BALI, FOREVER BALI
Ernest Hemingway wrote a book titled The Moveable Feast in which he said: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Bali is much the same, a moveable feast. It was certainly that way for Theo Meier. Bali was forever with him wherever he went.
Once the turmoil and the killings came to an end in Indonesia, Theo began yearly return trips to what they called “his” spiritual home. Yattlie quickly caught on to his zest for travelling and joined him wherever he went. But traveling with Theo, attempting to keep up with him, was not always easy. Yattlie remembers going to Bali her first time with Theo. Theo took her to the village where his second wife lived, to introduce Yattlie to her and to his daughter. But as they were approaching the house Theo warned her not to drink anything they offered to her. Yattlie thought he was referring to the sanitation. “No, it’s not that.” Theo said when she questioned him further. “The drink could well be poisoned.” Yattlie had a hard time after that relaxing in Bali, especially when she realized Theo was serious.
Most often Theo returned to Bali with his friends, Rolf von Bueren and his wife Helen, Prince Sandith, Roman Polanski and at another time with Paul Getty and his wife. They usually went to Iseh in East Bali. Theo was never bothered by the changes that Bali was experiencing. The island had climbed for Europeans and Australians to the number one tourist destination in Asia. Discos and bars galore opened and nude bathing on the beach at Kuda by foreign women became fashionable. Drugs were readily available and were commonplace among the onslaught of the new comers-back packers. But Theo witnessed none of this. He bypassed Kuda Beach and the tourist spots and went straight to Iseh and stayed in Walter Spies’ old house. Eastern Bali was much the same as it always was and there was hardly a tourist to be seen. When Theo was asked what he thought about the changes on Bali, he would reply: “What changes? I didn’t see any.”
In 1969 just before he began construction on his new house in Chiang Mai, Theo took as his guest Sir Paul Getty and his wife Talitha Getty on a visit to Bali. Paul was the son of]. Paul Getty, the richest man in the world at the time. Talitha Getty was of Dutch extraction, born in Java in October 1940 at the outbreak of the war. She spent her early years, along with her mother, in a Japanese prison camp. Her father was interned in a separate camp and he and her mother went their own ways after the war. Pol, as everyone called her, moved to Britain with her mother. She lived much of her adult life in Britain and, in later years, was closely associated with the Moroccan city of Marrakech.
After marrying Paul in 1966 she became part of “Swinging” London’s fashionable scene, becoming friends with, among others, singers Mick Jagger, of the Rolling Stones, and his girlfriend Marianne Faithful. Another to come under Pol’s spell was the dancer Rudolf Nureyev whom she met at a party in 1965. Theo was amused when he heard the story. “Everyone knew Nureyev was gay,” Theo said, “but after I met Pol, I could see the attraction.’ She was, indeed, strikingly beautiful. Perhaps it was love at first sight for Nureyev. He told several friends that he wished to marry her. And it may have happened had he been able to attend a dinner party given by Claus von Bulow, at which he and Pol were to have been seated next to each other. But Nureyev couldn’t make it and Bulow invited Paul Getty to take his place which led to Paul and Pol’s marriage a year later in 1966.
Talitha wanted very much to visit Indonesia with Theo as she was excited to show Bali to her husband. Theo admitted later there was very little he could show them. With their insane use of drugs they could have been anywhere. As it so happened, only a year and a half after their visit to Bali with Theo, Talitha died of a heroin overdose at her home in London on July 14, 1971. She was thirty years old.
Aside from his many Balinese artist friends whom he enjoyed spending time with, Theo did take pleasure in meeting with his foreign artist pals like Han Snel and Antonio Blanco. He did tell me, though, that he did miss many of the old time painters who had passed away or else moved on. Theo felt that he was fortunate to have lived both the pre-war and post-war years on Bali.
Theo often reflected on the art scene that had existed in Bali before the war years. They were exciting years in which everyone believed life would go on as it always had. Live for today for tomorrow will be no different was their motto.
In spite of the many foreign painters who took up residence on the island, their painting styles differed greatly, Walter Spies painted in dreams, much in the style of Rousseau, His partner Rudolph Bonnet centered on real life images without much imitation needed. Le Mayeur aimed for what the public wanted and did scenes of scanty dressed Balinese women frolicking in lotus-filled gardens and on the beach. Le Mayeur painted during the day and at night entertained affluent travellers, providing them with huge Balinese feasts, dance performances and the opportunity to buy his paintings as a memento of their visit.
