The idea of sculpture as an independent art form and of artists as individual creators is relatively new in Balinese society. For centuries sculptors were specialist craft-men, wood or stone carvers who worked for communities or courts and told stories depicting religious myths and beliefs. The shape, place and even the material of their work was determined by religious uses and functions. Panels depicting scenes from human life or hell had to be set on walls in the inferior and impure (nista) part of the temple, and reciprocally figurines of the gods were kept in shrines located in the purest part of the temple (utama). When a sculptor was to start work on a carving, he had to select the right day and hour and could work only a material endowed with religious meaning as some types of wood could do, other not. Sometimes the carving had to be started by the hand of a priest, to endow it with proper religious content.
Carvings and sculptures with such a religious content and purpose are still made today. Modern Belinese temples are still made today. Modern Balinese temples are still decorated with the same giant guardians, winged lions and Ramayana narrative panels as temples centuries old. Balinese culture and sculpture are a lesson in historical continuity. Hindu art transcends its own history.
The predominance of religious carving did not preclude the existence of sculpture and carving that was non-religious. Relief and panels, particularly in their lower part, as well as some masks, invariably show an astonishing creativity and liberty in style and content. To this should be added the richness and, sometimes, the humor of decorative elements of walls, doors, or roofs and utensils such as krisses and betel sets, often depicting part of the real animal and natural life or grotesque human figures. This popular, and even sometimes ‘vulgar’ side of Balinese classical art was a pool of forms and ideas that played a major role in the evolution of Balinese carving toward its present state.
The Dutch take-over of Southern Bali in 1906-1908 not only destroyed the traditional courts of the island but it also shattered the old system of art production. There were new patrons of the arts, and the artists made works that were commodities instead of items of religious use of content. This has an important impact on the production of carvings which could now be made with free themes and content. Mas area were already making birds and statues for commercial purposes: the new freedom of expression was turning a formerly religious art into mere handicraft. At this stage Bali was ‘discovered’ by Western artists whose influence would give a new turn to the evolution of its arts. Several of them elected residence in Ubud, in particular Walter Spies (1895-1942) and Rudolf Bennet (1895-1978). With the support of the Sukawati House of Ubud they set to encourage the budding renewal of sculpture and painting, distributing material and guiding the artists with advice and criticism. The westerners also functioned as dealers, channeling Balinese works to international connoisseurs. In a matter of years, the production had grown to guide the renewal movement through more official channels. This was the Pita Maha association (1936-1942), a guild of Balinese plastic art, whose name has now become identical with the renewal movement. The renewal of sculpture that took place in late 20′s was both thematic and aesthetic. The first themes which came to the mind of Balinese carvers once they did not work for religious purposes were depictions of elements of their daily life: people sitting, drinking from pitcher, resting, squatting, talking. The Balinese started looking at themselves with a new, ‘candid’ eye.
Soon, however, a stylistic evolution took place. The first one led to the ‘invention’ of the sleek style. It was apparently evoked by Walter Spies in 1929, who, while commissioning two woodcarvings from the Blaulan sculptor I Telagan Blaulan, gave him a lengthy piece of wood he had just obtained for this purpose. To his surprise, I Tegalan did not cut the piece of wood into two as ordered but produced instead an elongated work. Associated with a sleek working of wood, a style was born. Much of the future evolution of Balinese sculpture would consist in playing with natural proportions: first elongating them, then, after the war, shortening them, producing the ‘style’ still in favor today. There were several masters from this style: Ida Bagus Glodog, Ida Bagus Taman, Ida Bagus Ketut Roja, Doyotan, and Sondoh.
The greatest of them, however, was undoubtly Ida Bagus Nyana, a brahmin and traditional architect from Mas. Nyana innovated mainly in the imagination he showed while playing with mask, shortenings parts of the body, lengthening others, often giving his works an eerie, almost surrealistic quality. At the same time Nyana did not work his wood more than needed and he stuck to simple daily life themes. He thus avoid ‘baroque’ trap into which fell many Balinese carvers.
Another master of the new style was Cokot, from the mountain village of Jati , North of Tegalalang. Cokot used a minimalist technique. He would look in the mountain of strangely shaped trunks and branches and turn them, with as little working on the log as possible, into an assembly of gnarled spooks and demonic figures. Iconographically, these characters were derived from figures often found as part of the decoration of Balinese temples, but Cokot treated them in a free way, and, more importantly, took them to the fore by embedding them into huge trees and branches. He thus created a strong, expressionistic genre unique to this day. Ida Bagus Nyana and Cokot were artists from the Pita Maha years, but their productive career took them into the 60s and 70s. Most of today’s Balinese sculpture is inspired from their works.
