FANTASTIC ART IN UBUD
by Jean Couteau

The world of Balinese painting has in the last few years been taken by storm by the modernist discourse. Galleries, journalists and collectors alike - mostly non-indigenous and with their respective vested interests - all concur to support an art which retains very few references to the indigenous tradition. Bali seems invaded by a discourse where the problem of “form” has become prominent, relegating indigenous message and content to the background, when they don’t disappear altogether. Abstraction or semi-abstraction - either in the constructed, informal or “American expressionist” mode - rules the day while little is being said about Balinese society and values, as if these were waning for good. When “Bali” appears, it is either to worship the (past) greatness of the island culture or merely in a referential way - eyes of the Balinese witch, checkered black and white cloth, triangular shape of the cosmic mountain - as if being Balinese simply meant making a statement of identity through the use of connotative symbols.

There are a number of causes for this phenomenon. Part of this modern painting discourse is probably authentic, but much is certainly determined by the alienating conditions of the Balinese market, which is mainly controlled by Jakartans, foreigners and non-indigenous locals, who are looking to buy an art corresponding to their “national” and cosmopolitan expectations.

This situation is all the saddest as there is in Bali, beside a stilted, tourist oriented art, a post-traditional painting which is strenuously looking for modernity within the Balinese system of form and themes. A masterly presentation of this “different art” is the current exhibition of Ketut Budiana at the Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA) in Ubud which has been completely, and shamefully by-passed by the national press. The exhibition is running from 5 April to 5 May 2000.

Ketut Budiana was born in 1950 in Padangtegal Ubud. He had as his background, beside the overall magic of Bali itself, the Balinese imagery of Pita Maha, the school founded in the 1930s, under the spur of the painters Walter Spies (1895-1942) and Rudolf Bonnet (1895-1978).

Modern-educated and currently a teacher at the Senior High School of Fine Arts in Batubulan, he nevertheless belongs to “Bali”. Budiana is skilled at making temple images, masks for sacred performances and cremation artifacts. And it is the renewal and expansion of this tradition, rather than its questioning, that his painting is all about, as we shall see below.

Thematically, Budiana’s painting is deeply rooted in Balinese tradition: he talks about pradana-purusa, Bumi, Rangda and Barong, Tumbal, leyak and other characters and symbols typically Balinese. Yet it would be a mistake to see his work as a simple transmission, for a New Age public, of ordinary Balinese symbols. The Balinese symbolic references Budiana is using are neither narrative, anecdotal, exotic nor magical in the operational sense of the word. They are instead philosophical, albeit dressed in a “Fantastic” garb. What Budiana actually exposes is a visual reconceptualization of Hindu-Balinese concepts - a reconceptualization which, interestingly, has never been attempted in philosophy proper, modern thinkers preferring to cast aside Balinese concepts to replace them with ready made, imported Indian ones. This reconceptualization is done at once by a simplification and transformation of the iconography. Even though the canvas is “full”, as is usual in Balinese painting, the symbols are limited in number, and therefore easier to identify. They also owe little to tradition proper, or rather are a free reinterpretation of it. We are taken in fact, beyond “Bali”, into a fantastic world which is at once personal, “Balinese”, and directly readable as “universal”. In Kelahiran for example, we see two characters to the upper right and left of the canvas, that symbolize the male and female principles, emerging from the cosmic haze. They can be construed as cosmic forces, union of opposites, the deities Siwa and Uma, or male semen and female ovule kama putih and kama bang. The monstrous shape of the cosmic mother occupies the center of the canvas, while the cross symbolizes the cosmic movement. This work is no less than a visual presentation of the cosmos in its birth process both at the microcosmic (Bhwana Alit=human) and macrocosmic (Bhwana Agung=world) levels. It is a Balinese version of the very basis of the Hindu religious philosophy.

This renewal of iconography goes alongside with a renewal of the form. Melihat Bumi (Behold the Earth), a depiction of the cosmic force of the earth, represents the head from a quite uncommon angle - from above. There is an uncanny touch of Degas in this view of the bald head of the Earth, considering that the Balinese normally use a very limited, and highly stereotyped, range of angles in their representation - mostly face and semi-profile. Budiana demonstrates in this work that he can use traditional iconographic patterns when it suits his symbolic purposes and, when needed, create altogether new forms to enhance the “power of meaning” of the chosen theme. His is a modern mind within a “traditional” frame of reference.

Budiana’s technique rests, like that of any “traditional” Balinese painter, on the quality of his drawing. Some of his works are indeed purely black and white. His lines flow freely, as if unconstrained by iconography, in a manner that is reminiscent of Lempad’s. See for example Ngereh (Witch Dance), based on a witchcraft story on the way to gain magical powers by sacrificing a child. In his color works Budiana still employs, like most Ubud painters of his generation, the wash technique with Chinese ink, but he does it, unlike most of his peers, in a way that enables him to use the expressive potential of color. In his best paintings the wash layers create a general atmosphere on top of which bright color surfaces are painted to enhance the whole.

Going back to the concerns expressed at the beginning of the article, what Ketut Budiana is demonstrating in this masterful exhibition is that there is room for the growth and development of Balinese “post-traditional” painting. The themes can be expanded and modernized, the iconography renewed, the techniques perfected. The works can remain Balinese while their esoteric meaning is made accessible to people who don’t understand the Hindu world of symbols.

And as far as Ketut Budiana himself is concerned, one would like to see him recognized as one of the masters of “Fantastic Art”, in the tradition of the late European Middle Ages or, closer to us, the likes of Fussli and Odilon Redon.