UNDER THE SPELL
Ubud was an art colony and as such it did not appeal to Theo. He had always steered dear of groups. But he did have many friends there and went often to visit. There were no hotels and invited travelers stayed in the bungalows that Prince Gede Agung Sukawati had built for the circle of painters, painters that he patronized.
Ubud was at the time considered to be the most exotic art colony in the world. Its inaccessibility was one thing that had to do with it. The other was the popularity one man everyone want to meet, Walter Spies.
As mentioned, Spies arrived in Bali in 1927 for a short stay, and he never left. In Ubud he encountered a culture as graceful and refined as any in the world. Everyone, it seemed, was an artist of one sort or another. Even child dancers participated in mystic trances which enacted the fables of the Hindu classic Ramayana. Of course, there was the exuberant, clangorous accompaniment of the gamelan. But what also attracted Spies mostly were the paintings. He admired the traditional art and sought to learn from it. But he rejected what did not suit his inclination. In a short time Walter Spies made a name for himself and celebrities flocked to his door. He eventually started a school of learning introducing Western principles into Bali’s ancient art forms.
With Theo it was different. He didn’t paint fashionably, and never considered that he belonged to a movement between him and his surroundings. Color for him was his school and he needed no teacher to tell him how to paint. Indeed, color was all-important. It flowed from the dark-toned palette of his youth to the clear, glowing tonal opulence of his painting in the tropics. He saw a cloud or a tree, and the thought welled up in him how beautiful that object was. At such moments he was at peace with himself.
It was clear from the moment he arrived in the tropics that his love was for the female body. He loved the mulattos of Martinique, the dark skinned Polynesians on the Pacific islands and he especially loved the fair-skinned women of Bali. He loved the fineness of their bodies, the texture of their skin, and for certain their very existence. They were alive with expressions and emotions. The women of the tropics were more than objects of beauty for Theo. He once said he could not paint a female nude body without having an erection. He told how his wife had slashed an unfinished canvas of a nude he was painting. “She was jealous,” he said. “Not jealous because the girl was nude. All women in Bali went around half nude. No, she recognized the look in model’s eyes. When she saw that painting she knew I was making love to the model.”
Theo never stopped learning, and he was learning much on Bali. “When we paint, we try to consign the colors we see in real life to those we put on canvas,” Theo once said. “It takes time to learn to see. If I am painting a landscape, I suddenly see a yellow in a green tree, and it becomes blue on my canvas. Eventually, we begin to exaggerate, we begin to be selective, and finally it ends up just as nothing. You can, for instance, paint a blue in a tropical landscape, as blue as it actually is, but consigned to canvas, it is not the picture. The color is there, the blue is there, but it doesn’t come alive. Then I began to realize that the tropical landscape is not at all as we see it. It is, rather, an experience. This landscape is warm in tone, and so I start, in simple fashion, to paint my pictures over a reddish priming coat. And then the green tones and the other colors come to life. When the picture is finished, it is redder than Nature, but yet conveys the landscape accurately. One must translate.”
Theo continued: “I often work with blue outlines. How I came to do this I don’t remember. Blue is a sort of handwriting that goes across the picture so as to emphasize something. I feel this to be beautiful. I depart from Nature to a certain degree. I am less concerned with an intimation of Nature than with a representation of my impression of it-my concept, my dream but abstract painting is not to my taste. My mind is too much involved with the senses than with the visual, not tied up with a depiction of reality. I always seek for the simplest form. I simplify deliberately. I sometimes make a couple of preliminary sketches. If I had not studied thoroughly the music of the Balinese orchestra, I would probably not have managed to portray a Rejang dance realistically.”
On Bali the beauty of the music had naturally influenced Theo’s painting, as did the mystics of the island. When Balinese people lose something, they consult a balian, a benign sort of sorcerer, who tells them where to find it. Balians can interpret dreams, cure sickness, go into trances, and speak in the voices of ancestors. And magic, in the form of the island’s unique religion, is at the core of Bali’s arts. A blend of Hinduism and nature worship, the Balinese religion is an ecstatic union of the spiritual and the aesthetic, reminiscent of the religion of ancient Greece. Bali’s famous trance dances, for example, suggest the rites of Bacchus: in one of the sanghyang dances two girls who are supposedly untrained in the dance’s intricate choreography go into a trance and, eyes firmly shut, move in perfect unison. The dance is named after the divine spirit that inhabits them.
One breezy morning in 1941, Theo recalls he was sitting beneath the palms in his garden in Sanur talking to Jacorda Rai Sajan, another Raja friend of his from Ubud. In the course of the conversation, he looked at Theo and said: “Theo, we had a very pleasant evening together yesterday and went to bed contented. A few hours later, I woke up to find a light shining in your studio; you were painting. I noticed the same when I visited you a week ago. Are you an addict, like the old-smokers? Is something the matter with you?”
