. ‘Gempa Bumi’ 2015 – Putu Adi Acrylic & ink on Paper, 33 x 18.5 cm
Bali is a dynamic, ever-changing environment where the past and present intersect, and the East and West collide. Art and cultural expressions, the foundations of the island’s first tourism boom 1930 -1942, continue to evolve. Over recent decades however, they have played a secondary, minor role to resort and lifestyle tourism.
Balinese painting traditions never remains static. The Classical religious paintings with origins dating back to the 13-16th century East Javanese Majapahit Empire, even today, undergo subtle changes as the artists add their specific developments within the strict framework of the two-dimensional narrative works. A new era of creativity is currently sweeping the island, and the millennials are contributing to the development of traditional village styles, or ‘schools’ of painting, namely Batuan and Keliki. These artists reinterpret the popular Balinese narratives and iconography with exciting new flair – a new renaissance in Balinese painting is underway.
One of the catalysts of this new creativity is the vision of the senior artists of the schools who have initiated new art collectives. The Baturulangun Artists Association established in Batuan in 2012 and the Werdi Jana Kerti Artists Association of the Keliki Kawan in 2011 – regeneration and style preservation is at the core of their missions. The recent achievements of emerging Batuan painters have received much attention, especially I Wayan Aris Sarmanta recipient of the 2018 TiTian Prize, awarded for innovative Balinese artistic talent. The regeneration of the Keliki School of Miniature Painting is also making headway.
The Chronology of Balinese Painting
The imagery of the Classical Balinese paintings first expanded into Bali late in the 13th century. During the 16th – 20th centuries the village of Kamasan, Klungkung, East Bali became the epicentre of the Classical style that flourished throughout the island with the royal family patrons and the key supporters. The 20th – century chronology of Balinese painting reveals innovations in the 1920s and the establishment of village styles in Batuan, Ubud and Sanur, occurring almost concurrently.
The Batuan and Ubud styles developed from specific influences, (most famous was the introduction of western painting techniques by Rudolf Bonnet (1895-1978) and Walter Spies (1895 – 1942) to the painters in Ubud and the birth of the Ubud School. The Batuan painters adopted a more sophisticated version of the traditional painting techniques into their works that feature depictions of local philosophies and narratives, often dark and frightening scenarios. The Batuan, Ubud and Sanur genres evolved quickly. They benefitted from new foreign patrons and the development of a new market for Balinese paintings and woodcarvings due to tourism. The Pita Maha Artists Association established in Ubud in 1936 oversaw the development of the village styles presenting the best works to the market along with organising exhibitions in Java and Europe.
After WWII and the dramatic decline in tourism, the art market diminished, and painters had to return to the agrarian economy to maintain sustainable incomes. Nonetheless, painting innovations occurred in Batuan with the second signature ‘crowded miniature’ style developing. The Pengosekan School was established, continuing the conventional Ubud style yet introducing their distinctive colour schemes and an array of art innovators evolved within the school. In the mid-1960s, the Young Artist’s Style developed in Penestanan through the teaching influences upon young local children by the Dutch colourist painter Arie Smit (1916-2016).
‘Kang Cing Wi’ 2016 – Putu Adi Chinese ink and acrylic paint on paper, 29 x 46 cm
The 1970s was the next progressive era of Balinese painting, a period that also witnessed the second wave of international tourism that had a significant positive impact on the economy and the market for paintings and woodcarvings. The new stylistic developments were the Keliki Miniature School of Painting early in the decade and in 1977 the Pengosekan Flora and Fauna style evolved from the Dewa Batuan Community of Painters and Dewa Putu Sena and then later Ketut Ridi both excelled in this style.
The Keliki School of Miniature Painting
Keliki paintings depict on paper a plethora of imagery from romantic interpretations of the daily life activities in the island’s rural villages, to the beauty of the island’s flora and fauna, as well as Hindu myths and local folklore. The maximum size of the works is confined to 30 cm by 50 cm, yet some of the most refined works are captured within the size of 8cm by 8cm. Rich in gradation and extremely detailed, their incredible intricacy, sophistication and beauty are astounding. The style demands powerful and prolonged attention span and high levels of concentration from the artists.
The genre began in the early 1970s in the Keliki Kawan village, 25 minutes north of Ubud, with two artists I Ketut Sana (b.1952), and I Made Astawa (b.1953). Both were students of the grandson of Bali’s most well known modern artist I Gusti Nyoman Lempad (c1865-1978), while also learning from a master of another respected genre, Wayan Rajin of the Batuan School. Inspired by Lempad’s line techniques, the famous Ubud School of Painting and the crowded Batuan ‘signature’ style, Sana and Astawa reduced their compositions in size, and the Keliki School of Miniature Painting was born. Since 2013 the Werdi Jana Kerti Artist’s Association has exhibited annually at Ubud’s historic Museum Puri Lukisan allowing the emerging and senior artists to showcase their work. The community has over 75 members aged from 15-78 years, including women, while one-third of the artists are under 30 years of age.