Another pre-war friend from Bali that Theo missed very much was Miguel Covarrubias and his wife Rosa. Miguel was a painter and caricaturist, ethnologist and art historian among other interests. A man of many talents, in 1924 at the age of 19, Miguel moved to New York City where he designed sets and costumes for the theater, including La Revue Negre starring Josephine Baker in the show that made her a smash in Paris. In New York he met Rosa Rolando. The two fell in love and traveled together to Mexico, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean in the mid to late 1920s. During a trip to Mexico, the famous photographer Edward Weston taught Rosa photography. Rosa was also introduced to Miguel’s family and friends including the noted Mexican artist Diego Rivera. She became a close and lasting friend of Rivera’s wife.
Miguel’s artwork and celebrity caricatures had been featured in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair magazines. His first book of caricatures The Prince of Wales and Other Famous Americans was an immediate success.
Miguel and Rosa married in 1930 and they took an extended honeymoon to Bali where they immersed themselves in the local culture, language and customs. Miguel and Rosa returned to Bali in 1933 and remained until 1940 when the threat of war fell over the Pacific.
Theo liked Miguel and Rosa very much but he was not alone. Everyone in pre-war Bali loved the young, enthusiastic couple. Miguel began to work on a book titled Island of Bali. Rosa’s photography became part of the book. Published in 1937 Island of Bali was the first major written work about Bali, its customs and people and became a classic in Asian literature. The book contributed to the 1930s Bali craze in New York.
Theo was terribly disappointed that there was little chance of Miguel and Rosa’s returning to Bali. Miguel’s paintings and illustration work brought him international recognition including gallery shows in Europe, Mexico and the United States as well as many awards.
- Photo caption on page 258 of the book: Everyone on Bali loved Miguel Covarrubias and his wife Rosa. Miguel wrote a book, Island of Bali that became a classic and is used today by scholars. He was also a gifted painter, as we can see here from his Bali Girl.
As for Theo’s style of painting, he considered himself an interpreter of Balinese scenes, dance and the women of Bali. We can see this in the large murals he painted depicting his interpretation of Balinese illness. I once entered his studio when he was placing a cow in the background of his canvas. Turning to me he said, “Look I put a horse’s hoof on the cow.” He laughed in his gargantuan voice and added, “It really doesn’t matter, does it?” He was telling me not asking me.
In our moments of reverie, sitting on his verandah, Theo often voiced his opinion of the other pre-war artists on Bali. He did have great respect for Walter Spies, that was certain, and he treated him accordingly, however, he disagreed privately with Spies’ habits and lifestyle. Still, he came to Spies’ defense when the Dutch government clamped down on homosexuals and immorality on Bali and arrested and jailed Spies. Theo, feeling sorry for Spies, wanted to help but there was nothing neither he nor anyone else could do in his defense, try as they did. The Dutch were hard masters. Theo paid Dutchman Rudolph Bonnet-Walter Spies’ sometimes partner-much the same respect as he did for Spies. Bonnet had been invited to live in Ubud in 1929 by Cokorda Gede Raka Sukawati, a ruling prince with influence. Theo felt deep sorrow for Bonnet when he learned the Japanese took Bonnet prisoner and shipped him to prison in Sulawesi. He spent the rest of the war in internment camps in different places ending up in Makassar. He returned to Bali after the war but was forced to leave in 1957, the same year Theo left, after fallout with President Sukarno. Sukarno had turned Bali into the window of Indonesian arts and had a palace built for himself in Tampaksing. Bonnet had known Sukarno well for the president had visited him often in his studio and had a close contact with him dating back to Bonnet’s exhibition in Jakarta in 1951. But when Sukarno ordered some of Bonnet’s paintings to be taken to his palace, Bonnet refused to let them go. He was expelled and wasn’t able to return until fifteen years later. Bonnet, burdened with age and illness, returned to Holland where he passed away in 1978. His remains were shipped back to Bali and he was cremated in 1979, which, up to that time, was one of the greatest cremations ever performed on the island. According to tradition, Bonnet’s soul, while accompanied by his friend Tjokorda Gede Agung, was released to the realm of the gods. Theo went to Bali to witness the ceremony.