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Cosmology in Balinese Abstract Painting

Painting in Bali in the last three decades has veered toward abstraction. This abstraction is based on narrative and icons, including symbolic and non-symbolic elements, with the use of color as a major component. This development is rooted in Balinese-Hindu art and traditional culture. Philosophical aspects of the Balinese way of life provide a major source for the Balinese artist’s creativity: therefore, even if the painting is very abstract, it is likely to be strongly based in Balinese (Hindu Dharma) culture.

Structures of life in Bali are rooted in a hierarchical order. Based on the idea of balance between the macro-cosmos and the micro-cosmos, Balinese people aim to live life in harmony. The various dimensions of life according to Balinese philosophy often inspire the visual artist/painting according to I Wayan Karja.

Abstract painting forms a major part of mainstream modern art. An abstract painting is without a recognizable subject, doesn’t relate to anything external or try to look like something. It is concerned with inner expression and unseen subject matter.

Even in the art world, the term “abstract” is still a major focus of debate in the search for an answer to the question “What is abstract painting?” In some circles, “abstract” is used as a joke for the things we do not understand.

In Indonesia, abstract art has never been fully accepted by the general public. It is assumed that abstract art is a derivative of Western art, because in the early development of Indonesian abstract art it was taught by Western art teachers and the art education system was influenced by the Western system.

There are many terms in the world of art that refer to abstract painting, such as suprematism, neoplastism, purism, abstract expressionism, action painting, tachism, lyrical abstraction, art informal, art autre, and a handful of other terms.

Characterized by an intensely personal and subjective response by artists to their own feelings, the medium, and the working process, it is an art in which painters and sculptors might be seen as being engaged in a search for their own identity.

During the 1950s abstract painting in Indonesia had no audience, because it held no benefit for propaganda in political action, mainly of the socialist movements. Such abstract painting is aimed at expression, transforming the real or natural object so that organization of the elements — line, form, color, space, shape, texture — becomes the major concern.

The process of creation in abstract painting often requires deep contemplation; therefore, ideas about the level of reality might arise in many different versions, depending on personal experience. We can see a considerable similarity between what the Balinese think about the sekala (the seen world) and niskala (the unseen world). We can read many mythologies or create many stories about the things we cannot see.

In abstract painting these phenomena assume considerable importance because we tend to think that abstract painting is rooted in the Western art tradition. Balinese painting, however, has a natural bent toward abstraction because of its basis in the religious life of the people, in which symbolism plays an essential role.

In Balinese philosophy we find that there are two ways to worship God: Saguna upasana, which is the concrete form of meditation that uses human symbols to worship God in a form of imagination (abstraction), and nirguma upasana, completely abstract meditation to worship God in the heart without any symbols.

In abstract painting, we are also able to find two major directions: Abstract painting that uses many icons and symbols, both cultural and personal and abstract painting without symbols, composed purely of elements of art such as line, color and composition.

Color that has not been made concrete by association with an object has no relation with the outer world. An abstract painting using both symbolic and non-symbolic elements reflecting the fact that art is about life and for life; that art itself must be alive.

The concept of pengider bhvana, which is the idea of balancing nature, human beings and God, strongly influences Balinese abstract painting. Pengider bhvana is symbolized by a mandala with eight directions plus the center; each associated with a color, sound, god, goddess, attribute, number, place in the body etc.

Mandala is a Sankrit word that means disk or circle and is also part of the balance concept. The mandala is a diagrammatic representation of the cosmos or some aspect of it, used in Eastern religion as a focus for the contemplation, and occurring frequently in Balinese abstract painting.

According to Jungian psychology, the mandala is a symbol representing the effort to reunify the self. Besides the mandala also we can find the Yantra (another Sankrit word), a geometric diagram used by Hindu mystics to focus concentration while meditating.

The idea of the mandala is reflected in the form of Catur Muka, the four faces of Brahma (the Creator), turning his eyes to the four points of the compass. This fourfold survey from the circle of the lotus was a kind of preliminary orientation, an indispensable taking of bearings, before he began his work of creation.

A similar story is told of Buddha. At the moment of his birth, a lotus flower rose from the earth and he stepped into it to gaze into the 10 directions of space. (The lotus in this case was eight-rayed; and Buddha also gazed upward and downward, making 10 directions).

These 10 directions are also a symbol of wholeness. The spatial orientation performed by Brahma and Buddha may be regarded as symbolic of the human need for psychic orientation.

The four functions of consciousness — thought, feeling, intuition, and sensation — equip man to deal with the impressions of the world he receives from within and without. In the art of painting the forms from one dimension to the 10 dimensions of a mandala or circle are found.

The circle is often eight-rayed. This expresses a reciprocal overlapping of the four functions of consciousness, so that four further intermediate functions come about. For instance, thought can be colored by feeling or intuition, or feeling can tend toward sensation.

In Balinese culture the eight-rayed and four-rayed circle are both very common as a pattern of the religious images that serve as instruments of meditation.

The mandala represents the cosmos in its relation to divine powers. This interest in emptiness, in nothingness, is found in many disciplines; in particular it is an important sector of modern philosophy. What we know, for example, that philosophers such as Heidegger or Sartre have, at a given moment, made nothingness the center of their thought, and that Heidegger even went so far as to say “existence is the extreme nothingness which is simultaneously copiousness”. This is similar to the Mahayana Buddhist concept that “Emptiness is form; form is emptiness”, which is especially espoused by the Zen tradition.