WALTER SPIES (Russia 1895-Indonesia 1942)
WALTER SPIES (Russia 1895-Indonesia 1942)

Blick von der Höhe (A view from above)

WALTER SPIES (Russia 1895-Indonesia 1942)
Blick von der Höhe (A view from above)
signed with initials 'W.S.' (lower right); signed again, dated and inscribed 'W. Spies, 1934, Bali' on the reverse
oil on canvas
39 x 32 in. (100 x 82 cm.)
Acquired from the artist by Sir Victor Sassoon.
By descent to Pauline, Mrs. Michael Wood who was the niece of the above.
Hans Rhodius, Schonheit und Reichtum des Lebens, The Hague, 1964, p. 353, (illustrated.)
The Hague, Haags Gemeentemuseum, Tentoonstelling Walter Spies, 1964.

Lot Essay

'The portrait of an extraordinary man at an extraordinary time in an extraordinary place'. These words surmise Walter Spies' settlement in the Dutch East Indies, particularly in Bali between 1927 to 1940 when he was interned by the Dutch colonial administration for his German nationality at the outbreak of the war in Europe.

Indeed, between the time of the artist's first move to Bali in 1927 until his death in 1942, this tiny Hindu enclave where the inhabitants were artists by nature proved to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration to the artist. Bali provided all things cherished by Spies. His love of nature, evident since his childhood days in Tsarist Moscow, was satisfied by the lush tropical vegetation, his talents for music was applied to the modification of the kecak dance and it was Bali that gave the perfect context to Spies' influence by Henri Rousseau, when the artist's naive, dream-like style was to blossom into the legendary style of magical-realism and his Balinese oeuvres were to take on a spiritual aspect which was hitherto unfound in his European works.

Upon his arrival, Spies settled in Java taking on the position of the conductor of the European orchestra for the Sultan of Jogyakarta. One of his first known works from this period is Sawahs im Preanger (Padi-fields in the Preanger Hills). Painted in 1923, it captures the fleeting moment of the changes of light when the sky is reflected in mother of pearl and turquoise across the facetted surfaces of the padi-fields. The landscape, the farmer placed in the forefront and the palm tree are emphasized and dramatised with the cast of their own shadows contrasting with the shimmering light of the moment. These would be the images used repeatedly by Spies throughout his stay in Bali and in the span of thirteen years, he would develop a unique style with distinguishable elements, notably the multiple-perspectives, the dramatised contrast of light and shade, the rhythmical compositional arrangement and the atmospheric quality.

From 1930 onwards, Spies resided at Campuan where the top floor of the house was the studio of the artist. It was there the present lot was painted in 1934. With Blick von der Hohe (A view from above), the budding stylistic elements in Sawahs im Preanger came to their maturity. The multiple vistas are enhanced with literally, as the title suggests, a view from the above. The subjects were his favourites, the palm tree, the lonesome farmer and the magnificent padi-field, of which their silhouettes were highlighted to a dramatic effect. The composition is a grandiose panorama, making use of all his familiar motifs and carried the vista motif to its perfection.

The quality of the light in this composition suggests an affiliation with the artist's knowledge of film-making and photography. Initially, every form of shadow lurked within the oeuvre of Spies, very much similar to the works of Rousseau. However, ever since the 1920s, Spies preferred to work with heavy-cast shadows. This dramatic effect was created by the harsh, artificial way of illuminating his compositions while reserving areas of darkness. In this way, Spies simultaneously builds up sharply contrasted areas of light and shade, which could be a direct adaptation from the early German Expressionist films. The affiliation was natural as Spies was well acquainted with one of Germany's most renowned Expressionist film-directors, Friedrich Murnau.
Spies also understands that the tropical light possesses the trick of causing a distant sunlit view to appear mysteriously luminous when seen from the darkness of an opening in the palms, and he uses this understanding to make his selections of subjects and perspectives which causes the vision to hover between dream and reality. The mysterious, dream-like quality is further enhanced with the composition of compiling various vistas, on different levels, each with their own vanishing points, like the distant view of the Gunung Agung or the farmer with the cow.

There are differing views on the date of execution for Sawahlandschaft mit Gunung Agung (View across the sawahs to Gunung Agung) and be it 1937 or 1939, it is painted in the last stage of the artist's career. By then, Spies was detained in Denpasar on the accusation of subversive activities and the confinement actually did him good by giving him a 'splendid seclusion' (Hans Rhodius and John Darling,Walter Spies and Balinese art, Amsterdam, 1980, p.45.) much needed for his work.

It is apparent that by this stage, the works of Spies have gained both spiritual and symbolic depth. Using the familiar motifs with the two discussed works; the use of multiple perspectives, the view from above, the contrast of light and shade and the repetitive appearance of the Gunung Agung, the farmer and the cow, this work would be amongst his last works. According to Dr. Hans Rhodius and John Darling they would be 'his finest hymn of praise to Bali; to the immortal glory of its countryside, to its happy belief in reincarnation in the Beyond' (Ibid.)

The circles in the water took on a greater significance, as it not only revealed the artist's conversion to the Balinese cosmology of the sanctity of infinity, the belief of an ongoing circle of birth and death as the beginning and the end are joined in one, but it highlights the 'majesty and awe-inspiring esoteric significance of the landscape (that) cannot be put into words.' (Ibid.)

Blick von der Hohe presents a link between Spies' earliest works of Bali and his final phase. Despite the different periods of the works, Walter Spies remained steadfast in his belief as he explained his attitudes towards life, art and Bali to his brother Leo, in a letter dated 12th of September 1939, 'For a Balinese, too, life is the glorious, holy fact; religion is alive and is there for teaching how to love and live life; and art is alive and is there to praise the holiness of life' (Ibid, p. 71.)


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