stranger IN STRANGE LANDS

Pasatiempo - - RANDOM ACTS -

ARTIST WAL­TER SPIES 1914, war broke out between Ger­many and Rus­sia. Léon Spies, a Ger­man serv­ing in Rus­sia as Com­mer­cial Ad­vi­sor and Hon­orary ViceCon­sul for Ger­many, was taken into cus­tody and held in soli­tary con­fine­ment, los­ing his prop­erty and his for­tune. His wife was forced to turn the fam­ily home into a hos­pi­tal for Rus­sian sol­diers, while their son Wal­ter, a young artist, worked as an or­derly, rais­ing morale with ther­a­peu­tic ac­tiv­i­ties that in­cluded arts and crafts projects. Other, less for­tu­nate, Ger­mans still liv­ing in Rus­sia be­came the tar­geted vic­tims of vi­o­lent pogroms.

At the age of twenty, Wal­ter Spies, was also in­terned, spend­ing the years from 1915 to 1918 in a small town at the base of the Ural Moun­tains. His time in cap­tiv­ity, wherein he worked hard to un­der­stand and in­ter­act with the cul­tures that sur­rounded him, fore­shad­owed the years he spent in Bali. The artist, who is largely un­known and un­sung in Amer­ica, ul­ti­mately made last­ing and mul­ti­ple con­tri­bu­tions to the art, dance, and drama of Bali.

The story of Spies (1895-1942), whose work is as­so­ci­ated with a move­ment that bor­rowed artis­tic forms of ex­pres­sion from non-Western peo­ple, is told in a re­cent book, Wal­ter Spies: A Life

in Art by John Stow­ell (After­hours Books). Stow­ell’s chron­i­cle is a pro­fusely il­lus­trated bi­og­ra­phy en­livened by full-color re­pro­duc­tions of Spies’ art. It is avail­able singly or as part of a col­lec­tors edi­tion that in­cludes a sec­ond book on Spies’ art, a print of his work re­pro­duced on can­vas, and a DVD of a Dutch doc­u­men­tary on the artist, all pre­sented in a wooden box.

Stow­ell paints Spies as an in­de­fati­ga­ble, happy, and re­source­ful young man whose story is framed by two world wars. Spies sur­vived the first but not the sec­ond. He spent part of his in­tern­ment dur­ing World War I in the town of Ster­li­ta­mak, where he was af­forded a mea­sure of free­dom. He could move about the vil­lage with his dog Gipsy, a fox ter­rier, by his side, and ex­plore the moun­tains. He taught piano lessons and learned the lan­guages of the Tatars, Turks, Arabs, Per­sians, and other tribes that sur­rounded his moun­tain idyll.

Spies read­ily em­braced the cul­tures and peo­ple that sur­rounded him and gained their trust. This fa­cil­ity would serve him well in Bali years later, when his art would change dra­mat­i­cally to re­flect that cul­tural re­cep­tiv­ity. “About the time I was in­terned at Bashkirdis­tan (in the Urals) early in the war,” he wrote from Surabaya in 1939, “the whole field of my soul had been ploughed and fur­rowed by Fu­tur­ism, Cu­bism, and Ex­pres­sion­ism, and when I be­gan to paint in earnest, all my paint­ings con­sisted of lines, tri­an­gles, translu­cent planes in­ter­sect­ing one an­other, with a colour scale roughly like that of Feininger, whose work I only be­came ac­quainted with in Ger­many years later.”

In Rus­sia, Spies had been se­duced into the life of the no­mad, trav­el­ing with the Kir­giz and record­ing their songs. He left for Ger­many in 1918, af­ter try­ing twice to get through the Rus­sian front dis­guised as a peas­ant. He even­tu­ally made his way to Ber­lin, where his fam­ily had re­lo­cated. His art­work dur­ing this pe­riod bore the in­flu­ence of Rus­sian folk art that he had en­coun­tered dur­ing his in­tern­ment, as well as the pre­dom­i­nant artis­tic move­ments oc­cur­ring in Europe. Most of his paint­ings that ref­er­ence his time in Rus­sia were made years later.

