As Early as the turn of the century, the art of Northern Bali had come under European influence. But by 1930 Balinese painting was stagnating, the art form no longer in demand by the Balinese themselves.
The palaces stopped commissioning artists, and the highly stylized, traditional hangings were no longer painted. Bali was about to undergo a tumult of suffering and chaos, but it was the period between the two great wars that brought the heaviest changes and greatest surge of creativity.
Guidebooks have repeated the outdated fairy tale that was started in the 1930s by the Dutch scholar Sutterheim and the painter Rudolph Bonnet (1895-1978). The men published articles claiming that modern Balinese art was born during the years 1933-39 when it first made contact with Western painters.
This premise was put forth to further the career of Bonnet, and it reflected a strong colonial bias that colored all Dutch scholarship in the first half of this century. This legend is only half-true. Bonnet, the German artist Walter Spies (1895-1942), and others did demonstrate to Balinese artists that painting could be free of set formulas.
Rather than paint to a single stylistic convention, the Europeans introduced by way of example the concept of the third dimension, the imaginative use of color, modern graphic elements, and a wider range of subject matter.
They also provided Balinese artists with new media and materials such as Chinese ink, bristle brushes, watercolors and tempera, steel pens, and European paper. But the Balinese were not romantics given to passionate improvisation, expressiveness, and creativity.
It was as much their exposure to modern stimuli, the economic inducement of the tourist industry, and their growing knowledge of the world at large that encouraged Balinese artists to stop painting according to rules and to start re-creating their own visual experience.
Tourists began to request that their canvases be stretched and framed; this tended to limit the subject matter of a picture to a single scene instead of depicting episodes taking place in a series.
The extraordinary creativity of the 1930s pulled Balinese art out of its lethargy, but all the upheaval of WW II and the postwar Indonesian struggle of independence from 1945 to 1950 put a sudden stop to artistic activity.
After the wars, Balinese painting entered another low period, with much of the original creative impetus of the 1930s dissipated. Subject matter was designed to appeal to tourists; artists churned out paintings with idealized, unrealistic legong dancers, women presenting offerings, men working the fields, and cockfights.
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