission for visiting collectors as diverse as Charlie Chaplin, Barbara Hutton, and Leopold Stokowski. All now accessible works are reproduced in fine colour, with 14 of the larger paintings double-paged; fortunately the stitching is very good and only slightly noticeable in a couple of the spreads (which could vary from copy to copy).
Stowell devotes a chapter to 1939 entitled Freedom and Restraint. Various forces were mounting what Mead termed a ‘witch hunt’ for homosexuals, and the author gives a well-balanced account. Mead, Bateson, and Belo rushed back to Bali in Spies’s defence. Unfortunately, Spies had not been a favourite with the authorities because of his criticism of Dutch colonial policies. Support from friends failed and he had to remain in jail for eight months. A striking portrait (Fig 6) may have been taken by Bateson, as it is from the Mead collection in the Library of Congress and if so would most likely date from early 1939, when Spies was still in prison in Denpasar. In the next chapter, Stowell gives details of his next 20 months in internment camps and what is known about his death at sea.
Speaking of Spies’s achievements he first covers him as a painter. Spies continued painting when he had the time; it often became a needed source of income in Bali. Most of his paintings were landscapes and interestingly, considering his passion for dance and music, performances are only featured in three. Maybe Spies thought his photographs in Dance and Drama in Bali said it all? The best painting Spies did of dance and music was in 1930, Court Life in the Age of Borobubur (detail, Fig 1). This was one of a series of 12 historical posters for schools that archaeologist Willem Stutterheim commissioned. Only three were completed. Of his landscapes the one he considered his best is the 1939 The Landscape and her Children (small detail, figure 4) that was painted in six weeks while in prison. His motif of the farmer and his cow occurs in this painting five times. Spies’s work with Balinese artists and later the formation of Pita Maha to promote their work is legendary and well documented here.
Spies’s interests covered many fields. He acted as a guide for Rabindranath Tagore in 1927 which, not mentioned in the book, led to the reintroduction of batik to Bengal. Soon Spies was documenting the large variety of designs on Balinese lamak palm-leaf panels. In 1932, he completed his project with 500 drawings of these and their motifs. Alas, publishing projects failed and the collection was later lost. There was another collection sold after WW II but nothing more is known of its whereabouts. The two surviving panels are now in the Müseum für Volkerkunde Wien (one is Fig 2). Spies also documented stories from performances not only for his book with de Zoete but to understand the early history of Bali. Folk tales especially interested him and it appears he may have been the source for a couple of collections by others published later in 1947.
As a fieldworker for Stutterheim, Spies provided information on archaeological sites in Bali. He wrote papers for journals and was the obvious choice as curator of the new Bali Museum. His personal collection provided valuable material. As a self-trained architect, he designed his Campuan home and then that for Colin McPhee, financed by Jane Belo. McPhee never acknowledged their contributions, not even in A House in Bali. Spies designed other buildings and drew architectural plans for a Museum of Modern Balinese Art in Mas that was never built. Decades later Rudolf Bonnet designed the Museum Puri Lukisan in Ubud.
The Austrian photographer, Hugo Berantzik, wrote to Stutterheim in 1933 that Spies was ‘probably the only one in the world who can take photographs’. This is especially evident in over 120 images illustrating Dance and Drama in Bali, a fine example being a Legong dancer (Fig 3). It should be noted, however, that the photo of the chorus of rejang dancers on page 281 is not by Spies, but the only one that Bonnet contributed. It is said that Spies’s film years with Murnau gave him an appreciation for light in both photography and painting. Stowell documents Spies’s frustrating adventures in film making during the Bali years.
Spies continued his music interests in Bali and often played his Balinese pieces on piano, sometimes with McPhee. In 1932, Charlie Chaplin offered to arrange a concert tour of America but Spies preferred to stay in Bali. He revived gamelan competitions in South Bali to enable other groups to perform, as one group held exclusive rights to perform for tourists. And he was to accompany the Peliatan gamelan and dancers to the 1931 Paris Exposition until the Depression reduced funding. In his last year in Bali there was a plan for him to supervise a boxed set of recordings and write the introductory booklet. But this never happened. The next section on Kecak outlines Spies’s and others’ involvement in the development of what was to become a dance drama.
Since childhood Spies had an interest in natural history. He partly financed the first aquarium in Bali where his watercolours of specimens were displayed; some were also sent to the Australian Museum in Sydney. In 1940 after release from prison, Spies made many detailed studies of insects, even discovering new species. Some like the dragonfly (Fig 5) were done for the Botanical Gardens in Buitenzorg.
The book concludes with a Catalogue of the Works of Walter Spies, including a number of those long missing. Now that fakes are appearing on the market it is a valuable resource. With Stowell’s book we now have the major work on Walter Spies, especially his time in Java and Bali.
By GRAEME VANDERSTOEL
Walter Spies: A Life in Art by John Stowell, Jakarta, Afterhours Books 2011, firstname.lastname@example.org ISBN: 978-602-96588-0-4. Price: $249, €Euro 219.