The Balinese art of creating miniature pictures has a long history, being passed down over generations and dating back to the 9th century. The tiny images originate from the decorated manuscripts, processed on dried leaves and known as the lontars. Skilled artisans used a sharp writing instrument to score text and drawings, cultural information, upon pages measuring 30cm wide by 5cm high. Still in use today, the books reveal knowledge about holy scriptures, prominent rituals, family lineages, laws, medicine, arts, architecture, calendars, literature, and even the rules for cock-fighting.
I Putu Adi
‘Kesenagan Ku Derita Ku’ 2019 (My Pleasure is my Pain) 2019 – Putu Adi 66 x 46 cm.
Twenty-one years old Putu Adi, (b. 1998, Keliki Kawan) represents the emerging talent who are competent in the Keliki techniques in a tradition where the master pupil relationship, often father and son/s, plays an essential role. The young artists reinterpret popular Balinese narratives, daily experiences and the island’s spirituality in exciting new ways introducing contemporary iconography along and dynamic colouration. Themes also address critical contemporary issues such as environmental degradation, rampant tourism development, corruption and greed.
Working in Chinese ink and acrylic paint, Adi learns from his father I Made Sutama (b.1977). “Adi is still young and needs time to discover his artistic voice,” said the highly regarded Sutama who is a self-taught artist. “It is important that he experiments with ideas and continues learning, even explore the style in a larger format.” Sutama, on the other hand, has matured and works according to principles and personal philosophies. “My compositions reflect my spiritual life journey,” Sutama adds. “The Balinese calendar reveals auspicious days to begin and to work on paintings, while I practice certain rituals before starting compositions, and working each day.” Ni Wayan Telage, Adi’s mother, is also an accomplished painter, along with his cousin I Putu Kusuma, another emerging artist, who also lives in the same traditional family compound.
Adi’s themes range from the mythological to the personal, in layered works that mix traditional iconography with the contemporary while highlighting the dualistic nature of life. His colour varies from black ink to combinations of dazzling acrylic hues. ‘Gempa Bumi’ 2015, or Earth Quake is an acrylic on paper, 33 cm by 18.5 cm picture. The central character, large and rotund is the mythological demon Kala who sits upon Empas the turtle that carries the world on his back. Kala’s hair becomes the intricately entwined root system of a tree at the top of the composition in which sits the Hindu god Vishu, guarding the earth. At the bottom people are depicted in chaos falling from the earth. “The giant upon Empas’ back symbolizes the strong foundation of the earth,” Adi states. “These foundations have begun collapsing, however due to humanity’s inability to protect the universe, and thereby earning the wrath of the gods – earthquakes and disasters.”
‘Teknologi Penemuam Yang Membunuh’ 2018 – Putu Adi, Acrylic and ink on paper, 33 x 25.5 cm
In ‘Teknologi Penemuam Yang Membunuh’ 2018, or ‘Technological Inventions that Kill’ Adi reveals his concern about modern technology and the threat it poses to his culture. “Everyone wants an easy and carefree life, and there are many modern inventions to facilitate human work – robots can replace people,” Adi explains. “I depict an array of people and creatures riding exhaust pipes symbolizing noise and pollution; some have light bulbs upon their heads, suggesting ideas and innovation.” Two god-like figures, part robotic, chant mantras of materialism into the ears of the central character, a rat in a crown dressed in a suit representing human greed. “The two gods symbolize ancestral traditions that have begun to disappear over time. “Mechanically beasts and demons are revealed throughout the setting, and chaos engulfs the earth.”
Adi’s most recent painting ‘Kesenagan Ku Derita Ku’, or ‘My Pleasure is my Pain’ is a vibrantly colourful 66 cm by 46 cm composition, larger than the conventional framework. Depicting a fantastic scenario of youthful fantasies, both sexual and otherwise, the central figure, part human part robot, is a decrepit character overcome by the weight of materialistic ideals. Adi’s picture about duality, warning of the pitfalls of human greed has been entered in the 2020 TiTian Prize to be announced in Ubud in early February next year.
Does Balinese painting have a place in the 21st century society?
The new generation of Balinese painters remains faithful to their traditions and cultural philosophies and continue today, along with their seniors to create the Classical paintings for the Balinese ceremonies and rituals. They have now, however a greater awareness than their forefathers to the current challenges facing Bali and the global community. This awareness is transferred into their new paintings that indeed contemporary, with a fresh appeal to both young and old. The 21st – century digital global creative economy allows these works to reach broader international audiences.
The key fundamental is the narrative aspect of these works that are also at the core of the sacred Classical style. The Classical aesthetic language plays a vital role within Balinese society as a story-telling modality with high moral standards that function to encourage peace and harmony within the community. The virtues of the Classical paintings, the positive contributions to humanity and philosophical content have, unfortunately, gone unrecognized for many years within the context of world art.
Balinese paintings are a unique gift to the global society, they teach us good values and give insights into the dualistic nature of life and the divine order of the universe. They offer many ethical and philosophical lessons that can help to redirect society’s moral standards. I Putu Adi, along with his forefathers, remind us that humanity’s path forward requires us to adopt valuable time-honoured wisdom from the past.
Words & Images: Richard Horstman