The sleek style of Balinese sculpture has considerably evolved since the 60s. To the simple lines of the original slender and squat carvings have succeeded a baroque working of wood that lets little space untouched. An important artist nevertheless appeared, Ida Bagus Tilem, Nyana’s son.
Unlike Nyana and the artists of Mas, and even unlike Cokot, Tilem dared to change the proportions of the characters represented, not only by adapting the shape of his characters to that of the piece the wood he was working on, but by using for that purpose rotten logs that had been ‘cleaned’ up, and would come up as gnarled shapes well suited to express twisted human bodies and faces. Tilem thus created for the first time a genuinely individualized system of representation. He marked the arrival of true modernity in the world of Balinese sculpture.
For the best collections of Balinese wood carving, the visitor should go to the FA Siadja Wood Carving gallery in the village of Mas in Ubud. A wide selection of carving from 1930s to current style worked in many different kind of wood is available.
Beside the two main styles of sculpture discussed above, other genres should be mentioned: Batubulan produces soft-stone works of gods and demons, Teges has made a specialty out of hyper-realist animals, and the Tegalalang area has become a huge workshop for false banana trees, flowers, etc, not to mention the wooden jewels of chess boards made in Tampaksiring area, the wooden panels of Batuan, and the many sculptors scattered around the island. For wooden masks, the most famous villages are Singapadu, Mas, and Batuan.
Jewelry, mostly silver and gold, was traditionally practiced by a clan of specialist craftmen, the Pande Bratan and, to this day, they are considered to be endowed with magical power. Traditional makers of Balinese kriss, they now make modern jewelry aimed at the tourist market: bracelets, rings, brooches. The best shops are located in village of Celuk , although some have now opened outlets in Ubud, Kuta, and Sanur.
Hotels sometime present designers’ jewelry combining Western and Balinese techniques.
A recommended outlet for gold and silver items is Semara Darma Gold & Silver at Jalan Raya Celuk Sukawati.
Bali , with its world famous traditional music, has many workshops where many bronze and bamboo instruments used in the local orchestras are made.
The gongs come from Java. Batubulan near Gianyar, Tihingan to the north of Klungkung, and Sawan in Singaraja are home to specialized smiths. Bamboo instruments are often made by the musicians themselves. For Balinese musical instruments, apart from the Sukawati art market, go to the Ganesha bookstore in Ubud.
For Balinese textime and costumes, go to the Badung, Kumbasari, and Satria markets in Denpasar and to Gianyar; for songket the best places are Tenganan and the specialized shops in Sanur and Kuta.
The Balinese also make beautiful dance costumes, with sophisticated headdresses made of mother of pearl, and/or flowers and leather. These costumes, although made allover the island, are best found in the Sukawati Batuan area.
There, the craftmed paint the golden prada motif on the dancer’s apparels, while in nearby Puaya they make the headdresses and other elements –it is even possible to buy there a whole barong.
To buy the leather puppets from the wayang puppet show theater, the best place is among the craftsmen of the Babakan neighborhood in Sukawati. If you want the same painted on glass, go to Nagasepa to the south of Singaraja.
For Balinese furniture, go to Laras Bali at Jl. Bypass Ngurah Rai, Arwood Design Bali Furniture at Jl. Gunung Sari, and Oka Bawes Bali at Teuku Umar. Matra’s Handicraft Shop at Jl. Bypass Ngurah Rai also offers a wide selection of handicrafts from Lombok . In Nusa Dua, Galleria Furniture in Galleria Nusa Dua is definitely the best outlet for furniture and other crafts in the area.
At Jimbaran, two excellent art galleries with best buys are Jimbaran Gallery and Rumah Konderatu Gallery.
On the whole, Bali is a shopper’s paradise where are available the best handicraft products from all over the coutry: pottery from Lombok, leather works from Java, weavings from Lesser Sunda islands, batik from Java, “colonial’ furniture from Madura and eastern Java, baskets from Borneo, etc. To this Indonesian ethnic production must be added products produced locally by foreign designers. Jewels, Tiffany lamps, garments, household decoration are exported to specialized boutique all over the world.
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