AN ARTIST IN PARADISE
Theo knew no one on Bali when he arrived, and he had no letters of introduction; but a name he had heard before he arrived; and a man he wanted to meet, was Walter Spies. Spies had arrived in Bali in 1927 and in ten years had made quite a name for himself. All one had to do was mention the name Bali and Walter Spies would come up. He was not only a gifted artist but a musicologist as well. He knew everything about Bali-music, dance, shadow plays. Any time someone had a question or a problem to solve, he went to see Walter Spies. When Rudolph Bonnet came to Bali the first thing he did was look up Spies. When Colin McPhee wanted to build a house, he went to see Spies, and so it went. Theo had been on Bali two months and still hadn’t met him. Spies, he heard, was off gallivanting around Southeast Asia, The story was that Barbara Hutton, the flamboyant American heiress, had fallen madly in love with him and with the money she had paid him for some of his paintings, he had built her a fine house with a swimming pool next to his home in Ubud, but by the time it was finished, she had moved on to Persia with a new lover. When Theo learned Spies was back in Bali, he rented a horse and carriage and with Meg they went to Ubud to visit him.
The carriage driver knew the place and drove up to the house, a dark brown, two-storey building clinging to the side of a steep ravine. Dense foliage screened it from the road and gave it an aurora of a secret abode. They were met by two young Balinese boys who led Theo and Meg to the house. There to greet them stood Walter Spies, a legend in his own time. He was quite tall and very dignified looking. He was forty some years old and in the prime of his life. His straight brown hair was neatly trimmed and he wore white shorts and a plain white cotton shirt. Theo almost expected him to be carrying a tennis racket.
He was strikingly handsome, as any Hollywood movie star might be. Theo could see now how Barbara Hutton had easily fallen in love with him.
Spies spoke first to Theo in English, in an accent that was British, but upon hearing Theo’s German accent, his face lighted up and he switched to German. “I heard that you were here on Bali,” he said with a smile. “Another German patriot.”
“Swiss,” Theo spoke up without hesitation.
“Yes, yes, of course, you are Swiss. One hardly wants to be German in Dutch territories these days,” Spies replied and quickly changed the subject and led Theo and Meg on a tour of the house. The house was like a museum, but not stuffy like museums. Everything chosen was in good taste. The walls were decorated with Balinese paintings, some antique pieces and quite old and, dominating one wall in the living rooms, was one of Spies’ own paintings, a forest scene in great detail with long shafts of light filtering down through dense foliage. It did have a touch of Rousseau about it.
There was a grand piano, as well, in the living room.
Below the house was an oval swimming pool fed by a bamboo pipe from a hillside springhouse. They gathered at the poolside. Spies called for drinks from one of the houseboys and asked if anyone wanted a swim. He had bathing costumes for anyone who did. He then departed, returned in swimming togs and dove into the pool with great aplomb, hardly creating a splash. He swam up to the side of the pool while his houseboy brought him a tray of whiskey bottles and placed it in front of him. Half immersed, he poured the drinks. He called for the boy again, to bring him gin. “I have some good Holland gin that just came in,” he announced happily. He kept the conversation going with uncontroversial chatter as he poured drinks.
They were soon joined by another quest staying in the house. Spies introduced her-Miss Vicki Baum. Theo knew about her, and that she was visiting in Bali. He had no idea she was in the same house with Walter Spies. Theo had wanted to meet her. He was interested in her love for music. Miss Baum, Austrian by birth, was well known for her 1929 novel Menschenim Hotel which was made into an Academy Award winning film, “Grand Hotel”. She had been to Bali the year before and now had returned to write a novel.
“Miss Baum is doing research for her new novel, A Tale of Bali, and she must tell us about it,” Spies said.
Servants brought a low table laden with more bottles and glasses, and presently trays of food arrived. Spies vanished and returned, this time in long trousers and a sporty batik shirt. They all lounged on mats around the table. Night was falling and servants lighted wicks floating in oil in half coconut shells hanging from the trees. Somewhere in the distance, and unseen, a small gamelan group began playing. “Perhaps now Miss Baum can tell us about her novel,” Spies said, holding up a glass of Holland gin. She was reluctant at first, but once she began she was like a runaway locomotive without breaks. She got caught up in her own emotions; the tale she had to tell was about a subject that had also interested Theo greatly. It centered on an event dear to the heart of all Balinese, an event that changed forever the relationship with the Balinese and their Dutch masters. Miss Baum had to stop every now and then as her voiced choked up with emotion. She explained what happened on September 14, 1906, when a Dutch force landed at Sanur beach, and finding no resistance, they marched, in dress parade formation to Denpasar. They passed through a deserted town and approached the royal palace. To the tune of wild beating of drums coming from within the palace walls, they were greeted by a silent procession that emerged from the place, led by the Raja being borne by four bearers on a palanquin. The Raja dressed in traditional white cremation garments, wore magnificent jewelry, and was armed with a ceremonial kris dagger. The other people in the procession consisted of the Raja’s officials, guards, priests, wives, children and retainers, all of whom were similarly attired.