Theo looked at him and was puzzled. “Painting is just one part of life,” he said, “like music, writing, traveling, love.”
Perhaps it should be explained at this time that Jocorda Rai was a learned Balian, in fact, he was a Balian usada, a medicine man who receives his enlightenment from studying the Usanas, the Hindu-Balinese books on the philosophy of life and the art of healing. And now, before Theo knew it, he was extracting from Theo the story of his life, bringing to mind events stretching back to earliest childhood. An uncomfortable thought occurred to Theo, a fear that Jocorda Rai was trying to persuade him to resist his passion for painting. Sensing this, he wanted to break off the conversation.
Jacorda seemed to understand. He gave a friendly laugh and said “Theo, you are a chronic cock-fighter!”
A few days after the conversation with Jacorda Rai, a strange happening took place. In spite of the threat of war, an American yacht appeared off shore in Sanur and dropped anchor. Theo along with dozens of Balinese stood on the beach to watch a long boat with a crew of five or six men row ashore. It seemed so odd, with the imminent threat from the Japanese who were invading the islands that an American vessel would appear.
A sailor wearing a captain’s cap was the first to step ashore. Seeing Theo was the only white man on the beach, he walked up to him. “Name’s Sheridan, Sheridan Fahnestock, the Fahnestock South Sea Expedition”. He extended his hand. The second sailor stepped up. “This is my brother, Bruce.” Theo shook his hand.
The brothers explained their yacht was the 137-foot Director II which had sailed from New York in February 1940, and she carried two Presto disc-cutters, the state of the art recording devices of the day.
Theo was really puzzled now when he heard about the recording devices. He wondered what could these two brothers possibly want. He didn’t have to wonder long. Sheridan explained their mission.
“We have come to record traditional Balinese music for the New York’s American Museum of Natural History,” he said. “If we can be so bold, we are calling it The Music of the Gods.”
Theo’s ears perked up. Anything to do with Balinese music was his interest.
Sheridan went on, stating that, they brought along two miles of insulated microphone cable, enabling them to record on shore while the equipment remained safety aboard the boat, with two skilled radio technicians at the controls. “This method,” he said, “will enable us to record in the least obtrusive manner possible, while obtaining the highest quality results.”
Theo said he was at their service and would aid them in any way needed. When the brothers learned of Theo’s involvement with Bali music they were delighted. But the task they wanted to achieve would not be easy. The driving energy of the large gamelan ensembles featured haunting voices, bamboo flutes and reed instruments, and one featuring nothing other than an Indonesian Jew’s harp. Most important of the gamelan ensembles were the magnificent bronze gongs and metallophones, the bronze-keyed xylophones.
Then there was the Kecak, which they certainly had to record. The Kecak was the legendary Monkey Dance, a complex counterpoint of interlocking chants by a 200-man chorus, building to a kind of ecstatic, other worldly frenzy.
Two miles of cable would not go far. The villages where the music was made were far apart. The solution was to bring the performers to Sanur. Fortunately the Balinese were only too eager to perform for the Americans. They came in carloads and busloads to Sanur bringing with their musical instruments, some which were very cumbersome and heavy to transport.
Theo was like a director at a great music hall in Europe, instructing the groups where and how to set up shop and when to begin playing. Soon half the island, it seemed, came to Sanur each evening for three weeks, until the recordings were finished. They came to watch the performances as well as to listen to the music.
The Fahnestocks were delighted with the results. Unfortunately overshadowing the expedition was the Japanese threat of war. Indeed, the whole of the Dutch East Indies was about to fall to the Japanese. A few weeks after the Fahnestocks set sail for America the war did erupt. It was uncanny timing for they completed recording in September 1941, and arrived back in the United States with their Music for the Gods only weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Fahnestocks had sailed away and it was but a year later that Theo learned that the Fahnestock expedition was also on an intelligence assignment undertaken at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt. At an earlier White House meeting, the President had asked the brothers to evaluate Dutch military preparations on Java, and assess the usefulness of small watercraft for Pacific Islands combat. Whether or not the Fahnestock brothers were gathering information for the US Government, Theo never knew, but upon hearing what the president had asked the brothers to do, if the Japanese were to find out, Theo could be in a very delicate situation.
Theo had problems other than the Fahnestock brothers being spies. After five years of marriage, Meg wanted a divorce. She and Theo separated and soon after each went their own way. Theo tried to be callous and indifferent but in truth he was terribly heart broken.
And he was alone again on Sanur Beach.
Bali, indeed, was Theo’s training ground. The lessons he had to learn were often painful and did not always go away easily.
This chapter’s photo captions in the printed publication:
Page 164 – Theo preferred to live in Sanur and not the art colony in Ubud. And like
Le Mayeur, he liked to paint outdoors.
Page 167 – Theo often bathed in the stream behind his house when young girls were also
Page 169 – The schooner Director II appeared on day offshore at Sanur Beach in front of