Saturday 20th September saw the launch of yet another major book on legendary Balinese artist I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, this time penned by six highly regarded experts on Balinese art and culture. Intrigued, we went along to the press conference at Puri Lukisan Museum in Ubud.
by Rio Helmi
After decades of drought, suddenly it’s raining Lempads. This time the Puri Lukisan Museum, the original art museum of Ubud started in the early 1950s under the patronage of Ubud’s royal family of Puri Saren, has published a weighty tome: Lempad of Bali, the Illuminating Line. There is a special and unique significance to this sponsorship, as the artist I Gusti Nyoman Lempad had a very close and special relationship with his royal patrons, the Tjokordas of Ubud., and also as the Museum Puri Lukisan is closely linked to the Pita Maha creative art movement of the 30’s of which Lempad was an important part.
Kicking off the press conference on Saturday was Tjokorda Putera Sukawati, who pointed out that prior to this movement there were no “artists” as such in Bali – creative people worked in their socially defined roles as undagi (a traditional amalgam of artist, artisan, architect, and cultural conoisseur) and pragina (traditional dance and theater performer); their work was to serve the public by using their creativity in temples and palaces. He also pointed out that Lempad would frequent the palace to listen to readings of traditional scriptures, and so was steeped in the mythic lore of Bali. Tjokorda Putera pointed out that the 30s marked the first real intersection with the outside world for the Balinese.
Kecak Dance, Ganesha Collection, USA – Ink, cinnabar and gold leaf on paper, 35 x 35 cm, 1930s, p. 404
The need for, and significance of, a publication of this nature cannot be understated, as those close to Lempad were imminently aware. As Bruce Carpenter pointed out, this book had always been one of the great wishes of the late I Gusti Made Sumung, Lempad’s son, and of the late John Darling, who was something of a Sumung protegé.
A few months ago, another large book book, Lempad, was published by Picture Publishers of the Netherlands. It is to Lempad’s credit that two large books could be dedicated to his work in such quick succession. Indeed, Lempad could be said to be the most internationally significant Balinese artist to date. As curious about it as I was, I put the question to Bruce Carpenter: what is the substantive difference between Lempad of Bali, the Illuminating Line and the previous book, Lempad?
There was a certain subliminal bristling at this question – evidently both books required a lot of drive, effort and resources to produce, and a sense of rivalry must have entered into the situation over the years. Lempad of Bali took six intensive, labor filled years before it was published. A huge effort was required simply to track down all the works around the world, verify and authenticate them, attributions had to be rigorously checked, and then everything had to be collated. The excellent results of this rigor are palpable in this catalogue.
However, to focus on the differences in content: according to museum curator Soemantri Widagdo somewhere in the process there was a decision to focus more on Lempad’s drawings and paintings as evidence of his unique creativity, and less on his sculpture and architectural work as such. The rationale given for this does make real sense. Though of course he did do his own design and carving, much of the sculpture and architecture that Lempad did or was involved with was commissioned to some modicum of design and specification. And it would not have been rare for him in such cases to work directing a team rather than creating the work with his own hands.
The works represented in The Illuminating Line, which is in fact a catalogue raisonné to accompany one of the most important exhibitions of Lempad’s art, are all of outstanding beauty and power. There is a satisfying consistency of quality and inspiration throughout this tome that is almost overpowering. And my hat is off to Editions Didier Millet for the excellent production values that went into this publication.
Museum Puri Lukisan’s chief curator, Soemantri Widagdo
Dancer Emerging from Trance, Dance Museum of Sweden, Stockholm, Ex-collection Rolf de Maré – Ink, cinnabar and gold leaf on paper 28.9 x 37.5 cm, dated 1937, p. 384
Then there are the authors – all leading scholars in their fields – who undoubtedly did more than simply write their texts. It is impossible to imagine such a group of experts not significantly contributing ideas and inspiration to this project.
To begin with, John Darling’s long involvement with the Lempad family spanned decades, he practically lived with them. Indeed John Darling’s text is seminal to this book. Though his text is published posthumously, John’s contribution in bringing Lempad to the world’s attention can not be underestimated, and the film Lempad of Bali that he made with Lorne Blair has become a classic.
Professor Hedi Hinzler of the Southeast Asian Studies at Leiden University has a string of academic and scholastic credentials that put her up at the forefront of experts on Balinese culture and art. Her studies and research on various related subjects span more than 40 years.
Kaja McGowan, associate professor of History of Art, Archaeology and Visual Studies at Cornell is currently Director of the Southeast Asia Program. She studied Balinese dance and performance as an undergraduate and co-authored the book Ida Bagus Made: The Art of Devotion published for the first in the Masters of Pita Maha exhibitions at Puri Lukisan.
Dr Adrian Vickers of the University of Sydney holds a professorial chair in Southeast Asian Studies in the Faculty of Arts and is Director of the Asian Studies Program. His first fieldwork in Indonesia dates back to the 70s.
Soemantri Widagdo started out as chemical engineer, graduating from the Universoty of Pennsylvania, and has co-authored books on the subject. In 1994 he became deeply interested in Balinese art, developing a close relationship as student and confidante of the late Ida Bagus Made Poleng, and for the last two decades has worked as the chief curator and international liaison for the Puri Lukisan Museum, and was Kaja McGowan’s co-author on Ida Bagus Made: The Art of Devotion.
Bruce Carpenter arrived in Bali in the early 1970s as an aspiring young artist. Since then he has written and co-authored more than twenty books and scores of articles on Indonesia, focusing on history, art, and culture.
It is a formidable group, truly worthy of the task. It is important to note that the decades of the Thirties and Forties were two of the most significant decades in modern Balinese art, and it does take such a range of experts to be able truly do justice to Lempad both as participant in those heady days of early modern Balinese art and creative discovery, and as the true artistic genius that he was.
Tjokorda Putera expressed the opinion that perhaps due to the fact that their works suddenly had a monetary value when sold to foreign visitors, this would have had a stimulating effect on the Pita Maha artists to create. Though the idea has some merit, I for one am not convinced. After all it was a special time – artists like Lempad were stepping out of their traditional roles into a whole new era of self expression. The explosion of creativity was unprecedented. At the same time there was no self-conscious need to claim authorship or to create some kind of artistic branding campaign. It would seem more the case that the value of their work lay in its unbridled freedom of expression and the seduction of new medium.
Soemantri expressed his opinion that Lempad too reached his artistic peak during the Thirties and Forties, something borne out by the electrifying quality of his work during those periods, and even the sheer numbers of paintings and drawings he did: “It was the time of Lempad’s greatest inspiration, and of coming into his own as an artist.” The artist in Lempad, already reknown as an undagi of exceptional talent and sensitivity, was unleashed at the moment he had reached a spiritual maturity.
At the time Lempad was in his 60s, he had something of a renaissance in his nineties continued to work right up to the last of his purported 116 years. He left behind an astounding array of masterpieces.
Garuda Devours the Tortoise and Elephant, Lois Bateson Collection, Ex-collection Bateson and Mead – Ink, cinnabar and gold leaf on paper 35 x 26.5 cm, dated 1936, p. 125
If you are in Ubud before the 24th November 2014, do make an effort to take in this extraordinary, comprehensive exhibition of I Gusti Nyoman Lempad’s work at the Museum Puri Lukisan, it includes scores of never before exhibited drawings and paintings.