Walter Spies Biography

German-born artist Walter Spies (1895–1942), who spent much of his life in what is now Indonesia, was noted for a unique style that combined Western and Eastern elements, exploring spiritual motifs drawn from the artist's adopted culture while applying techniques of contemporary European art.

Spies was an energetic and influential traveler among multiple cultures whose talents extended far beyond painting. He performed both Western and Indonesian musical styles, co-wrote a pioneering study of dance on the island of Bali, and stimulated new developments in Balinese art. Scholars had studied Indonesian expressive culture before Spies arrived in the archipelago, but Spies spread the word about its beauties as he entertained celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin at his home on Bali. The ongoing Western fascination with Indonesian arts was partly the result of Spies's efforts.

Raised in Diplomatic Household

Walter Spies (VAHL-ter SCHPEEZ) was born in Moscow, Russia, on September 15, 1895. His father was a German diplomat. The Spies family was wealthy and well connected in their foreign home, and they were interested in the arts as well as in political affairs. Spies met the Russian composers Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin as a child, and he began composing in contemporary styles when he was quite young. He also had a strong affinity for the natural world, collecting reptiles and amphibians that he would sometimes release at the family dinner table. When he was 15, Spies was sent to school in Dresden, Germany, but he returned to Russia on summer vacations, and he was there when World War I broke out in 1914.

Spies's father was arrested immediately, and when Spies reached military age in 1915 he too was arrested by Russian soldiers and sent to an internment camp at Sterliamak in the remote Ural Mountains. This experience was much less severe than might be assumed, however. Though unable to leave the remote village, Spies was not restricted to a prison; he worked for local farmers and lumbermen and learned their folktales and songs. "The significance of those years cannot be emphasized enough," wrote Spies's biographers, Hans Rhodius and John Darling. "Here, among the simple country folk of the Urals, Spies discovered his own identity." Spies was able to paint, and he turned away from the fashionably advanced styles he had seen in Dresden and toward simpler, down-to-earth themes.

As Russia became immersed in political change in 1917 and withdrew from the war, Spies was able to return to Moscow. Disguised as a peasant he rode trains as a hobo toward Germany and then sneaked across the battlefront, arriving once again in Dresden. There he worked for sculptor Hedwig Jaenischen Woermann in her studio and became acquainted with top German Expressionist artists Oskar Kokoschka and Otto Dix. The major influence on his style as an artist, however, was French: painter Henri Rousseau's large, stylized paintings of tropical wildlife and flora formed the point of departure for Spies's own work.

Spies mounted his first exhibition of paintings in 1919, making a living on the side as a ballroom dance teacher (he was an expert practitioner of the tango, a sensational new dance imported from Argentina). In 1920 he moved to Grunewald near Berlin in order to work for silent film director F. W. Murnau. In Berlin, Spies was exposed to new trends in German contemporary music and wrote more music of his own. Sometimes he escaped to the North Sea Island of Sylt for relaxation. Spies lived intermittently with a couple in the Netherlands, exhibiting his works at the Dutch Painters' Circle. Another decisive event in his career was a visit to the Koloniaal Institute, now the Tropenmuseum (Tropical Museum) in Amsterdam, where he saw artworks imported from the Netherlands' Indonesian colonies and connected them in his own mind with the natural themes and slightly surrealist constructions he had been cultivating ever since his internment in the Ural Mountains.

Made Living with Music

Obtaining passage to Indonesia by signing on with a freighter crew, Spies arrived in Bandung on the island of Java in October of 1923 and quickly got a job accompanying silent Chinese films on the piano. Moving on to the old Javanese capital city of Yogyakarta he entertained guests at the residence of the Dutch colonial administrator but was immediately fascinated by the magnificent gamelan, or traditional Indonesian orchestra of metallophones and gongs, at the kraton , or palace of the Sultan of Yogyakarta. His enthusiasm for the court music attracted the attention of the Sultan himself, who hired Spies as conductor of a small European orchestra he also maintained. Spies quickly mastered both the Javanese language and Malay, which served as a common language for Indonesia's thousands of islands and became the basis for the modern Indonesian language.

Spies learned to play all the gamelan instruments, and he began to experiment with fusions of Indonesian and European music. At one point he tuned two pianos in the Javanese tuning system and arranged a performance in which two Indonesian singers would perform first to the accompaniment of a gamelan, then to that of his two pianos, and then finally with the gamelan once again. The singers finished the performance without missing a beat. But Spies was still beset with doubts about the accuracy of his work in representing Javanese gamelan music, and he refused to allow his hybrid pieces to be published. They were lost for good after Spies's death when Japanese armies occupied Java.

Resuming his painting career, Spies exhibited some of his new works in 1925 at a group show in the eastern Javanese city of Surabaya. His complex new works showed the influence of his new surroundings and of Asian art more generally. Heimkehrende Javaner (Javanese Returning Home, 1924) showed a group of farmers returning home with their implements in the foreground of a many-layered mountain landscape. Determined to devote full time to his art and to penetrate deeper into the essence of Indonesian culture, Spies moved from Yogyakarta to the island of Bali in 1927. Among Indonesia's large islands, Bali had been the least affected by Dutch colonization and retained much of its traditional culture. Artistic activities were central to that culture although they were not designated with that name, since art and music for the Balinese were not special realms of life but rather activities that most people engaged in during moments of relaxation.

Building a Balinese-style house and studio (today a hotel) in the heavily traditional village of Ubud in 1928, Spies flourished. His paintings deepened, and some of them began to reflect the spiritual outlooks of the Balinese themselves. His Sawahlandschaft mit Gunung Agung (Rice Paddy Landscape with Gunung Mountain) incorporated the image of a volcano that plays a central role in the Balinese Hindu religion into a rich landscape of irrigated rice fields and jungle vegetation. The paintings from the period of Spies's residence in Bali are those on which his international reputation rests, and they helped forge an enduring impression of Bali as a tropical paradise. "In creating the image of Balinese idyll," noted Kadek Krishna Adidharma in the Jakarta Post , "the influence of German painter, photographer, and musician Walter Spies … is still visible and tangible today."

Founded Arts Society

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.

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.

Campuan, Spies's Balinese home, became an established stop on the circuit of well-informed international travelers, and such well-known figures as Chaplin, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and Mexican artist and caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias passed through as guests. In the words of Rhodius and Darling, "Hundreds of Balinese artists called at 'the house of the meeting of the waters,' either just to pass the time of day, or to report on coming events such as dances or ceremonies in remote villages, to display the work of their hands or discuss the better tuning of an instrument." Spies also often served as a go-between who tried to insure smooth relationships between the local Balinese and Dutch colonial administrators.

His own relationships with those administrators, however, were troubled for various reasons, one of which may have been their jealousy over Spies's ability to get along with the Balinese. The most serious issue was what they saw as a libertine atmosphere in the Spies circle; Spies was gay, and that fact, combined with his German citizenship, helped to seal his doom as Germany menaced the rest of Europe in the late 1930s. The cultural atmosphere in Indonesia tightened, and Spies was arrested on charges of indecent behavior in December of 1938, serving a prison term that lasted until September of 1939. 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. Never prolific, he left a modest body of paintings that sometimes yielded prices of more than $1,000,000 in art auctions by the early 2000s.


Rhodius, Hans, and John Darling, ed. John Stowell, Walter Spies and Balinese Art , Tropical Museum, 1980.


Atlantic Monthly , August 1999.

Jakarta Post , July 2, 2006.

New Straits Times (Singapore), March 22, 2001.


"Walter Spies," Network Indonesia, (January 25, 2007).

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: