'The Portrait of an extraordinary man at an extraordinary time in an extraordinary place' (Hans Rhodius and John Darling, Walter Spies and Balinese artist, Terra, Zutphen, 1980, p. 1). These words surmise Walter Spies' settlement in the Dutch East Indies, particularly in Bali between 1927-1940. 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 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. It has long been established that Spies' Balinese oeuvres are his art at the height of maturity, nevertheless, one could not appreciate the blossoming of this period without looking at his earliest encounter with the Indonesian environ.
One of Spies' recorded works in Jogyakarta 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 the mother of pearl and turquoise hues 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 against the shimmering light of the moment. These would be the images used repeatedly by Spies throughout his stay in Bali and the artist's move to Bali in 1927 would bring his artistic skill to a new level.
Viewed alongside Sawahs im Preanger, The night festival of Djogja can be appreciated as the symbolic ritual of initiation into the artist's much celebrated magical-realism of his Balinese oeuvres. Depicting a scene of a supposedly busting night market of Djogja where one sees a close-up view of 3 separate activities, namely two men, one squatting and the other standing with a stretched-up arm on the left corner, another man looking into a box-theatre in the center and on the right is a child playing with two adults, adorning the background is a merry-go-round in full European style and a partial revealing of tropical foliage on the upper right corner.
The mood is slightly queer and absurd as there are no apparent interchanges amongst the people in spite of their proximity with one another and this sense of absurdity is further heightened with their dramatic facial expression which is not one of festive joy as one would expect in a fun fare but rather of a curious intensity as they engaged in each of their immediate activity. This is an ambience and facial features much akin to Spies' earlier works such as Das Karussell (dated 1922, Stddtisches Museum, Dresden) which is a depiction of a joyous circus in a simple yet dramatic form, a tendency which the artist had picked up during his internment at Sterlitamak that allowed his exposure to folk art.
If the present canvas allowed a glimpse of his formative years, it also confirmed the artist's obsession with the dramatic usage of light, a signature style that would imbue all his works with the celebrated magical quality. We could see that all of his subjects' silhouettes in this present composition were highlighted to dramatic effect. The quality of light is emphasized with Spies' preference to work with heavy-cast shadows. This dramatic effect is created by the harsh, artificial way of illuminating his compositions while reserving areas of darkness. In this way, Spies simultaneously built 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'' most renowned Expressionist film-directors, Friedrich Murnau. The result is a composition of mysterious ambience, as the light casting on the protagonists: the mystified expression of the child, of the man peering into the hole and of the bewildered look of the woman squatting on the right, were highlighted with an intensity. A composition, not without its decorative element, with Spies meticulously painting the intricate details of the merry-go-round and the foliage on the top right, that enhanced the theatrical element of the scene.