The Digital Adventures

Theo Meier-CH21A

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Luckily for the painters living on Bali, Sukarno was a great lover of the arts and he was known to surround himself with painters and artists. Theo had the good fortune to paint two large canvases for Sukarno during his early visits to Iseh, long before he became president. Theo recalled the occasion when Sukarno came to Bali when he was president: “He came to our humble village which was the high-point for everyone. In his company, I met heads of states like Nasser and Nehru, though not all of these VIPs were as enthusiastically disposed towards Bali as Nehru was. Nehru called Bali ‘the morning of the world.’ Khrushchev, on the other hand, was a good deal less responsive to the islands’ beauties. In Denpasar he spoke up in the middle of a native dance performed in his honor: ‘That’s all very well, but it doesn’t bring any foreign currency into the country.’ Sukarno, not surprisingly, immediately ordered the dancers to stop. He had already been shocked by similar philistine remarks of his bulky guest earlier in the tour.”

In a letter to a friend in Switzerland Theo wrote that Sukarno was one of his best clients. “Sukarno was much better in the field of art than he was in politics,” he wrote.

Sukarno loved Bali and the people loved him. Once he traveled over poor, unpaved roads to visit Theo in Iseh. En route he often got down from the car to shake hands with the people. When they came to a temple he would have the driver stop and wait while he walked across rice fields to visit the temple. In Iseh he went to the market with Theo to buy food. He took the time to talk to the people. He ate with Theo and praised Theo for his marvelous cooking.

  • Photo caption on page 186 of the book:  When author James Michener visited Bali with his American wife, and wasn’t getting along too well with her, Theo suggested he find  an Asian wife. Michener did just that. The next visit he arrived with a Japanese, Mari Yoriko Sabusawa.

Despite the time of troubles that brewed after the war, Theo worked no less hard and diligently than before in an atmosphere of uncertainty. His relative seclusion was interrupted by visits that included many well-known personalities. With the war over, visitors by the droves began to arrive and Theo, a survivor of the war and the Japanese occupation, was much sought after. He was taking on the role that Walter Spies had before the war. Many of those who came looking for Theo-photographers, actors and moviemakers-were of international fame, famous in their own right. In particular, visitors included people like Howard Sochurek, Ernst Haas and Henri Cartier Bresson.

Theo found Cartier-Bresson most interesting. Theo admired him for his photography and he learned from him much about taking good pictures. It wasn’t long and they were good pals running around Bali together. In 1937 Cartier-Bresson had married a Javanese dancer, Ratna Mohini. She was his first wife and he adored her. She had a tremendous influence in her husband’s work as a photographer. Being of Hindu extraction she fitted in well in Bali. Theo joined them both on a number of photographic shoots around the island. Like Theo, Cartier-Bresson was keen on light and shadows.

Life Magazine photographer Howard Sochurek, the first Robert Capa Gold Medal awardee, came to Bali with the explicit purpose of photographing Theo at work. There was also James Michener. He and Theo hit it off immediately. The first time Michener came to Bali he was with his American wife. She was not very accommodating and argued with her husband on the most trivial matters. Theo got Michener aside and told him he’d be much better off with an Asian wife. Sometime later when Michener returned to Bali he was with his new wife, a Japanese lady, Mari Yoriko Sabusawa Michener. A second-generation Japanese American, Mari was interned with her family in a California camp during World War II. When she met Michener, he was working on a story for Life magazine about a marriage between a Japanese woman and her American husband. The story became the basis for his novel Sayonara, which later became an MGM movie with Marlon Brando playing the leading role.

“You, see, I followed your advice,” Michener said to Theo. “I married an Asian girl.”

In studying the social repercussions of the times, Michener wrote: “It is no joke for a woman to be taken for just one more American remnant and to see these eastern girls capturing all the men folk of the U.S.A.”

Another one who passed through Bali was the celebrated Charlie Chaplin. Theo had missed out meeting him when he had visited Walter Spies. Now was his chance. Theo was granted an interview before the reception with the Raja of Karangasem. The Raja asked Theo, “Do tell me, who is this man who comes to visit me.?”

“Why, he is the famous Charlie Chaplin,” Theo replied.

“That is obvious,” continued the Raja, “for on the island everyonewith a Charlie Chaplin mustache is called Chaplin. But what else should I know about him?”

“Well, he is a man who takes pictures, moving pictures,” Theo answered.

“That is very clear, for Charlie Chaplin has a camera slung across his shoulders. But is he rich?”

“Enormously,” Theo replied, grinning.

“Where does his money come from?” the Raja asked, still puzzled.

