stranger IN STRANGE LANDS
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