THE ORDEAL OF WALTER SPIES
Bali can capture the emotions and the hearts of anyone who visits the island, be it only for a few days. There was a saying that Theo learned on Tahiti: three days is not enough; three weeks is too long; for then you can never leave. Theo applied that saying to Bali. He intended to stay only a few weeks, or a month or two at the most, and once he stayed longer than a month he couldn’t leave. Theo mused that if Gauguin had known of Bali and its pristine culture, he would have come here instead of Tahiti whose culture had virtually been destroyed by the time of Gauguin’s arrival at the end of the 19th century.
But it wasn’t only artists, writers and poets who got caught up in Bali’s charm. People like Noel Coward and Charlie Chaplin also fell under its spell. It can be categorically said, it was Walter Spies who started it all. The romance of Bali began with him, but, fortunately, it didn’t end with him.
Walter Spies began the romance which eventually led to his doom. In the beginning he was mentor to many foreign artists, including Theo, even though Theo was not always in agreement with him. Theo was not in accord with Spies’ belief that the Balinese had to be taught how to paint. Theo felt differently, that foreign artists who came to Bali should learn and not teach. In respect for Spies, Theo kept his feeling to himself-until the very end. What eventually happened to Walter Spies was a terrible tragedy.
When Spies arrived in Bali he found a culture completely devoted to art; the notion of art for art’s sake was alien. The Balinese had no word for artist-painting, stone and wood carving, weaving, playing musical instruments, and, above all, dancing. Those things were what one did when not fishing or working in the rice fields.
It is an axiom of art history that the primitive movement had a profound influence on the emergence of modernism in twentieth-century Europe. As one of Spies biographers put it, “Spies had an uncanny affinity for the Balinese sensibility, and he thoroughly transformed the arts of the island in the fourteen years he lived there. The famous school of painting in Ubud, one of the principal attractions for people from every part of the world, was virtually his invention”. Perhaps but Theo did not agree.
Traditionally the Balinese considered painting to be among the lowest of the arts; such painting as was done before Spies came was comparatively unsophisticated, consisting mainly of astrological calendars and scenes from the wayang, the mythological shadow-puppet show popular throughout the archipelago. Painters were limited by convention and by the natural pigments, such as bone, soot, and day that were available to them.
Spies, later joined by the Dutch artist Rudolf Bonnet, introduced Balinese artists to the wider range of colors of Western painting, and to the variety of effects possible with ready-made brushes and canvas. There’s no question about it, according to Theo, they both, Spies and Bonnet, introduced Western techniques to Bali, like perspective, and to paint scenes from everyday life. Theo felt the two tampered with tradition.
Spies did much to reveal to the world the art of Bali, other than its painting. The best-known example of Spies’ work is the dance of Bali, the Kecak, in which a chorus of men lie in a circle, loudly chanting “chak-a-chak-a-chak” as elaborately costumed solo performers act out a tale from the Ramayana. The Kecak was choreographed in its present form by Spies in 1931. Originally,
the chorus was much smaller and performed in a trance, but Spies wanted to create something more dramatic for a film he was working on, Victor Baron von Plessen’s “Island of Demons.” It was an early effort to capture the romance of Bali and, ironically, it was the film that enticed Theo to leave Basel and go to Bali.
Although Spies had a beautiful house in Ubud, he often found the place overrun by guests. When that happened he would take refuge in a bamboo pavilion he had built in Iseh, far distant in the mountain of East Bali. Once he took Theo to have a look at his retreat. Theo had no thought that one day soon the house in Iseh would serve as his escape from the Japanese, and later would become his home for many years to come.
Theo found on Bali exactly what he had been seeking all the while: a simple, joyous existence, a calm life, and with poetry all around. As time went on, he realized he had not the slightest wish to leave. Bali offered him the atmosphere into which his painting fitted more naturally than anywhere in the world.
As Walter Spies had become a legend, Theo too was becoming a legend, and in his own time. Mention Bali and Theo Meier came to mind.
Theo soon found himself entertaining a great number of guests when they came from afar to visit. His expertise in cultural matters, his culinary delights and all his mixtures alcoholic, became as legendary as his artistic output. A meal prepared or supervised by Theo was an experience not to be forgotten.
Spies had been helpful to Theo for through him Theo met many illustrious personalities, and for this Theo felt grateful, but Theo and Spies had their own differences.
Aside from his affair with Barbara Hutton and other female admirers, Spies was sexually inclined in a different way, and the results turned out to be disastrous. The Dutch authorities, scandalized at the general moral laxity of foreigners in Ubud, and as part of a crackdown on homosexuals throughout the colony, arrested Spies on New Year’s Eve, 1938, and charged him with committing sodomy with a minor. According to his biographer, Hans Rhodius, the Balinese were shocked and puzzled by the arrest, and, feeling sorry for him, they brought his favorite gamelan to play for him outside the window of his jail cell. The boy’s father came to Spies’ defense and told the trial judge, “He is our best friend, and it was an honor for my son to be in his company. If both are in agreement, why fuss?”
The Dutch, however, were not impressed.
Spies was released from prison in September of 1939 pending trial. While war was breaking out in Europe, he threw himself into the study of insects and marine life, turning out some exquisitely observed gouaches of his specimens. After Germany invaded Holland, the following year, all German citizens living in the Dutch East Indies were arrested. Spies, the last German on Bali, was sent to a prison in Sumatra. There he continued painting and organized an orchestra which he conducted in performances of Rachmaninoff. In 1942, fearful of an imminent Japanese attack, the Dutch authorities put their German captives on a ship for transport to Ceylon. The day after the ship embarked, a Japanese dive bomber hit the vessel with devastating results and it began to go down. The Dutch crew abandoned the sinking ship, leaving the prisoners on their own to drown, slowly and horribly. Theo lost a friend and deeply lamented his passing. Theo feared now more than ever before that the changes that were talking place in Europe would spread to the rest of the world. His fears were justified. The Germans invaded the Netherlands. Japan now went on the aggressive in Southeast Asia. There was no European power to stop her.