Modern wood carvings from Bali

Bali is renowned for its high quality wood carvings. This blog is dedicated to the modern Balinese woodcarving style that emerged in the 1930s.

‘Bali is a wonderland’, wrote the Dutch artist Wijnand Otto Jan Nieuwenkamp. ‘From the high mountains and the mysterious dark forests, from the raging torrents and the silent mountain lakes, from the ominous thundering craters and the green gently undulating plains, from the steep rocky coasts with the wide beaches and the mighty rolling surf; from the beautiful temples, like flower-trees petrified by their lavish ornament, and the wonderful arts and crafts of a beautiful and strong people; from all this and much more emanates a charm, so strong that once one has experienced it, one can never escape it.’

Master carver Ida Bagus Njana and his son Tilem at work in circa 1952.

Nieuwenkamp was one of the first European artists to visit Bali in 1904. He did not only capture Balinese life and nature in his etchings and lithographs, but was also fascinated by the local arts and crafts. During his wanderings around the island, he collected a large number of artefacts, including some wooden sculptures, which can still be seen in the Museum of Ethnology in Leiden. After Nieuwenkamp, many more western artists and tourists would come to Bali. They too could not escape the charm and beauty of Balinese art.

Changes in Balinese woodcarving
For centuries wooden sculptures had been made for temples, palaces and home altars in Bali. The bloody overthrow of the last self-governing principalities by the Dutch colonial army in 1906-1908 put an end to this long feudal tradition and caused major changes in Balinese arts and crafts. The demand for carvings for palaces and private residences of the Balinese nobility decreased. Woodcarvers had to find new sources of income and started making sculptures for Dutch officials and other Westerners who visited the island.

Art Deco wood carvings on display at a pasar malam in the 1930s.

Growing tourism
Due to the growing tourism, the demand for wooden statues increased. To accommodate travelers, woodcarvers made smaller carvings that easily fitted in a suitcase. Wood carvings of everyday Balinese scenes, such as a legong dancer or a bathing woman, were especially popular with the tourists. As a result, many woodcarvers who used to make statues with a religious purpose, became individual artists working for the tourist market.

Old postcard from the Tropenmuseum depicting a wood carving of Acyntia, the supreme divine being in Balinese Hinduism (acquired in 1938)

Pita Maha
One of the driving forces behind the modernization of Balinese woodcarving was the artists’ association Pita Maha (Great Spirit), which was founded in 1936 by the Dutch painter Rudolf Bonnet, his German colleague Walter Spies, the Balinese architect Gusti Nyoman Lempad and the nobleman Cokorde Sukawati. This association of about 150 local painters, sculptors, woodcarvers and gold & silver smiths held exhibitions in Bali, Java, the Netherlands and other countries to promote Balinese art. A selection committee of senior members reviewed the submitted work and determined which works were exhibited and which works were sold through a number of art galleries.

Other influences
The thin-limbed Pita Maha sculptures with long fingers and expressive facial expressions resembled the stylized Western design of the 1920s and 1930s and are therefore often referred to as Balinese ‘Art Deco statues’. Today though, most art historians agree that this modern woodcarving style stems from traditional Balinese arts and crafts. Among other things, they point to the similarities with wayang kulit puppets, which also have thin limbs, almond-shaped eyes and strong facial expressions. That is why this woodcarving style is now also described as ‘wayang style’.

Two woodcarvers making busts in the 1930’s.

The influence of Western art is more evident in the beautiful and realistic busts produced in large numbers in the 1930s en 1940s. The lifelike faces of bridal couples, janger dancers and old people show how skilled the woodcarvers were in those years. Another development that came over from the West was that Balinese woodcarvers no longer painted their sculptures and started to use the grain lines in the wood decoratively.

Busts of a janger dancer, circa 1940-1950

Many Balinese wood carvings ended up in the Netherlands, brought along by Dutch travellers, soldiers and Indo-Dutch people who settled in the Netherlands after the Indonesian independence war. Especially wood carvings from the 1930s and 1940s are now sought-after collectibles. Sculptures by famous master carvers such as I Made Gerembuang, I Ktut Rodja and Ida Bagus Njana fetch high prices at auctions. But there are also beautiful works by lesser-known woodcarvers and many unsigned sculptures, which you can still buy for a reasonable price.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a new style of thin elongated statues emerged around Mas, the center of Balinese woodcarving. These stylized woodcarvings often have a tranquil beauty. Two wood carvers who excelled in this elongated woodcarving style are Ida Bagus Tilem (the son of Njana) and I Made Runda.

Calendar published by the Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatschappij in 1930 (collection Anno1900)

Cross-cultural interaction
Just as Balinese artists were influenced by western art, there were also many Dutch artists who were inspired by the arts and cultures of Indonesia. On this site you will find graphics, batik work and other examples of this cross-cultural interaction.

The posts on Art Deco Bali blog are my personal thoughts about Balinese woodcarving and about the statues and ephemera in my collection. So they may contain errors and misinterpretations. Please let me know if you see one or if you want to add interesting information to a blogpost. Of course you can also contact me if you want to know more about one of your own statues or if you want to sell a wood carving. I’ll be happy to make you a good offer.

The historical black and white pictures on this page are from the Leiden University Libraries, Digital Collections, Southeast Asian & Caribbean Images (KITLV).