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Raffles Bali - The Dramatic Life and Times of Modern-day Renaissance Man Walter Spies
October 30th 2020

The Dramatic Life and Times of Modern-day Renaissance Man Walter Spies

Born in Moscow in 1895 educated in Germany, Walter Spies (1895-1942) was a modern-day Renaissance man who excelled in the arts and lived his all-too-short life to the full. He travelled adventurously, mixed with royalty and celebrities, and introduced to the world the beauty of Bali.

Walter Spies, a free-spirited, highly talented painter and musician with a zest for life, hired as a sailor in 1923 and travelled via Java to Bali where he settled in 1927. There, he created fantastic pictures and became the centre of attention for Balinese artists and celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and Vicky Baum, who visited him in his island paradise. It was in Bali, Spies co-founded the Pita Maha Arts Society developed with photographer and dancer Beryl de Zoete. His book Dance and Drama in Bali remains a fascinating contemporary record while our present-day understanding of Bali’s traditional Kecak dance performances also owes much to choreography collaborations the artist undertook with local dancer Wayan Limbak.

Influential though he was and intriguing though his life remains, still few art lovers today have the opportunity to witness his astounding creative talents directly. The four evocative Walter Spies paintings to be found today in Raffles Bali are both masterful depictions of the island’s age-old culture and traditions. They are The Nocturnal Return (1923), a shadowy and evocative portrayal of pastoral life in the tropics, where farmers and livestock trudge home from the fields and hills as darkness falls and the fog rolls in. The Morning Market painting (1927) located in the library tells us about villagers converge in a food market that is laced with the shadows of palms and golden beams of morning light. Spies’ love of performance is dramatically showcased in Balinese Dancers After Twilight/Legong Dance (1931), which gracefully depicts a traditional Legong Balinese dance, customarily performed by fan-carrying young women under the light of a full moon. Aglow with ethereal crepuscular light, Drawing in the Catch (1931) shows six fishermen diligently at work along the hilly Ayung River, Bali’s longest. Their nets teem with silver fish, in the background a tiny puff of smoke billows from Mt Agung volcano. Back in the early 1930s, such a scene might have been encountered regularly, but Spies’ respectful eye, so full of affection for all the wonders of Bali, again transforms an everyday reality into a moment of true beauty.