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  Characteristics of Balinese Painting

When looking at a Balinese painting, the first thing that strikes out is its unique concept of space. There is no real focus. The surface of the canvas is full to the point that nothing stands out, either thematically or 'visually'. The eye is like blinded by an accumulation of elements over the surface. Another feature is systematic pattering.

A Balinese painting combines ready-made forms distributed all over the canvas. There are for example is three or four types of eyes, five or 6 postures, eight or seven types of head-dresses, tress etc. And each is reproduced in a limited variety of ways: smaller or bigger, symmetric or parallel, all based on the same original pattern of reference.

These features point to a comic - stripe type of art. And, of course, Balinese painting is basically storytelling. When it doesn't tell the episode of a 'wayang' (puppet-show) narrative, it depicts a situation of 'happy Bali' : market scenes, women at bath, natural life, etc.

This is an art where the art of the collective is more important than that of the individual. And it is the legitimacy of this collective mind-frame that we have to accept if we ever to understand Balinese painting. It is within their patterned world, constraining as it seems, that the Balinese artists find their 'liberty of expression'.

Balinese painters demonstrate an accurate and instinctive knowledge of human anatomy and a tendency to use rich decorative colors. They never lack a theme, having been filled with stories and myths from childhood on.

Jungle scenes show an elaborate, riotous decoration of leaves, flowers, and animals, with every leaf and tree carefully outlined, and tiny blades of grass and insects found in the farthest corners of the canvas. The best paintings reflect the Balinese sense of divine order, with all elements well-proportioned and balanced, and everything in its proper, harmonious place.

This is why Balinese paintings are seldom executed spontaneously but are carefully preplanned - the coloring, shading, boundaries, and contours penciled in first. In many of their paintings, dozens of stories happen all at once and several different perspectives are employed, as if the scene were composed from different viewpoints.

To fully appreciate a Balinese painting, one should stop expecting a 'visual focus', and let instead the eye roam freely over the surface, gaze at a patterned detail. The face of a woman, for example, dig into it, identify a component sub pattern - the woman's shawl - and then roam again on the search of another detail, following step by step the lines of identification of the drawing.

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