At the dawn of the Weimar Re­pub­lic, cities like Ber­lin, Mu­nich, and Dres­den (to which Spies moved in 1919) be­came the na­tion’s largest art cen­ters. In Dres­den, he had a pas­sion­ate love af­fair with pi­anist Hans Jür­gen von der Wense. Re­turn­ing to Ber­lin in 1920, he met Ger­man film­maker F.W. Mur­nau

(Nos­fer­atu) and was en­gaged in a flurry of ac­tiv­ity, ac­cord­ing to Stow­ell, as­sist­ing and vis­it­ing Mur­nau

on film sets, giv­ing danc­ing lessons for some in­come, and play­ing piano con­cer­tos.

When Mur­nau fell ill, Spies moved into the hos­pi­tal to care for him. They trav­eled to­gether, and Mur­nau pro­vided Spies with stu­dio space. The artist had, thus far in his young life, made an ethno­graphic sur­vey of Rus­sian folk songs and fallen in with a group of artists that in­cluded Otto Dix and Oskar Kokoschka. These painters in­jected life into a new post­war artis­tic move­ment in which “there was again an op­por­tu­nity to ex­press the brother­hood of man and the vi­tal­ity of a new era,” writes Stow­ell. Spies ex­hib­ited his paint­ings with the Novem­ber­gruppe — a col­lec­tive that de­rived its name from the Ger­man Up­ris­ing of 1918, the “Novem­ber Rev­o­lu­tion,” in which Ger­many’s im­pe­ri­al­ist gov­ern­ment was sup­planted by the re­pub­lic. In Europe he en­coun­tered the work of Henri Rousseau, the French Post-Im­pres­sion­ist painter whose in­flu­ence is most read­ily per­ceived in Spies’ paint­ings. Rousseau’s ef­fect was pro­found. “I was to­tally car­ried away!” Spies wrote. “It was like a rev­e­la­tion and a con­fir­ma­tion. At last some­thing that seemed to me to be to­tally frank, hon­est and straight­for­ward. Of course, I fell di­rectly un­der his spell and in­flu­ence.”

But the de­sire to leave Ger­many be­hind and travel broadly was an en­tice­ment that Spies, hav­ing been in­tro­duced to pho­tog­ra­pher Gre­gor Krause’s images of Bali, could not re­sist. His rep­u­ta­tion as an artist of merit was grow­ing. He was ac­tive in the theater, work­ing as set de­signer for Nor­we­gian writer Knut Ham­sun’s play Spiel des Lebens at the Theatre of Sax­ony, which pro­moted Ex­pres­sion­ist works, and ex­hib­ited his paint­ings in the Hague and the St­edelijk Mu­seum in Am­s­ter­dam to crit­i­cal suc­cess. Soon af­ter a two-month trip to the Dal­ma­tian coast, where Mur­nau was film­ing Fi­nances of the Grand Duke, he wrote to friends that Ger­mans were dry and with­out feel­ing. “Once you’ve been out­side of Ger­many you no­tice how ter­ri­ble it is to have to live there, what a ter­ri­ble coun­try it is and what ghastly peo­ple in­habit it.” Ac­cord­ing to Stow­ell, “It is note­wor­thy that the pos­si­bil­ity of leav­ing Europe for an in­def­i­nite pe­riod in­creased just as the recog­ni­tion of his skills as a painter was be­com­ing man­i­fest.” When he made the de­ci­sion to leave Ger­many, with no plan to re­turn, it meant a dif­fi­cult break with Mur­nau, who Spies felt was hold­ing him back, al­though they re­mained in con­tact and Mur­nau con­tin­ued to sup­port Spies fi­nan­cially by pur­chas­ing his paint­ings.

Spies set­tled in the is­land of Java in the early 1920s, teach­ing art and mu­sic for a few years at the court of the Ja­vanese Sul­tan of Yo­gyakarta. In an era when the East Indies were un­der Dutch colo­nial rule, Spies fell in with an in­tel­lec­tual elite. He con­tin­ued play­ing con­certs and pur­su­ing his nat­u­ral­ist in­cli­na­tions, study­ing un­fa­mil­iar species. In In­done­sia, he was, Stow­ell writes, “im­pressed by the bear­ing and good man­ners of the Ja­vanese and by the sub­tlety and in­tri­cacy of their art forms.” And Spies, in turn, im­pressed oth­ers with his own tal­ents and was con­scripted to take charge of the sul­tan’s Royal Dance Or­ches­tra. He was the first Euro­pean in a full-time salaried po­si­tion at the sul­tan’s kra­ton, or royal palace.