“Well, from the pictures he makes,” said Theo.

“But how can one grow rich by taking pictures. I can see what it costs me with my son who rides the same hobbyhorse.”

Charlie Chaplin arrived, graciously and all smiles. He was polite to Theo and said he had heard about him, the Swiss painter who had outwitted the Japanese. Theo answered questions asked by the Raja.

When Chaplin left after the reception, the Raja remarked he had expected a much bigger man. He was mildly disappointed. Chaplin continued to remain a man of mystery in his eye.

With President Sukarno’s accession to power, his taste for art didn’t wane and if anything, it grew. He acquired, as a gift from Theo, more than a dozen of his masterpieces which became part of the famous Sukarno Collection, an admirable set of volumes entitled; Paintings in Dr. Sukarno’s Collection. From the very first. President Sukarno had taken interest in Theo’s work. In 1950, the Indonesian Ambassador in Switzerland promoted an exhibition of Theo’s works in Basel: and Sukarno, during his state visit to Switzerland, arranged for a private exhibition of some of Theo’s canvases in the salons of the Indonesian Embassy at Bern, to which he brought the entire diplomatic corps. On that occasion, “the Magic Flute,” one of Theo’s major works, was exhibited.

The beginning of the 1950s was a good time for foreign artists living on Bali. Antonio Blanco and Han Snel were making names for themselves and their paintings were selling. Snel was in the process of building a magnificent stone carved house in Ubud. Blanco, who had married a lovely Balinese Legong dancer, was making waves with his nude paintings. And a young entrepreneur named Smeja Neka was setting up one of the island’s first art galleries.

Born in Ubud in 1939, young Neka grew up surrounded by art. His father was a member of the ground-breaking Pita Maha Artists’ Association, founded in 1936 by Walter Spies, Rudolf Bonnet and Prince Cokorda Gede. Neka, naturally, was in constant contact with the many talented artists in the area. Gradually he became aware that through the growth of tourism many of the finest examples of Balinese art were leaving the island, snapped up by foreign collectors. By 1966 his awareness had turned into such concern that he decided to dedicate himself full time to collecting, preserving and promoting Balinese art. His collection started modestly, but it was not long before the Neka Gallery had become one of the finest in Bali.

Jumping ahead, in 1982 the Indonesian Government acknowledged the importance of such a museum and on 7th July that year Museum Neka was officially opened by the then Minister of Education and Culture, Dr. Daoed Joesoef Theo’s portrait of Smeja Neka stands prominently in the museum.

  • Photo caption on page 190 of the book: Artist Han Snel, left, showing me the new carved stone studio and gallery he had just completed. Right, a portrait Theo painted  of Suteja Neka.

In time, Theo, Pergi and daughter Anni moved back to their house at Sanur, traveling back to Iseh only for weekend getaways. Theo adored his daughter Anni who was rapidly growing from child to woman. Anni often invited her young friends to come visit. Theo delighted in all the young maidens running about the house and bathing in the stream behind the building. A painter couldn’t ask for more.

One striking, lovely young girl, the same age as Anni, that captured Theo’s attention more than any other girl was Rubic from the village of Bedulu. Anni and Rubic were often present when Theo and Pergi had foreigners for lunch or dinner. Rubic remembers Theo would tell her and Anni that they must learn to use knives and forks. “It was very funny,” she recalled. “We called Theo papa. He spoke beautiful Balinese, high Balinese and Indonesian as well. He spoke high Balinese mostly because his friends came from the high cast. I owe a lot to Papa for what he taught us. I got along very well with his daughter Anni. We were like sisters.”

  • Photo caption on page 191 of the book: Left, Theo presented with a daughter. Right, his daughter, older now, peeking around the corner.

Theo did in fact speak high Balinese, the language that Rubic mentioned, the language the high cast Balinese spoke. The caste system on Bali originated from Hindu traditions on Java dating back to about 1350, although it was not nearly as strict as the system in India. On Bali, caste determined the roles in religious rituals and the form of language to be used in every social situation. Theo had found in most villages that caste was very much part of life and caste concepts were absolutely essential to religious practices. For that reason Theo found it necessary to learn high Balinese, although around ninety percent of Bali’s ethnic population belonged to the common shudra caste, with the rest belonging to the triwangsa or upper caste. Theo learned to speak both the high and the common dialects equally well.

  • Photo caption on page 192 of the book: In the 50’s Theo was producing some of his finest work.  Here’s a splendid oil painting of women making offerings to a temple.
  • Photo caption on page 192 of the book: Two more of Theo’s paintings from the 1950’s.

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