Miss Baum’s voice now waxed lyrical as though she were on stage and performing for a large audience. She began speaking with quiet reverence. “When the procession was close enough for the Dutch force to see the whites of their eyes,” she said, “they halted and the Raja stepped down from the palanquin and signaled a priest to come forth. The raja then handed the priest his dagger and on the Raja’s instructions, the priest plunged the dagger into the Raja’s breast. This was the signal for the rest of the procession to begin killing themselves and others. While this was happening, other royal followers attacked the Dutch with lances and spears, forcing the Dutch to open fire with rifles and artillery. It’s told that the women mockingly threw jewelry and gold coins at the troops. As more people emerged from the palace, the mounds of corpses rose higher and higher. Approximately 4,000 Balinese died. After stripping the corpses of valuables they sacked the ruins of the burned palace.”
Spies broke the spell and spoke up. “The Dutch colonial government learned a lesson from the affair,” he said. ”As a result, the authorities became lenient and thereafter they did little to interfere with the people’s way of life. The highest authority on the island is the Resident of Bali and Lombok, an officer who lives in north Bali and who is responsible to the Governor General of the Dutch East Indies in Batavia. There is an Assistant Resident in the south in Denpasar, but he is more preoccupied with living than administering. We have eight Rajas. The system that controls runs from the Dutch to the Rajas and down through village councils to the people.”
Theo and Meg returned that night by their horse and carriage to their humble home on the beach at Sanur, with Theo deep in thought during the ride. Spies was his teacher and he was a willing student, but he did not fully agree with his teacher.
After that initial meeting, Spies invited Theo often to his house. Perhaps because he envied Theo for his time to himself to paint. Spies complained that his many guest were taking up his time, but Theo noticed he didn’t stop extending invitations. Theo in turn did meet many of his guests, some he enjoyed meeting, others he detested. One guest who greatly fascinated Theo was Margaret Mead, the anthropologist known for her work The Coming of Age on Samoa. She came to Bali with her husband, the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson, to do field work on the Balinese and later on the inhabitants of New Guinea.
Margaret and Gregory had the captain marry them on a ship that brought them to Bali. It was her third marriage. Theo liked her for her anthropological studies but he did find her annoying at times. Theo gathered from their conversations that she not only studied these primitive people but she lived with them, intimately. When Theo told her about his trials with the women in the New Hebrides, she wouldn’t let him alone. She probed into his sex life, and anyone else who was around, asking them all sorts of questions. She made it sound that it was for the sake of science but Theo wondered about this. He got particularity perturbed when she wanted to talk to Meg. He kept her away after that.
There was some friction between Mead and another frequent guest, Colin McPhee. McPhee was a musicologist who had studied with the avant-garde composer Edgar Varese. He then met Jane Bila, a disciple of Margaret Mead. McPhee, having heard about the charms of Bali convinced his wife she should pursue her anthropological studies there, which was supported by Mead. Once on Bali, McPhee became so interested in the local music he decided he wanted to take up the study of Balinese music. When McPhee and Spies became friendly, and Spies agreed to help McPhee build his own house nearby, Bila left Bali before completing her research. Theo thought it was odd that she had left her husband until he and Spies visited McPhee at his home one afternoon. It was a short walk and they arrived unannounced. McPhee was lounging on the verandah surrounded by three or four handsome young boys. McPhee introduced them as his houseboys. Theo figured they were more than houseboys and perhaps they were the reasons for his wife’s departure.
Theo had missed meeting Charlie Chaplin, but he did get to meet Noel Coward. Theo had to admit he didn’t understand a word Coward had said in his twang diction. Coward had traveled from Singapore to Bali especially to meet Spies. He spent three weeks and took advantage of the Steinway in the living room. Theo noticed that Coward was demanding and had a temper. Spies explained to Theo that what made him angry was when he arrived and found there wasn’t a single Spies painting for sale. He became even more irate when he learned that Barbara Hutton and Charlie Chaplin had bought several before his arrival. Coward scribbled out the following poem:
As I said this morning to Charlie,
There is far too much music in Bali.
And although as a place it’s entrancing,
There is also a thought too much dancing.
It appears that each Balinese native
From the womb to the tomb is creative,
And although the results are quite clever,
There is too much artistic endeavor.
After visiting with Walter Spies, Theo began to form his opinion of Spies as both the artist and a man. He made the following entry in his journal; “WS is a painter, a very individual one, his pictures, quainter to be exact, are Rousseau-like of figures in the jungles, but even more surrealist and diffused with a vivid unearthly light.”
Theo was interested to know what became of Colin McPhee. He knew, of course, that McPhee got out of Bali in time to escape World War II and went to New York in 1940. Theo later learned that he lived in a large brownstone house in Brooklyn, which he shared with Leonard Bernstein and Benjamin Britten, among others. He was responsible for introducing Britten to the Balinese music that influenced such works by the British composer as “The Prince of the Pagodas”, “Curlew River”, and “Death in Venice”. Later in the decade, McPhee fell into depression fuelled by alcohol, but he did began to write music again. He became professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA.
This chapter’s photo captions in the printed publication:
Page 156 – Theo wanted to meet Walter Spies long before he came to Bali. Spies had arrived
in Bali in 1927 and knew every one of importance who ever came to Bali.
Page 161 – Noel Coward, left, and Charlie Chaplin right, came to Bali often, and when they did
they stayed with Walter Spies.