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Abstract in Balinese Art: Bali

Balinese narrative painting has its roots in abstract religious and philosophical concepts that form the foundation of religious epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Its forms and narratives arose from folk art, which often depicts scenes from these epics. Since the Pita Maha art movement began in the 1930s, Balinese art structures have been moving rapidly toward modernization. Nevertheless, a preference for structured, realistic forms dominated Balinese art up to the late 1960s.

Since the 1970s, however, abstraction in Balinese painting has gained ground in the academic art world. This process of modernization has encouraged painters to be effective and efficient in their work, including the way they approach and deal with their subject matter and its visual elements as I Wayan Karja explains.

According to art historian Charlotte Douglas, the shift to abstract art in the early 20th century was prompted by a need for new dimensions of consciousness. She states that these forms were used “to serve as a passport to and report from the so-called higher realms”.

This process of simplification, reduction and modernization is a worldwide trend. Modern art developed in Bali in response to a quest for modern art in the West and the beginnings of postmodernism.

It is interesting to examine why this happened and what distinguishing features characterized the transformation.

The modernization of Balinese painting is a product of “transferred knowledge”. The techniques of modern painting engage not only nature or natural objects, but also the elements of painting itself (line, form, color, texture).

The influence of formal art education — typified by artists from the alumni of the Bandung Institute of Technology’s Department of Visual Art, The Indonesian Institute of Art in Yogyakarta, the Indonesian Institute of Art in Denpasar, and the University of South Florida in the United States — has played a major role in the development of modern abstract painting in Bali.

Balinese abstract painting is not only enriched by local influences but also by those of national and international importance.

Artists often concern themselves more with inner development than with the outer world. Abstract artists present a dualistic reality: the first is the physical reality, which we perceive through our five senses; the second is the artist’s inner reality.

In modern painting, the artist’s inner reality or personal consciousness is the more important of the two. This consciousness constantly seeks new ways to develop art and to expand awareness. It finds less need for the use of realistic forms, seeking rather, a more organic, lyrical idiom.

Various styles developed early in the process of modernization, such as surrealism, which concerned itself with elements of dream and fantasy; and expressionism, which sought to listen to the inner voice in order to express feelings through the aesthetics of painting.
The geometric influence brought the use of the square, triangle, circle and other geometric shapes to help create a new modern form in abstract painting.

Emotion, sound and time also became important elements. Fantasy, dream and imagination turned realities into abstract images. Geometric expression continues, but it now relies more on color and texture than form. This is often attained, for example, by dropping, dripping or drizzling materials such as sand and sawdust onto the canvas.

While all these elements exist in Balinese abstract painting, trying to limit and classify their use is not at all easy.

Compared to Western art, Balinese abstract art is fluid in the extreme, occupying a continuum between continuity and change: between the old tradition and the new.

The abstraction process in Balinese painting continued into the 1990s, but it should be noted that painting in Bali has never yearned for the purely realistic. The artist tends to reduce the formal elements of composition into emotional and spiritual experience.

In this way, patterns are reduced to their simplest form, bringing forth their most basic essence. Work by the alumni of the Indonesian Institute of Art, in particular, reveals this tendency toward minimalism.

The cosmic idea used in Balinese abstract painting is part of a mystical belief system. Everything about a painting — the composition, the themes, the title — refers to the balance of macro and micro space in multi dimensions.

The one-dimensional circle, frequently used to represent perfection or oneness, relates to the philosophy of mokshartam jagaddithaya ca iti dharmah.

Moksa is the balancing of the inner and outer dimensions of life. The use of a circle to denote the sun or moon, which seems universal, is often found in Balinese painting.

In like vein, a little dot can represent a star. A circle can be interpreted in many ways, which is why we see it so often in Balinese abstract painting, sometimes singly, sometimes in multiplicity.

The two dimensions might be symbolized by black and white cloth “poleng” with vertical and horizontal lines. Balance is found in dualistic images: seen/unseen, yin/yang, good/bad, day/night.

These themes are the most common in Balinese abstract painting. The ideal Balinese abstract is steeped in spiritual concerns in order to bring into balance elements of cosmic beliefs.

A single line in an abstract painting can create meaning: for example, a horizontal line will give an impression of a horizon, dividing the upper and lower worlds. A horizon or suggestion of a landscape can imbue an abstract painting with a sense of the divinity of nature.

Other concepts found in Balinese abstract paintings include “ulu teben“, push and pull to build up the surface of the painting, “pradaksina” the clockwise turning of the cosmic wheel and “prasaviya“, its reverse, the anti-clockwise motion.

Hindu forms of the cross (+) tapak dara, swastika, and charka are often seen and can suggest the form of a circle. Other Hindu symbols often found in Balinese abstract painting include the Tree of Life, Awidya, Purusa-predana, Tri Hita Karana, the colors of chakra, Butha Yadnya, meditation, kundalini, Kala Rau, etc. These are common titles for Balinese abstract paintings.

While these traditional symbols form the basis of Balinese abstract painting, foreign influences continually flow in through tourism and education, thus enriching the tradition.

Modern Balinese painting is, therefore syncretic, creative and continually changing and growing. Who knows what directions it might still take? Time will tell, and the journey into the future looks both challenging and exciting.