A classical Balinese painting tells a story through its visuals, and the art can communicate philosophies of life, religion, ethics and morals, as well as exposing the observer to flora, fauna and astrology.
“Classical Balinese paintings have been admired worldwide ever since European society first became acquainted with the East in the 15th century,” said Balinese artist and museum owner Nyoman Gunarsa. “And since then, other countries have searched out these masterpieces to enrich their cultural references because of the extraordinary implied messages, philosophies and counsels about the life of Balinese people.”
The First International Festival of Classical Balinese Paintings, an exhibition that has been open at the Nyoman Gunarsa Museum in Klungkung, East Bali, since July, showcases a selection of classical Balinese pieces by local and international artists.
Classical Balinese paintings are often referred to as an ancient academic art, as the works follow symbolic standards and rules, such as “wondo,” the standard sizing of bodies, arms, legs and faces. All figures have their own characters, symbols and attributes (honorific symbols, castes and positions of the figures within the narrative.
Ancient academia was different from modern systems and placed more emphasis on contemplation, the role of the senses, meditation and direct application.
“These paintings are known as Kamasan paintings because this is the village in the [district] of Klungkung that during the Gelgel Kingdom [1600-1900] became known as the center of traditional Balinese culture,” said Gunarsa, who is referred to as Maestro due to his extraordinary talent in producing dynamic modern Balinese paintings rich in cultural references.
They are also referred to as wayang-style paintings, as the characters’ images are akin to those depicted in the famous Indonesian shadow puppet play, the wayang kulit. History reveals that the origins of the classical paintings and the wayang kulit are to be found in the Majapahit East Javanese Hindu Empire (1400-1700s). The Hindu epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, imported from India, are the source of these paintings’ religious narratives.
Each color within the composition of these paintings on cloth has deep symbolic meaning that still applies in modern Balinese society. Blue, for example, connotes fantasy, magnitude and enjoyment, while white represents purity, and black conveys secrecy and mysticism.
The spaces within the two-dimensional Kamasan paintings have a supernatural quality, yet they use perspective techniques similar to those used in ancient Egyptian reliefs thousands of years ago.
Participating countries at the international event include Australia, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United States as well as Indonesia. From Bali itself, works of art have been included from the collections at the ARMA, Neka and Rudana museums in Ubud, as well as Denpasar’s Bali Museum, Museum Pasifika in Nusa Dua and private works from Gunarsa.
There are significant classical Balinese art collections abroad, such as the Australian Museum’s collection, which features almost 200 works. The special significance of this collection lies in its documentation, which includes photographs, drawings, transcripts of interviews and stories associated with the paintings.
The exhibition also features international authorities on Balinese classical art including leading Balinese cultural observer Jean Couteau from France, professor emeritus Peter Worsley and Southeast Asian studies professor Adrian Vickers from Australia, author Urs Ramseyer from Switzerland and professor Hedi Hinzler from the Netherlands.
“This festival encountered many obstacles during its process of development,” Gunarsa explained. “International museums housing collections of classical Balinese paintings wished to participate in this festival, however, they were regulated by strict government policies that confined the sending of paintings abroad, and to obtain permission to send these works abroad was difficult.
“The shipping costs are expensive and are the responsibility of the festival committee, and there is a need for tight security precautions while the works are on display in Bali. It is my wish to gain more support for the next exhibition as well as financial support from the Indonesian and Balinese governments and the corporate and private sectors.”
Some of the exhibition highlights include a piece 30 centimeters in height and up to 35 meters long that portrays a complete narrative of important tales and is read from left to right.
Sketches in Chinese ink on cloth by priests and Balinese depicting methods of creating magic stand side-by-side with modern Kamasan paintings. One can also see paintings that have been produced in districts to the west of Klungkung, which have developed their own, more simplified expressions of the characters and objects within the compositions.
“What is most significant about this exhibition is that for the first time observers can witness a broad overview of the history of Balinese classical art, in all its variations of styles, stories and chronological development,” says Couteau, who has lived in Bali for more than 30 years.
“Many works of art were purchased, collected and then taken out of Bali by foreigners years ago and few pieces have remained in Indonesia. Nyoman Gunarsa, through his own means, now helps to take back, as well as to restore the memory of the Balinese visual culture, and this is essential for its preservation and documentation for the benefit of the public and future generations.”