Queer Week!

Walter Spies
Germany/Indonesia (c. 1920s)

Walter Spies
Balinese Legend
Indonesia (1929)

During the age of colonialism, European authorities often tried to stamp out native queer traditions. But there was a flip side to this: queer Europeans would sometimes find refuge in Asia.

One iconic case of this is that of Walter Spies, an artist who was was instrumental to the modernisation of Balinese art:

Walter Spies (15 September 1895 – 19 January 1942) was a Russian-born German primitivist painter. In 1923 he moved to Java, Indonesia. He lived in Yogyakarta and then in Ubud, Bali starting from 1927. He is often credited with attracting the attention of Western cultural figures to Balinese culture and art in the 1930s and he influenced the direction of Balinese art and Balinese drama.

Mexican artist and anthropologist Miguel Covarrubias, who lived and researched in Bali with his wife Rose at that time, wrote: “Walter Spies, Bali’s most famous resident, was the son of a German diplomat in Moskow at the outbreak of the World War. Spies was already well known in Europe as a painter in 1923. (…). As fine a musician as he was a painter (…), after the war he ran away from disorganized Europe to the East until he reached Java, where he was called by the Sultan of Djokjakarta to organize and lead a Western orchestra. He lived for years in the Sultan’s court learning their music. Then one day he went to Bali on a visit and has remained there ever since”.

Walter Spies

Indonesia (1926)

Bali was a preserve of ancient Indonesian culture: it was relatively untouched both by Dutch colonisation and by Islam (residents are still mostly Hindu to this day). Spies didn’t just wallow in the culture: he tried to strengthen it:

With local Balinese nobleman Tjokorda Agung Sukawati, Spies founded the Pita Maha Arts Society (Pita Maha means “Great Forbears”), a group that aimed to encourage the efforts of local Balinese painters. The result was an explosion of creativity that was strong even by Balinese standards. Each Saturday, a four-person jury selected winners from among a group of about 150 submitted works. The winners were sold to international buyers, and the proceeds were plowed back into the collective. 

Spies’s legacy lived on in a vigorous Balinese arts scene for several decades after his death; he also introduced European art to the Balinese, who experimented with such details as playful treatment of perspective and created hybrid forms of their own.

Poster for Pita Maha exhibition featuring the sculpture Seated Woman by Kt. Rodja
Indonesia (1937)

Spies did not neglect his interests in music, cinema, and dance. With dancer and photographer Beryl de Zoete he published Dance and Drama in Bali , for many years a standard work covering Bali’s traditional large-scale theatrical presentations. One of the iconic images of Balinese culture in the eyes of many Western students is the ketjak dance, often known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant. The spectacular dance, often performed for tourists, involves a crowd of 100 or more dancers, emulating monkeys verbally and kinetically as they enact a battle scene from the Hindu Ramayana epic. 

Though based on traditional materials, the dance owed its modern form to Spies; working with Indonesian dancer Wayan Limbak (who died in 2003), he choreographed the monkey chant for the 1932 German film Island of Demons . Spies served as art director for the film, which exposed many Westerners to Balinese culture, although some scholars have criticized Spies for oversimplification of the Balinese legends involved in the story.

Kecak dance from Island of Demons
Indonesia/Germany (1932)

During all this time, it was well known that Walter Spies was gay. There’s quite a bit of documentation of Western men who settled in Bali in the 1920s and 1930s and had sex with Indonesian men. One reason such documentation exists is because the Dutch cracked down on sodomy in 1938.

Tom Boelstorff’s The Gay Archipelago describes Walter Spies’ trial:

Margaret Mead termed the affair a “veritable witch hunt” and spoke at Spies’s trial in support of Spies’s “continuing light involvement with Balinese male youth”; “she argued that Spies was seeking a ‘repudiation of the kind of dominance and submission, authority and dependence, which he associated with European culture.’ [Mead claimed that] on Bali homosexuality was not a matter for moral condemnation, simply a pastime for young unmarried men” (Vickers 1989: 106)…

In spite of Mead’s and Tantri’s efforts, Spies was convinced and “imprisoned from 31 December to 1 September 1939 on charges of having had homosexual relations with minors” (Lindsay 1997: 64). It is said that Spies’s Balinese lover sang to the accompaniment of a gamelan orchestra outside the walls of Spies’s prison.

I don’t know if Spies did indeed have sex with “minors” as we’d understand the term today. It’s probable that he did—but so did Oscar Wilde and Bosie and André Gide in Morocco, and pretty much all our heroes in ancient Greece and medieval Persia. All our gay icons are problematic. Still, it’s worth noting that Dutch records of the time do describe the Balinese as being extremely confused by the persecutions.

Walter Spies
View Through the Palms

Indonesia (1938)

Anyhow, for Spies, the end was nigh:

During this initial period of imprisonment he was visited by sympathetic Dutch authorities and allowed to paint and play music; some of his greatest final works, such as Palmendurchblick (View Through the Palms, 1938), showing a magnificent palace glimpsed from a great distance by a solitary figure carrying water, were painted while he was in prison.

When Germany invaded Holland soon after the outbreak of World War II, the few German citizens in the Dutch East Indies were arrested. Spies was held for 20 months in internment camps on Java and Sumatra. Even there he could occasionally paint and study musical scores sent to him by relatives. 

But early in 1942 he was put on a transport ship bound for Ceylon. A day after it left Sumatra, on January 19, 1942, the ship was hit off Nias Island by a Japanese bomb, and the Dutch crew abandoned ship without setting its German prisoners free. Spies drowned with the rest of the prisoners.

I hope the Balinese spirits welcomed him as one of their own.

Walter Spies
Rangdas from the Barong play at Pagoetan, Bali

Indonesia (1937)


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