Monday, January 31, 2011

Bali Photographed

By the late 1990s the small Indonesian island of Bali was receiving nearly two and a half million tourists a year.  Yet it was only in the early 20th century that western tourists first set foot on the then Dutch controlled island.  In 1920 the first ever collection of photographs of Bali, taken by the German photographer Gregor Krause, was published in two volumes. It caused a small sensation. For Europeans who had just endured the continent-wide industrial mass slaughter of World War One and were now gripped by economic instability and the fear or fervour of communist revolution, Krauser's hundreds of photos revealed a world that seemed idyllic, with its lack of modern machinery, its enchanting lush tropical nature, its beautiful pre-industrial temple architecture and simpler lifestyle. But is wasn't all temples and beaches in Krause's collection.  A surprising number of photographs depicted young men and women. Here is a photograph taken from the first edition of that first collection:

Young woman at the market

You can understand the surprise. Page after page reveal women in their "natural" state, bare-breasted, or even nude. Europeans who bought Krause's book must have been mesmerised.  Here is a double spread; disguised as purveyors of ethnography, we are invited to enjoy the pleasure of the voyeur:

These photos are simply labelled "Young woman washing her hair" and "Young woman washing". There follows pages of young women caught in the act of washing. It was Gaugain and Tahiti and Rousseau's "Noble Savage" all over again. But not only the colonial women were captured and held up to be enjoyed by the European gaze. The next photo is entitled "Young man bathing":

There follows pages and pages of slim young men washing (in the nude of course), young men sitting on rocks sunbathing (in the nude) and young men sleeping (in the nude). Perhaps the viewers at the time could convince themselves that these photos were simply spontaneous snaps of the natives in their natural state. I doubt if any of these photos are "natural".  The subjects who had been forced to submit to colonial rule were now forced to submit to the eye of the ruler's camera, later to be enjoyed at leisure.. The above young man's posture is clearly a posed one.  And what of the next, entitled "Young man sleeping"?

No person, not even one as relaxed as a Balinese, stretches across uneven rocks and sleeps in this uncomfortable position willingly.

Of course Europe had had a long tradition of imagining "the East".  Europe even had a tradition of imagining and illustrating Asian women at their bath. The paintings of Delacroix mediated to an appreciative audience a fantasised image of the Islamic world, with its water-pipes, is colourful fabrics, its strong, noble warriors and its beautiful, seductive women.  A typical example of this sexualization of "the East" is Ingre's work, "The Turkish Bath" which titilates the viewer by providing a glimpse of the mysterious and erotically charged Harem:

Ingres: The Turkish Bath 1862

Between 1906 and 1908 the Dutch Colonial Army had subdued the main resistance to their power in the south of the island, culminating in two bloody massacres in which hundreds, then thousands of Balinese nobility killed their own family members, burned down their properties and then threw themselves before the waiting guns of the Dutch to be shot down in mass suicidal charges. The ruling aristocracy of southern Bali had preferred to die rather than submit.  Even the Dutch were embarrassed by the  sight of mountains of corpses, leading to calls for an independent parliamentary inquiry (which never took place). Just four years after the second massacre Gregor Krause arrived on the island, not simply as an innocent photographer but as an officer of the Dutch Colonial Army.  He was a doctor and a keen amateur photographer, and he took a genuine interest in all things Indonesian, but to the Balinese, he must have remained first and foremost a soldier of the colonizer, a feared symbol of authority. Within a dozen years of the final massacre Europeans could buy his book and contemplate the beautiful natives in their natural beauty.

His photographs are constructed images that expose the flesh of the colonized before the eye of the colonizer. The colonized is represented in his or her nakedness, for the entertainment, or to satisfy the curiosity, of the colonizer. These photos are examples of the assertion that to be represented means to be dominated.  It is the privilege of the colonizer to represent the dominated. As Edward Said stated, it is "Western societies that shape and set limits on the representation of what are considered essentailly subordinate beings; thus representation itself is characterized as keeping the subordinate subordinate, the inferior inferior." (Culture and Imperialism, p. 95) The relationship between Krause and his Balinese models is a hegemonic relationship - the Balinese cannot in turn enjoy shots of the European at her toilet.  There is no mutuality in the relationship. As an officer in the colonial army Krauser symbolised this asymmetrical authority, indeed embodied this authority.

But images like Krause's struck a chord among disillusioned, bored Europeans.  Men like the Russian born, Rousseau inspired, German artist Walter Spies. Attracted by the culture, the arts and the young men of the island, he settled in Bali in the 1920s and played a preeminent role in promoting its arts. To a large extent he invented the image of Bali as a tropical island paradise where the people are only interested in religion and the arts. It is the picture that we still have today. Spies was a complicated personality.  There is no doubt that he fell deeply in love with Balinese culture and devoted a great deal of the rest of his life to its protection and promotion. He was particularly active in helping to develop a Balinese school of painting. Together with Dutch artist Rudolf Bonnet he helped to set up Pita Maha, a community based project that supported local Balinese artists. His own paintings still fetch a high price today in art auctions in South East Asia.

Legend by Walter Spies
His book on traditional Balinese dance and drama, co-authored with Beryl van Zoete, is still regarded as a classic in the genre. Many westerners at the time viewed so called "non-western" cultures as a step below western culture in development (and imperialism was necessary to help them develop fully - in other words, to make them European). One of the greatest benefits of Spies' studies was that he refused to view Balinese arts, and in particular dance and drama, as a variation of western arts.  He genuinely attempted to see it on its own terms, with its own autonomous development, the equal of any western tradition.