But Spies had vis­ited Bali twice while liv­ing in Java and hoped to build small house there, feel­ing that “There is na­ture there, both in man and land­scape, which is ter­ri­bly im­por­tant to me.” Stow­ell sug­gests that Spies’ Euro­pean friends in Java did not seem to un­der­stand ei­ther how he could treat the na­tives as his equals or his em­ploy­ment un­der the sul­tan, which they may have seen as an af­front to Euro­pean at­ti­tudes of su­pe­ri­or­ity. Spies asked for a year­long re­prieve of his du­ties, moved to Bali, and set­tled there per­ma­nently.

The paint­ings he made in Bali se­duce with mys­tery and shad­owy dream­like im­agery, re­flect­ing the brood­ing jun­gle land­scapes and folkways of In­done­sia. They are genre scenes that hark back to Re­nais­sance paint­ing and the me­dieval arts of Europe as well as Bali. Stow­ell notes Spies’ adop­tion of the tech­niques of the Old Masters, skills he had learned from Dix and then used for the rest of his life. He cre­ated his­tory paint­ings that de­tailed court and vil­lage life; mytho­log­i­cal scenes such as Ba­li­nese Leg­end from 1930, which drew from Ba­li­nese Hindu sto­ries; and ren­der­ings of agri­cul­tural life, as in Work­ing the Sawahs from 1929 and Farmer Plough­ing from 1931. These re­mark­able works are styl­ized rather than nat­u­ral­is­tic vi­sions of his new world, ren­dered us­ing a tech­nique of forced per­spec­tive that al­lowed

The paint­ings Spies made in Bali se­duce with mys­tery and shad­owy dream­like im­agery, re­flect­ing the brood­ing jun­gle land­scapes and folkways of In­done­sia. They are genre scenes that hark back to Re­nais­sance paint­ing and the me­dieval arts of Europe as well as Bali. Spies adopted the tech­niques of the Old Masters, skills he had learned from Otto Dix and then used for the rest of his life.

Spies to trans­form sprawl­ing forested land­scapes, rivers, and vil­lage scenes into in­tri­cate and in­ti­mate nar­ra­tive com­po­si­tions. He in­vested his de­pic­tions of Bali with dra­matic con­trasts, dis­tor­tions that ap­pear un­nat­u­ral, a Ger­man Ex­pres­sion­ist’s em­pha­sis on evok­ing mood, and a Man­ner­ist’s treat­ment of the hu­man fig­ure.

This “friend of Bali,” as Spies was re­garded, was a lit­tle more com­fort­able in his own skin than gov­ern­ment au­thor­i­ties ap­pre­ci­ated, how­ever. De­spite of­fi­cial crack­downs on per­ceived im­moral­ity — a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion for an out­sider who was also a ho­mo­sex­ual — Spies per­sisted in open re­la­tion­ships. He skirted the au­thor­i­ties in a spirit of mis­chievous ad­ven­ture, but he was ar­rested in 1938 on charges of in­de­cency and re­leased a year later.

In the 1930s, Spies served on the su­per­vi­sory board of the Pita Maha, a coali­tion of around 130 artists — Euro­pean and Ba­li­nese — com­mit­ted to a modernist aes­thetic. Any prac­tic­ing Ba­li­nese artist could be a mem­ber for a fee. The group in­cluded crafts­man I Gusti Ny­oman Lem­pad from the vil­lage of Ubud, who as­sisted Spies in col­lect­ing re­gional folk­tales and dra­mas, along with Dutch artist Ru­dolf Bon­net, who along with Spies and oth­ers made up the group’s gov­ern­ing su­per­vi­sory board. Spies had been ab­sent for a year while in­car­cer­ated for the in­de­cency charge. With­out his lead­er­ship, which was called into ques­tion af­ter the ar­rest, the group be­gan to dis­solve.

