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Fading colors of paradise

Amid a ubiquitous art community, Bali's first private museum and the treasures within are endangered by the island's elements.

June 27, 2004|Michael J. Ybarra | Special to The Times

Ubud, Indonesia — The Museum Puri Lukisan is a lovely place to look at the rich history of Balinese painting. From the town's main street you descend a flight of stairs, cross a stream and then climb a small, wooded hillside before coming to lush gardens, where banyan trees and lily ponds surround several traditional pavilions stuffed with fine examples of the local painting styles. Tropical breezes waft through the galleries, and geckos climb over the pictures.

But the museum's lack of pretension -- not to mention air conditioning, closed doors, guards or a salesperson in its gift shop -- is also a big problem. The Puri Lukisan is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It's the first private museum on Bali and a showcase of the local arts explosion that turned the village of Ubud into the cultural capital of the fabled island. Whether the museum's treasures survive another half century, however, is an open question.

"Ninety percent of our collection is not in good condition, especially the works on paper," says museum director Tjokorda Bagus Astika, whose family has been involved with the institution since its beginning. "We need air conditioning and we need to clean the art, but we don't have the money. It's a very serious situation. Our master plan is to make a new building, but we don't have the budget. We're waiting. Over time our collection will become more damaged. The collection is irreplaceable."

Tjokorda Gde Putra Sukawati, whose father was one of the co-founders of the museum, agrees that the situation is dire.

"It's possible the collection could last another 50 years, but maybe not," he says. "It's already changed; the colors on paper have faded."

Puri Lukisan means Palace of Painting, and the museum is a symbol of the fruitful meeting of two very different cultures: European draftsmanship and Balinese religious art.

Europeans have been smitten with the beauty of Bali since 1597, when the first Dutch East India Co. sailing vessel stopped at the island and two crew members jumped ship. But it wasn't until the first quarter of the 20th century that Europeans arrived in sizable numbers. By the 1930s, about 3,000 tourists a year were visiting Bali and a small expat community had sprung up. One of the members was Rudolf Bonnet, a Dutch painter who made his way to the island in 1929. He didn't leave for 30 years.

Bonnet became friends with Walter Spies, a legendary German-Russian arts impresario who had settled in Ubud in 1925. The two Europeans were guests at the palace of Tjokorda Gde Agung Sukawati, a prince from the town's royal family who eagerly embraced cultural tourism.

"Our palace welcomed the first Western people who influenced Balinese art," the prince's son Putra Sukawati says. "The two sides influenced each other."

For an arts lover, the island was indeed a paradise. The Balinese had an exquisite culture, much of it based on the epic Hindu narratives of the Maharabhata and Ramayana. Temples were everywhere, filled with dancing, music and sculpture.

"Everybody in Bali," observed the late painter and writer Miguel Covarrubias, who lived in Bali in the 1930s, "seems to be an artist."

But drawing and painting were not the most refined of the local arts. Two-dimensional representational art was largely limited to unimaginatively illustrated astrological charts and static renderings of wayang kulit, or shadow puppet, plays.

Bonnet and Spies encouraged their friends to experiment, giving out drawing supplies such as pencils, paper and Chinese ink. The duo also suggested that artists look for inspiration around them, in the sights that the Europeans found so wondrously picturesque: terraced rice fields, bustling markets, intricate religious festivals.

The movement came to be called the Balinese Renewal. "Painting," Covarrubias wrote in his classic book, "Island of Bali," first published in 1937, "underwent a liberating revolution."

Revolution may be too strong a word. The hallmarks of Balinese painting -- somber colors, crowded scenes, a horror of empty space -- remained, but perspective and modeling and a broadening of subject did infuse the work with vitality and charm. And the best-known Ubud artist was also among the most radical: I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, whose sinuous black-and-white drawings mined mythological themes but with an unprecedented freedom of line that marked off bold swaths of blank space.

In 1936, Spies, Bonnet, the prince and a number of local artists set up an association called Pita Maha, meaning "grand ancestor(s)," which involved more than 100 painters who staged exhibitions, organizing shows as far afield as New York and Paris. They also dreamed of building a museum to display their work.

World War II got in the way. Spies was imprisoned by the Dutch in Sumatra as an enemy alien and died in captivity. Bonnet too was interned, in Sulawesi, although afterward he returned to Ubud.

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