BALI, FOREVER BALI
In 1952, a painter claiming to be of Catalan descent, but born in Manila, was Antonio Maria Blanco. He appeared in Bali seeking Theo’s help. Mario, as everyone called him, had attended the Fine Arts Academy in New York and lived in various places in the United States before settling in Bali.
Mario became noted for his dramatic flair and flamboyant style. He always wore a tam, like French painters wore, and a long silk scarf that dangled from around his neck. He likened himself to Salvador Dali but, as Theo said, he was no Dali. But we must give him credit where credit is due. He was awarded the La Cofradia del Arras of Spain. Mario’s fault was that he concentrated on painting nude women, women painted in the exotic motif that would appeal to tourists. His Balinese women didn’t have the local motif.
I will relate here an incident that happened when I went to visit Blanco one afternoon. I made an appointment and Willy Mettler asked if he could tag along and take photos. I had no objection to that. When we neared Blanca’s walled compound, Willy noted a high hill that rose up behind the place. He thought it might make a good picture from above, looking down on the compound. He scampered off to climb the hill and I went around to the front entrance. I waited a bit to give Willy time to climb the hill and rang the bell. I did the interview, and met Blanca’s wife and their lovely daughter. I must say I was impressed. Here was a lifestyle led by a man any budding artist would envy. He had everything.
When the interview was over, and we bid our goodbyes, Willy and I started walking back towards town, and were no more than a hundred meters away, when Willy bursts out in laughter. Between bursts, he told how he had climbed the hill, and when he looked down, the compound was a scene of tranquility. Being afternoon, servants were laying about napping, and Blanco was sitting in a lounge chair, without a shirt on, drinking wine. About that time I rang the bell. Willy began laughing again, only louder now that we were father away. It was hard to stop but he finally had his say. He told how, with the sound of the bell, the compound suddenly burst forth with activity. “It was unbelievable,” Willy chuckled.
“A stage performance opened up, like one I had seen put on by students at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.” The servants, all women and nude from the waist above, grabbed jugs, supposedly filled with water and put them on their heads and began walking as thought they were coming from a well far off to the kitchen Blanco quickly had a girl take away the wine while he donned a painted-smeared smock and quickly took a seat in front of his easel. This is what I saw when I entered, Blanco behind his easel, a cigarette in a long carved holder in one hand and a paint brush in the other. The painting on the easel was one he had quickly switched. It was his famous nude I had seen in print many times. I didn’t think much about it at the time. How impressed I was, and now, with Willy’s tale, I too began laughing. Fortunately the painters of Bali didn’t take Blanco seriously.
- Photo caption on page 268 of the book: Antonio Blanco was noted for his paintings of Balinese girls in exotic poses, as we see in this painting.
The Dutch painter, Arie Smit, who was born in 1916, came to live in Ubud, in 1956. Theo did not get to know Arie well as he left Bali to live in Thailand the following year, but he did get to know Arie on his return visits to the island. Theo was sympathetic to Arie’s cause. Arie had arrived in Indonesia in 1938 on a military contract. He had been assigned to the Topographical Service as a lithographer. Following the Japanese invasion of 1942 he was taken as a prisoner of war to forced labor camps in Singapore, Thailand and Burma. After the Dutch finally acknowledged Indonesia’s sovereignty in 1949, he stayed and became an Indonesian citizen in 1951. He taught graphics at the lnstitut Teknologi in Bandung, Java, before finally moving to Bali at the invitation of Bonnet and James Pandy. He then became a full-time painter and developed an understanding about Balinese community, rural life. Coastal areas and the hills inspired him, as did the painting of young boys.
When President Sukarno, who had been a friend of the artists, suddenly insisted that all Dutch, whether artists or not, leave Bali, Han Snel and Arie Smit were ordered to leave the island immediately. Theo, who had a close relationship with Sukarno, became very disturbed by Sukarno’s sudden change of heart and went to Jakarta on behalf of the two men to see if he could talk to Sukarno. He was granted an audience with the president.