Late in his ca­reer, Spies was en­gaged in sur­veys of Ba­li­nese dance forms that would re­sult in the book Dance and Drama in Bali, co-au­thored by Beryl de Zoete. Spies’ in­flu­ence and his ad­vice for Ba­li­nese artists came to be in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized when, in the mid-’30s, the arts of Bali flour­ished, pro­moted be­yond its bor­ders by a stream of mod­ern artists, an­thro­pol­o­gists, drama­tists, and writ­ers. The list of vis­i­tors in­cluded Char­lie Chap­lin, play­wright Noel Coward, and Mex­i­can modernist Miguel Co­var­ru­bias, who wrote his own book on Bali. Spies be­friended an­thro­pol­o­gist Mar­garet Mead, who with her col­league Gre­gory Bate­son, was in Bali for field re­search and study. “[Spies] has done a great deal to stim­u­late mod­ern Ba­li­nese paint­ing and has painted Bali him­self and in gen­eral has worked out a most per­fect re­la­tion­ship between him­self, the is­land, its peo­ple and its tra­di­tions,” Mead wrote. Among his most en­dur­ing con­tri­bu­tions is the Ke­cak, or Mon­key Dance, a wild, ges­tu­ral rit­ual reen­act­ment of the Hindu Ra­mayana. While cred­ited as an in­ven­tion of Spies, the truth, as Stow­ell writes, is that the Ke­cak de­vel­oped from a trance dance form known as Sanghyang Dedari, to which was added a Ra­mayana-based nar­ra­tion. The Ke­cak was a hit with tourists and vis­i­tors and grew to in­clude as many as 200 par­tic­i­pants. The dance is still per­formed in Bali today.

Stow­ell points out the dif­fi­culty in gaug­ing the full scale of Spies’ art-world im­pact, be­cause most re­search on the artist is framed by a Western per­spec­tive. Spies is cred­ited by au­thor W.F. Stut­ter­heim, a friend, with in­tro­duc­ing per­spec­tive, a sense of rhythm, and a wider range of sub­ject mat­ter into Ba­li­nese paint­ing. In mu­sic, he learned the in­stru­ments of the game­lan, a tra­di­tional Ba­li­nese en­sem­ble, pro­mot­ing Bali’s mu­si­cians rather than con­duct­ing them and pro­vid­ing a venue where mu­si­cal groups could perform. As a nat­u­ral­ist, he iden­ti­fied pre­vi­ously un­known species of in­sects and arach­nids.

As great as Spies’ con­tri­bu­tions were, though, they would likely have been greater still if they had not been in­ter­rupted by an­other war. On May 10, 1940, Ger­many in­vaded Hol­land. The Dutch Indies au­thor­i­ties rounded up Ger­mans liv­ing in Bali and sent them to prison camps. Spies was among hun­dreds of Ger­mans aboard the cargo ves­sel Van Imhoff when the ship was bombed by the Ja­panese in Jan­uary of 1942 while en route to Bom­bay. The Dutch crew aban­doned ship, leav­ing the Ger­man pris­on­ers to drown. “Such were the cir­cum­stances in which Wal­ter Spies dis­ap­peared,” Stow­ell writes. There are no de­tails about Spies’ last days of in­tern­ment, no fi­nal words or pictures re­cov­ered from the Van Imhoff. But his legacy, forged in the in­ter­val between two world wars and two pe­ri­ods of cap­tiv­ity, en­dures.

“Wal­ter Spies: A Life in Art” by John Stow­ell was pub­lished in June by After­hours Books.

con­tin­ued on Page ?? In Europe he en­coun­tered the work of Henri Rousseau, the French Post-Im­pres­sion­ist painter whose in­flu­ence is most read­ily per­ceived in Spies’ paint­ings. Rousseau’s ef­fect was pro­found. “I was to­tally car­ried away!” Spies wrote. “It was like a rev­e­la­tion and a con­fir­ma­tion. At last some­thing that seemed to me to be to­tally frank, hon­est and straight­for­ward. Of course, I fell di­rectly un­der his spell and in­flu­ence.”

Spies, left, and Kostya Behrens at the Dres­den Zwinger, 1919

Spies con­ducts the Western or­ches­tra to greet the Dutch Res­i­dent in Java

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