Fine Art of Bali

The lasting charm of Balinese traditional art

Bali is one of few places in the world in which a traditional kind of painting is to this day surviving next to modern and contemporary art. Traditional Balinese painting is fundamentally local. Appreciating of a local esthetic that does not submit to Western and contemporary canons.

Before the colonial times, Balinese traditional painting was fundamentally religious: it carried the symbols, myths and epics from the ancient Hindu-Javanese-Balinese tradition, the roots of which went back as far as the 1343 invasion of Bali by the Eastern-Javanese forces from the Majapahit empire.

Bali mask on Canson paper (painted by Wayan Gama from Keliki Tegalalang Gianyar, Bali)

Like relief temple, this painting was to a large extent an offshoot of the puppet show theater, hence the name usually given to it of wayang painting. The stories were usually given to it of wayang painting. The stories were usually those of the great Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana or from the Old-Javanese cycle of Panji stories, which told the stories of heroes wandering across the archipelago: typically the characters are seen from a profile and lined one next to them as one sees them in the puppet show theater.

Space tends to be fully occupied and iconography tightly patterned down to its smallest details in order to make the narrative understandable; color is technically used as wash coloring of surfaces contoured by well-drawn lines. The narrative is told in the lower part of the painting, while its upper part is covered with clouds and godly characters.

Dewi Saraswati Hindu Goddess of Science & Beauty

Religious and narrative constraints created a different kind of aesthetic: space is full and without focus, contrary to the European tradition, where it is open and composition focused on a central subject; the iconography is patterned and repetitive, instead of being individualized; this is the reflection of a world in which artists, also many women artists, convey a collective vision of the world instead of being an individual creator.

The epitome of traditional pre-colonial painting can be seen at the Kertagosa ancient court of justice in Klungkung. It consists of ceiling panels depicting the punishment of hell as a warning to offenders waiting for judgment. More often though, paintings would consist of flags (Kober) or of rolls unrolled during a wedding and which would narrate the love adventures of the mythical heroes Abimanyu or Arjuna. In a certain way, it may remind you of Outsider Art, a more and more popular and respected art stream phenomenon in America.

Kresna Wayang kulit

This kind of painting, stultified in its evolution, but also preserved by tourism, is still produced today in the village of Kamasan, near Klungkung, A Museum, the Gunarsa Museum near Klungkung, holds a large selection of ancient Balinese painting.

An important change came to Balinese painting in the wake of the 1906-1908 Dutch take-over of southern Bali. Heretofore religious, Balinese painting found itself transformed within a few years. Besides schooling and the related broadening of the Balinese’s worldview, this evolution owes much to the intervention of Westerners as can be seen, for example, in this post about California Coastline painting, though the Balinese art and techniques remain a unique phenomenon in itself.

The Living Masks of Bali

Mask performance has been important rituals on the Indonesia island of Bali for over a thousand years. Although many ancient societies used masks to celebrate their religions, Bali is one of the few places where the ritual art has never disappeared and is, in fact, thriving. Carvers are producing more beautiful and more elaborate masks than ever, and thousands of people worldwide collect these compelling objects.

The proliferation of artists and performance groups indicates that the tiny island is undergoing a cultural renaissance, the centerpiece of which is the tapel- the beautiful Balinese mask. Read also this post about how personal the appreciation of art actually is.

A mask is used to create more than the character in a drama. Worn in performances accompanied by typical Balinese authentic gamelan music, the masks become catalysts for the movements and rhythms performed by the dancers.

The piercing eyes look outward, yet also seek to reveal the social archetypes behind the drama, for the principal characters and their allies are defined morally to illuminate the ethics of human relationships.

The Balinese mask takes a wide range of sculptural ideas and forms. Although masks are almost always carved from wood, mask makers create a textual spectacle by using a variety of material: boar’s teeth, horse hair, Chinese coin, jewels, gold leaf, buffalo hide, rabbit pelts, and mirrors. The striking glossy surface is achieved by lots of sanding and dozens of paint coats. The mask’s expressive tautness and its features are the hallmark Balinese mask style and are inseparable from the posture and movement of the dancers.

Close Menu