Spies's biographer Dr. Hans Rhodius mentions 1937 as the year of execution of Sawahlandschaft mit Gunung Agung in his standard work Schonheit und Reichtum des Lebens as well as in Walter Spies and Balinese Art co-written by John Darling.
Later, in a periodical Verre Naasten Naderbij of the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Leyden, Rhodius indicates that Spies completed the present lot in 1939, whilst detained in Denpasar, on the accusation of subversive activities. The motif, style and composition of the present lot may well be compared with the magnificent Iseh bei Morgenlicht, 1938 (State Collection Republic of Indonesia) and Die Landschaft und ihre Kinder, 1939 (Christie's Hongkong, 27 October 2002, lot 18). In a letter to his mother dated 26 July 1937 Spies wrote that he had moved to a small studio he built in Iseh near Selat in the Regency of Karangasem, in order to work undisturbed (the studio was later taken over by Theo Meier). In this small desa away from Ubud, he could fully absorb the characteristics of the Balinese landscape and meditate on the splendid view over the rice fields and the Holy Mountain, the Gunung Agung.
Here Spies was able to find the inspiration and the concentration to create among others the above mentioned masterpieces that may be referred to as the paintings from the Karangasem-style series, that came about between 1937 and 1939.
Rhodius recorded one letter by Spies dated 28 July 1938, to a Lady Mary Delamare, Newmarket, England, who owned Die Krabbenfische (Christie's Singapore, 27 March 1994, lot 52). Spies wrote to her that he was happy that she decided to keep this work. Furthermore he wrote to her that he intended to send Palmendurchblick (1938) (Private Collection, Jakarta) to his friend and patron, Sir Edward Beddington Behrens. "I am now working on three more pictures, one of course for Beddington Behrens - and one much larger one for Peter Watson" (Hans Rhodius, op.cit., p. 376). The latter quoted evidently referring to the present lot. When Spies in 1927 finally moved from the Kraton of Java to the Puri of Ubud, as a guest of the Cokorde Sukawati, his influence and impact were felt almost immediately among Balinese artists. Young artists, like the Anak Agung Gde Sobrat, saw the early compositions, for instance Balische Legende, 1929, and Reejagd, 1932 (formerly owned by Charles Chaplin) from which they adapted motifs that can be found within Balinese painting until the present day. Also Spies encouraged the Balinese painters to choose their subject from daily life, in addition to the traditional subjects of Holy Hindu-tales such as Mahabharata and Ramayana. At the same time he advised them to work as independently as possible. Balinese Art was regarded as common property, and plagiarism was an unknown concept to the Balinese. It was common practice in accordance with Balinese culture to copy what was regarded beautiful. The impact of Balinese culture on Spies's work is just as evident. His painting gained in spiritual and symbolic depth since his move to the island.
The Karangsem-style paintings include not only the visible Balinese landscape, but also encompasses the Balinese cosmic perception; the "seen" and the "unseen" world, or to the Balinese the Sekala and Niskala.
In a very moving letter written to his brother Leo on the 12th of September 1939, right after his imprisonment in Denpasar and not long before the outbreak of World War II which caused a train of events that led to his death, Spies explained his attitude towards life and discussed his philosophy over life and art and his deep feelings for Bali and the Balinese. "Auch fur ein Balinesen,..., ist das Leben die herrliche heilige Tatsache; die Religion ist lebendig und ist da, um das Leben die lieben and leben zu lehren, und die Kunst is lebendig und ist da um die Heiligkeit des Lebens zu presien. (op. cit., Rhodius, p. 394, letter no. 113) (translation John Darling, op. cit. P. 71 :"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 holinese of life." John Daling comments "Here Spies most clearly expressed in words his love and the understanding of Bali and the Balinese and described most aptly that it is not the object created that is sacred, but the activity of making it" (ibid, p. 71)
The paintings of Karangasem-series, executed in a splendid "magic realistic" style, make use of the same familiar motifs; the use of perspective, the scenes viewed from above; the various vistas; the highlighting of the leaves etc. All this, in combination with his sophisticated technique gave Spies's paintings their translucent depths. Furthermore we see the repetitive appearance of the Gunung Agung, the farmer and the cow motif. And the emphasis on the circles in the water perhaps referring to the sacred infinity, which is the Balinese belief in an ongoing circle of birth and re-birth.
The resemblances between The Landschaft und Ihre Kinder and Sawahlandschaft mit Gunung Agung make it plausible that they were executed successively. The paintings can be closely compared not only in size and shape, but also in the way the compositions are built up in areas of light and shadow. Both panels have one half taken up by the dark shadow of the sugar-palms, and balanced in the same way with a smaller mass of shadow to the opposite side, in this respect being reverse images of each other. Again, according to Rhodius' last publication, both works were completed while Spies had been held in custody.
The tonality and the way the light falls in the present lot could suggest an evening twilight. This effect as well seems to complement Spies's masterpiece Die Landschaft und ihre Kinder and also supports the hypothesis that Spies had painted the latter as counterpiece to our Sawahlandschaft mit Gunung Agung.