Tourism in Netherland India was published in the 1930s by the Travelers Official Information Bureau of Netherland India to promote tourism to the Dutch East Indies. The magazine is packed with nice black and white photos of Indonesian arts and crafts and advertisements for hotels, excursions, train, boat and air travel. This 1934 issue is entirely devoted to Indonesian woodcarving. The first three pages are about the beautiful carvings from Japara, a village on the north coast of Java. The rest of the magazine is about Balinese woodcarving.
The author of the article is well aware of the developments in Balinese woodcarving at the time. ‘In Bali especially’, he writes, ‘there is the ancient traditional style of wood-carving in which the subjects are chosen from mythology, but also there is growing up alongside this the most remarkable development of this form of art in which the artist feels himself free to choose his subject where he will and often develops the most amazing skill in character portrayal as many of the finest specimens illustrated in this number will show. Animals also sometimes form the subjects chosen and there is not seldom a sly sense of humour wrought into the carvings that make them double attractive to the western eye. There appears to be a great future for this particular development of the art of wood-carving in Bali. Handled in bolder and broader lines and planes with much greater plastic skill and without the minute details being so much emphasized, this new style is much more “modern” and appealing than the traditional, but probably owes nothing to western influences, which have had no opportunity of penetrating to the more or less isolated artists of Bali. It is a spontaneous expression of the artistic urge within.’
According to the author of the article, the modern Balinese style thus arose from the inner urge of the local woodcarvers to work in a different, more individual way. This last remark is interesting because it differs from the well-known story that modern Balinese woodcarving was strongly influenced by Western artists, such as Rudolf Bonnet, Walter Spies and Miguel Covarrubias.
There was indeed interaction between the local and Western artists who lived and worked in Bali. In 1936 they set up together the artists’ association Pita Maha (roughly translated: grandfather or great spirit) to promote and protect Balinese art. But contemporary experts agree that this renewal started already in the 1910s and 1920s.
The changed circumstances forced the woodcarvers to adapt. The Dutch regime had in a bloody way put an end to the power of the various kingdoms in Bali. After the fall of these principalities, there was little demand for statues for temples and palaces. Woodcarvers were forced to work for the emerging tourist market and adapted their style accordingly.
I cannot imagine that the author of the article who was otherwise so well informed did not know these backgrounds. He probably wanted to make it sound more romantic than it really was. After all, tourists rather buy a souvenir from a woodcarver who ‘wants to be free’ than from a woodcarver who is burdened by colonial rule.