During the 1920s he contributed to the film Bali: Island of Demons.  The film featured "authentic", "traditional" Balinses dances, though, in reality Spies had choreographed the dances and was not averse to contributing his own innovations, thereby, (to borrow a well known Eric Hobsbawm phrase) inventing tradition. In the poster designed for the film, it's not demons, but a bare-breasted local woman that is featured, echoing Krause' photos:

Spies admired Balinese culture, but he admired Dutch imperialism as well, for the way it insisted on preserving traditional Bali, protecting his adopted home from the ugliness of modernization, allowing him to live a bohemian yet lavish lifestyle.  He wrote in Dance and Drama in Bali: "We owe it to the tact and intelligence of a handful of Dutch officials devoted to Bali that the impact of a civilization far more alien than any she had yet assimilated has been so slight". (p. 2) It will not be the last attempt to fossilize Bali, to turn the island into some sort of living museum. Such an attitude, though genuinely devoted to the high culture of soutern Bali, ignored many realities of everyday life - the misery and poverty of the mountain people, the high taxes imposed by the Dutch, the widespread syphilis and tuberculosis, the exploitation of child labour from the age of four, the opium addiction and Dutch government sponsored opium dens, the forced labour, the rigidity of caste.  Historian Tessel Poolmann stated: "His love of the natives is not contradicted by his quiet appreciation of colonialism.  Colonialism as a paternalist protection against modernization". ("Magaret Mead's Balinese: The Fitting Symbols of the American Dream" in: Indonesia, Volume 49, April 1990, pages 1-35) For this modern Rousseauean, it was modernization, not colonialism, that needed to be condemned.

By the late 1920s the Dutch colonial rulers had noted that Indonesian nationalism was a modernizing force that stressed equality, and concluded that upholding traditional Balinese values and customs could serve as a counterweight against nationalism.  Consequently the Dutch authorities now entered into a conservative alliance with the survivors of the old Balinese aristocracy in an attempt to keep modernization at bay. Dutch colonial rule ensured that temples and schools were designed in "traditional" Balinese style, (but by Dutch architects); the strict caste system was reintroduced and strengthened, as a way of maintaining imperial control; strict censorship was enforced and nationalist organizations banned; new laws even forbade Balinese to wear western shirts or trousers. In this way a "traditional" Bali was constructed by the Dutch.  (Modern tourists would also like to preserve this traditional Bali from modernization). Dutch historian Henk Schulte Nordholt described the "concerted efforts by the Dutch during the 1930s to promote a conservative policy of traditionalizing Bali under the title of 'Baliniseering' or Balinization - in terms of architecture, arts, caste, customary law, dress, education, religion, speech, and so on" ("Localising Modernity in Colonial Bali during the 1930s" in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Volume 31, March 2000, pages 101-114). This aspect of Dutch rule has not been forgotten in today's Bali. Schulte Nordholt quotes Balinese historian Ide Gde Ing Bagus :"Balinization is this: the Dutch wanted us to be a living museum". (Ibid.)

By the 1930s, to a large extent, a political silence reigned in Bali, maintained by repressive laws and a Dutch secret service and its network of informants.  The foreigners who lived out their bohemian fantasies on the paradise island  could delude themselves that every Balinese was an artist, ultimately uninterested in politics. People like Spies, the artist Rudolf Bonnet, composer Colin McPhee  and anthropologist Margaret Mead formed the core of a community of artists and intellectuals and the island became a centre for the 1930's equivalent of the jet set. By this time Bali was receiving all of 250 tourists a month. 

In 1938 Spies himself unluckily fell foul of the increasingly conservative, even puritanical, Dutch colonial rule; he was convicted of having had sex with an underage local boy and was sentenced to eight months in prison. Two years later a moderate Balinese nationalist organisation called for an outright banning of taking nude photographs of the local people.

Walter Spies: 1895-1942


  1. Fascinating! I love Bali, and the ways in which it has been presented as the "last paradise" in tourist iconography is interesting. Thanks for posting these images.

  2. Thanks Katrina. Yes, I love Bali too - my family are in the process of planning our fifth visit there for this summer.

  3. I don't know what happened to my earlier comment -- I must have messed up somehow. If so, I'm sorry, feel free to delete this one.
    So thank you very much for this article. Have you read Nigel Barley's Island of Demons? It is about precisely the community of artists and intellectuals of the 20s-30s that you describe here. Barley started off to write a biography of Walter Spies but the man was already so mythologized that it was simply impossible to stick to the facts, so he ended up writing a novel instead. It is written from Bonnet's point of view and is I think a rather fun and interesting read, and also well researched (Barley is an academic). I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on it if you've already read it or decide to read it. The downside is it is rather difficult to come by as it is published by Monsoon and does not, as far as I know, have a distributor (but you can find it in libraries, I'm sure, depending on where in the world you are).

  4. Hi aLittleDotty,

    Thanks very much for this tip. No, to be honest I never heard of the book. It sounds like just the sort of thing that I would love to read, so I will pursue it. Thanks again.

  5. This is a really interesting post, I find it fascinating to think about the influences that imperialism has had and continues to have on other cultures. There must be a balance somewhere, where the best of traditional culture can co-exist with the best of the incoming culture, but how do we achieve that balance in an increasingly globalised world? I'm thinking particularly of the balance between western consumerism and indiginous living within smaller limits and in a closer relationship with the environment.

  6. Thank you Juliet. Yes, finding that balance is difficult.

  7. wow,, i like four photograp about balinesse woman! its very natural!