1895-09-15

WALTER SPIES, born on this date, was a Russian-born German primitivist painter, composer, musicologist, and curator (d: 1942). In 1923 he moved to Java, Indonesia. He lived in Yogyakarta and then in Ubud, Bali starting from 1927, when Indonesia was under European colonial rule as the Dutch East Indies. Spies is often credited with attracting the attention of Western cultural figures to Balinese culture and art in the 1930s, as he became internationally known and hosted numerous anthropologists, actors, artists and other cultural figures. Spies influenced the direction of Balinese art and drama.

Spies was born in 1895 in Moscow to a German diplomat and his wife who were posted there. The family returned to Germany, where he was educated. He had a brother Leo, who became a composer and conductor, and sister Daisy, who became a ballet dancer. He began painting as a young man and was known in Europe for his work by 1923. He also studied music, including that of other cultures. In 1923 he moved to Java, Indonesia, then known as the Dutch East Indies under colonial control. In 1927 he resettled in Bali.

Mexican artist and anthropologist Miguel Covarrubias lived and researched in Bali in the 1930s with his wife Rose, where they became friends with Spies. He later wrote that Spies left the social disruption of Europe after the Great War and ultimately reached Java. The Sultan of Djokjakarta asked him to organize and lead a Western orchestra. Spies studied their music while living in the court. He visited Bali, under European control as part of the Dutch East Indies, and decided to stay there.

In 1937, Spies built what he described as a “mountain hut” at Iseh in Karangasem. Spies was the co-founder of the Pita Maha artists cooperative, through which he shaped the development of modern Balinese art. During the 1930s he hosted many Westerners in Bali, including actors, artists, and writers, and he is believed to have established the image of Bali that many Westerners still have.

After living for nine years at the confluence of two rivers in Campuan (Ubud), Spies retired to Iseh. This mountain retreat was the setting of some of his most beautiful and atmospheric paintings, including Iseh im Morgenlicht 1938. Despite saying he wanted to escape from visitors, Spies still received guests at Iseh, including musician Colin McPhee and his wife, anthropologist Jane Belo, Swiss artist Theo Meier and Austrian novelist Vicki Baum. Vicki Baum accredits Spies with providing her the factual historical data and details on Balinese culture which she drew from for her historical fiction novel Love and Death in Bali. It was set in the time of the Dutch intervention in Bali .

In December 1938, Spies was arrested as part of a Dutch crackdown on homosexuals. It had long been illegal in the West and there were rising tensions in Europe given activism by Nazi Germany. With the influence of supporters such as American anthropologist Margaret Mead, he was released in September 1939 after a period in prison. Spies was later arrested again in government crackdowns and convicted as a pedophile.

After World War II broke out, Dutch authorities arrested Spies as a German national and interned him. He and 477 other internees were deported in January 1942 on board of SS Van Imhoff, bound for Ceylon. On January 19, 1942 a Japanese bomb hit the ship. Because the crew were ordered not to evacuate the Germans, most of the prisoners on the ship, including Spies, drowned.

Anuradha Roy’s novel All the Lives We Never Lived brings together fictional and historical figures in the plot, including Walter Spies. She portrays him as spending time in India in a passage before going to Bali. The novel includes such historical events as Spies’s two imprisonments and death at sea. Roy portrays the artist sympathetically, based on John Stowell’s biography and other sources.