Sukarno told Theo this was political and that he and other artists should not get mixed up in politics. He advised Theo to return with Arie and Han to Bali and take up where they left off. Arie and Han did return, but Theo decided then and there that he would leave Bali. Sukarno gave him permission to leave Bali to visit his home in Switzerland.
Artists and painters continued to come to Bali in the post war years. Some made names for themselves, often with dubious reputations. Donald Stuart Leslie Friend was one. Born in Sydney and educated at the Royal Art Academy in Sydney and the Westminster School in London, his first introduction to Southeast Asia was as a war artist in Malaysia. He completed two illustrated books during his stay and after returning to Sydney he decided to go to Bali, where he lived and worked from 1966 to 1980.
Theo was never a joiner; he belonged to no group, no school. When asked why he never joined Bali’s Pita Maha School of art and artists’ association, he replied to one critic that was why he left Switzerland, to get away from schools. Theo was a die-hard loner. Theo did admit, however, the Pita Maha had something in its favor.
Pita Maha was created by Walter Spies and Rudolph Bonnet and two princes of the royal family, Cokorda Gede Agung Sukawati and his brother Cokorda Gede Raka Sukawati, with the aim to provide guidance, maintain standards and guarantee the artists’ livelihoods. Theo did not gain favor with other painters when he refused to become part of the association. He wanted to remain independent. As circumstances would have it, Theo was glad that he didn’t join. When Bonnet began teaching the young Balinese painters in Ubud, they, instead of developing their own style, were copying his style of painting. Hundreds of Bonnet’s appeared in all the art shops and commercial museums.
The Japanese invaded Bali in February 1942 and Pita Maha came to an end. During the Japanese Occupation, Bonnet was interned by the Japanese and after the war he returned but efforts to revive the association failed.
Theo disliked when his solitude was disrupted and he couldn’t paint. He hated it mostly when a friend brought a friend for him to meet. When that happened he would go to his studio and lock the door. Sometimes he was reluctantly forced to meet the newcomer as it happened one time with Prince Sandith. A very well-known French sculptor came to visit Prince Sandith in Chiang Mai and Prince Sandith took him to meet Theo, which greatly annoyed Theo.
“It was true, Theo never got along with other painters,” Prince Sandith admitted. “Never at all, but this was different at least I thought so. Theo and the sculptor got along for about an hour. Then they began trying to outdo one another.”
The sculptor told Theo he was a professor at the Beaux Arts in Paris. Theo definitely had no time for those who claimed to have studied at the Beaux Arts.
“I never studied anyplace. I barely have a primary school education,” Theo said.
“But my beginning was humble too,” the sculptor said. “The truth is,” Theo replied, “I never even went to school.”
“I was very poor and had nothing at all.” the sculptor retorted
Theo said, “I was even poorer.”
“I lost my parents when I was very young.”
“I never even knew my father.”
At the end they became friends and had a good laugh. But that was rare. In such cases Theo would walk out of the room and lock himself in his studio.
Theo never was good at burying his friends. He hated to hear that so-and-so had passed away. He never went to funerals nor did he want one. He wanted to be cremated and not buried in the cold ground. When news about Willy Mettler’s death reached him he was upset for days afterward. Most distressing to him was the way Willy died. The report was that Willy had been killed in Cambodia while on an assignment. He had been captured by Khmer Rouge and executed. Theo figured that Willy’s aggressiveness must have done him in. I can see him now,” Theo said, “standing there, defying his executioners, saying he was Swiss and they dared not harm him. They pulled triggers and laughed.”
Theo also became very upset when he learned that Rubic had been carrying Willy’s child and upon hearing the news about Willy’s death had a miscarriage. She returned to Bali and a few years later married a German chef who worked at one of the major hotels in Hong Kong.
So ended another era.