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Balinese painting

The recent collaborative book, Lempad of Bali (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2014) is probably the most important work yet published on a single Balinese artist, and it has been a great pleasure to be part of it, along with Bruce Carpenter, the late John Darling, Hedi Hinzler, Kaja McGowan and Soemantri Widagdo.

Gusti Nyoman Lempad was legendary not only as a radically different artist from the 1930s, but also as the architect who created Ubud. His longevity added to his aura: while there are different estimates of his age, at his death in 1978 he was either 116 or 106. Two other books on Lempad have also come out this year. Although neither of these has much scholarly weight, they do illustrate the range of work of Lempad and his school, which mainly consisted of his family.

I was asked by the instigators of the project, Soemantri Widagdo and Bruce W. Carpenter, to help out with the captions, in particular with identifying the narratives that Lempad depicted. This proved to be a lot more than I had originally imagined, and in the process I met with a more profound set of insights into Balinese perspectives on life than I had imagined.

While a lot of people are familiar with the fine line and elegant simplicity of Lempad’s work, I only know of one unpublished engagement with his philosophy. This was a 1988 Honours thesis in my department here at the University of Sydney, by Putu Barbara Davies, who had met with Lempad and worked closely with his son, Gusti Made Sumung.

Gusti Sumung, “the gatekeeper” as he is called in our book, provided Putu with access to a set of drawings by his father of the Japatuan story, a tale rarely told in contemporary Bali, but one which had been important in the past. Japatuan is about the journey of the eponymous hero and his brother through the afterworld, in search of the spirit or soul of his deceased wife.
After going through hundreds of Lempad’s works, I could see the common threads in what Putu shows to be his treatment of this work, and his other visual story-telling. Lempad was concerned with gender, with attaining wisdom and power, and with moving between the world of the senses and the world beyond. In his art, the three are combined.


I've been working on this project now for a number of years, although it goes back to my original 1978-79 research on the Kerta Ghosa in Klungkung for my honours thesis. Recently Siobhan Campbell, our PhD student on the project, and I gave the Anthony Forge memorial lecture, about Forge's work, and our work projects on the history and collecting of Balinese painting. You can hear the podcast and see the slides at Our collaboration with the Australian Museum is documented at

I'm hoping to have my general account of the history of Balinese painting to the publisher by the end of March. At some stage next year our database, an on-line resource using the Heurist program, will be made public. To date we have nearly 2,500 artworks listed, from the Australian Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the Tropen in Amsterdam, and a number of important private collections, including works that have been documented by Leo Haks, and the former collection of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, for which Hildred Geertz has supplied important research materials.

I was recently a guest of Gus De--Ida Bagus Sidharta Putra--at Griya Santrian (Jl Danau Tamblingan, Sanur), where I opened their Gallery's 5th Anniversary Exhibition, 'White Paintings'. The Gallery is the only one in Bali to continuously host new shows of contemporary Indonesian art, and this exhibition was made up of works by some of Bali's best new artists, based around the theme of 'white'. I particularly enjoyed Ni Nyoman Sani's works, which play on images of women and fashion.

The gallery is quite an achievement, since it has broken the mould of the set collection displays of the major private galleries, and Wayan Sukra, the German-born curator, is one of the only people working in the area with a genuine art history and curatorial background. There have been attempts to do this before in Bali, notably Agus Wawarunto's Natayu Gallery, and the Ganesha Gallery at the Four Seasons, but the Santrian is the only new space to have been able to keep up shows of consistent quality.

A new Art Centre has recently opened in Nusa Dua, in the grounds of the main Nusa Dua complex, Pacifica, Asia-Pacific Art Center. The main focus of the collection is Western artists of Asia and the Pacific, and this is certainly the first gallery/museum (both these terms are fraught categories in official practice) in Indonesia to go beyond Indonesian art and Western depictions of Indonesia. Pacifica also has a fascinating collection of Pacific art, including an astonishing collection of tapa cloths, and an impressive group of works, mainly statues/sculptures, from different parts of the Pacific.

The Balinese element in the collection is deliberately small, but for those interested in seeing part of the collection of Theo Meier, mainly works by Ida Bagus Nyoman Rai, these can be found at the opening part of the Center. Although I'm not a huge fan of the Westerners who painted Indonesia, this Center has probably one of the best selections of their work.

An added element of interest is the architecture, the Center was designed by Popo Danes.

The work of the Bogbog/Bali Post group of cartoonists continues to provide the most important link between present-day Indonesian concerns and Balinese artistic traditions. Check out the political cartoons on their website (note that this site is a bit hard to navigate around, but has some nice examples and some interesting other links).