The Collector by Annemarie Hollitzer

Pande Wayan Suteja Neka, founder of the famous Neka Museum

High steps lead up the steep hill to the Neka Gallery in the Balinese village of Ubud. Slumped in a cane chair at the far end of the gallery sprawls the owner, a slender, middle-aged man, dressed in black, having just returned from a funeral. In spite of his evident weariness he greets us warmly. And as he starts telling us about his art collection, his gallery and his museum his face lights up with animation. His tiredness forgotten, Suteja Neka, the collector, speaks with love and passion about his lifework as he guides us through his accumulated art treasures.

But Pande Wayan Suteja Neka's greatest claim to fame does not come from his gallery but from his creation of the Neka Museum, located on a large piece of land overlooking a spectacular river gorge at Campuhan, just outside Ubud. Here in a series of traditional Balinese pavilions some of Bali's and Indonesia's finest art is on display.

Born in Peliatan, Ubud in 1939, the son of a renowned woodcarver, the young Neka grew up surrounded by art. His father was a member of the ground-breaking Pitamaha Artists' Association, founded in 1936 by Walter Spies, Rudolf Bonnet and the Ubud prince, Cokorda Gede Agung Sukawati. But, although Suteja Neka was always greatly drawn to both art and artists he did not choose art as his vocation but instead became a school teacher.

Still there was no escaping his destiny. Living in Ubud, which by then had become the creative hub of the Bali art scene, he was in constant contact with the many talented artists in the area. Gradually he became aware that through the growth of tourism many of the finest examples of Balinese art were leaving the island, snapped up by foreign collectors. By 1966 his awareness had turned into such concern that he decided to dedicate himself full time to collecting, preserving and promoting Balinese art. With great enthusiasm he set about his new task, encouraged and advised by the respected Dutch painter, Rudolf Bonnet. His collection started modestly but it was not long before the Neka Gallery had become one of the finest in Bali.

With a successful and well-regarded gallery established, the thought to open a museum seemed to follow naturally. Since Ubud's existing museum, Puri Lukisan, focused on works by artists from the Pitamaha era Neka started building his collection around contemporary artists. His decision to open a museum was reinforced when, at Bonnet's invitation, he travelled to Europe in 1975 and found that many museums there held excellent collections of both traditional and contemporary Balinese art.

He returned home even more convinced that he must do all he could to preserve Bali's important art heritage and the following year he opened the four original galleries of the Neka Museum. At the opening, his collection comprised forty-five works and at first the focus was on recent art, mainly drawings and paintings with Balinese themes.

By 1982 the Indonesian Government had acknowledged the importance of his museum and on 7th July that year Museum Neka was officially opened by the then Minister of Education and Culture, Dr. Daoed Joesoef. The museum was placed under the management of the Yayasan Dharma Seni art foundation and through the foundation it publishes books on art and catalogues of special exhibitions.

Over the years Neka's collection has grown more comprehensive and it now includes not only art works by Balinese painters but an extensive range of paintings by artists from other parts of Indonesia as well. His two basic criteria when choosing art works for his museum are, firstly, that the artist must have been true to himself, and, secondly, that the works should be inspired by Bali. He has also developed a certain gut-feeling for what is a suitable painting for his museum. For the completeness of his collection he has even included paintings that he does not particularly like. And for historical reasons he has added works from Bali's earliest periods.

Based on traditional Balinese architecture, the pavilions - there are now six of them - are set around an attractive garden in the style of a village compound. In this tranquil haven the Neka Museum invites you to take a leisurely stroll through Bali's rich history of art.

Beginning with an exploration of traditional Balinese painting, the first room in the first pavilion features classical wayang (puppet figure) style works, based on stories from the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as Balinese and Javanese folklore. Derived from the Kamasan style, these early paintings, packed with amazing two-dimensional, stylized characters, were often used to decorate shrines and pavilions during religious ceremonies. The bodies are mostly shown in full frontal position while the faces are in three-quarter profile. The colour pigments come from nature, and the pre-dominant colours are yellow (from ochre), red (from Chinese cinnabar), brown (from red-oxide clay mixed with soot) and blue (from indigo leaves). Black is made from charcoal or soot while white comes from the white ashes of burnt deer antlers or animal bones. On display is an early Kamasan canvas painted on bark paper using these mineral pigments, a tradition that has been traced back to the 17th century. This style of painting is still practised today at the village of Kamasan, Klungkung.

Until the arrival in Bali of artists Walter Spies (1895-1942) and Rudolf Bonnet (1895-1978) in the late 1920s, Balinese painting had been locked into rigidly stylized, traditional subject matter that had remained virtually unchanged for centuries. But with the stimulation created by their arrival, a new school of painting emerged, called the Ubud Style. While the European artists did not formally teach the Balinese painters, they encouraged them to paint broader themes, scenes from everyday life, and through their influence new materials came into use. No longer were the works produced exclusively for religious or ceremonial purposes. During this period, the Balinese painters started to take note of geometric perspective, anatomy and light and shadow. Although the subject matter and style had changed, the fresh, innovative paintings by artists such as Nyoman Lesug, Dewa Putu Bedil and Anak Agung Gede Sobrat still showed their unique Balinese exuberance.

During this time the artists in the nearby village of Batuan continued working in a more classical style largely unaffected by outside change. Many of the sombre and mysterious works by Ida Bagus Togog and Ida Bagus Wija take their inspiration from ancient fables and legends, often with supernatural overtones. Everyday life is also a recurrent subject with an amusing painting by Wayan Bendi featuring a liberal sprinkling of camera-toting tourists eagerly pointing their lenses at stunned water buffaloes and patient, graceful Balinese trying to go about their daily work.

European and other Western painters based in Bali have not been forgotten either. The next pavilion, a two-storey building, is dedicated to the Dutch-born painter, Arie Smit. Now in his late seventies, Smit still lives in Ubud, and, although age has somewhat slowed his output, he is still producing fine quality, imaginative paintings. Having spent time in Indonesia since the late 1930s, Smit settled in Bali in 1956 and four years later he opened his studio to the children of nearby Penestanan. Providing all the necessary painting materials, he introduced a naive approach to Balinese art and is now regarded as the father of the Young Artists school of painting. This style is bright, graphic and spontaneous and the intense colours often have little to do with the true colours found in nature.

The lower level of the Arie Smit pavilion is devoted to his students, the Young Artists, still so called although they are no longer young. Highly individualistic works by other contemporary Balinese painters, many with academic training, are also featured on this level. Paintings by Ketut Soki, I Nyoman Gunarsa and Nyoman Tusan stand out in this varied collection.

Next door a small building houses a special display of black and white photographs taken in the late 1930s by American Robert Koke who with his wife Louise opened the first hotel in Kuta. Fascinating scenes from village life, religious ceremonies and traditional dances offer an interesting insight into Bali at the time of the dawn of tourism. (Louise Koke is the author of "Our Hotel in Bali".)

Facing the central garden courtyard, the next pavilion displays the largest single collection of the distinctive works of one of Bali's most famous artists, I Gusti Nyoman Lempad (c.1862-1978). Lempad, a multi-talented man, had already become a legend during his lifetime for his outstanding creative skills in depicting the Hindu epics and Balinese folktales. With only scant influence from the West he developed a unique clarity and form in his balanced and harmonious compositions. And today his expressionistic, often humorous, ink line drawings are internationally sought after.

Works by modern Indonesian painters (non-Balinese) fill the last two pavilions. With styles ranging from realism through expressionism to abstraction, painters as varied as Affandi, Abas Alibasyah, Abdul Aziz, Sudarsono, Sujoyono, Widayat, and Anton H. (Anton Kustia Wijaya) show their art.

In the midst of this striking collection, Affandi's paintings stand out with their bold strokes and vigorous colours. Born in Cirebon, West Java in 1907, this grand old man of Indonesian art often applied his oil colours in generous lashings straight from the tube. When he died in 1990 he was Indonesia's internationally best-known artist.

Eye-catching is also Anton Kustia Wijaya's Three Masked Dancers, an expressive, colourful, mosaic-style painting with a strong sense of design where despite the liveliness of the work the faces and eyes of the three masks dominate. In Abdul Aziz' paintings the relaxed, informal models often spill out of their frames, adding to the three-dimensional effect. By contrast, the decorative, stylized trees of Javanese painter, Widayat, stand out starkly.

The top floor of the last pavilion, aptly named the East-West Art Annex, is devoted to works by the many foreign-born artists who have taken their inspiration from the magic and mystery that is Bali. Side by side hang paintings from Dutchman Rudolf Bonnet, Swiss artist Theo Meier, Catalan expatriate Antonio Blanco, Australian artist Donald Friend, American water-colourist Paul Nagano, Singaporean Teng Nee Cheong and many others. A virtual United Nations of artists with one common bond reaching across the many varied styles and techniques - their evident love for this beautiful and fascinating island and its people.

On this floor, a special section has been set aside for works by Dutch artist Willem Gerard Hofker (1902-1981). Hofker moved to Bali in the late 1930s and spent the next six years there. He was especially fond of painting the Balinese people and their traditions and produced some outstanding, sensitive portrayals of Balinese women.

Our impressive tour completed, we agree with Neka that it was fortunate that he had the drive and foresight to start preserving Balinese art as early as 1966, since it would be almost impossible to put together a collection of similar breadth and variety today.

Although Suteja Neka did not become an artist like his father, his contribution to Balinese art has no doubt been even greater through his ongoing devotion to the ever-expanding collection of works housed at the Neka Museum. And when he says wistfully: "Artists are fortunate because they can live twice, first through their lives, and then into the future through their works", we feel confident that this will also apply to Pande Wayan Suteja Neka, ambassador of Balinese arts. His name will live long into the future.

the end

Painter in Paradise by Annemarie Hollitzer

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