Important people in Bali: Arie Smit

by Nick on March 5, 2007

by Nick | March 5th, 2007  

arie smitArie Smit is one of Bali’s most well known foreign born artists. Born is Holland in 1916, he became an Indonesian citizen in 1950 and still lives in Bali. Arie Smit’s painting style using oil on canvas, incorportates vivid color and celebrates the colors found in Bali.

The following article by Annemarie Hollitzer, gives a detailed account of Smit’s life.

As Tahiti tempted Gauguin, so the beauty of Bali beckoned Arie Smit. As a wide-eyed schoolboy, he was fascinated by the colourful tales he was told of the then Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia). Fuelled by vivid imagination, his interest grew, and he remembers how he would dream of wild exotic animals hiding in dense tropical jungle. When, in 1938, he was called up by the Dutch Army to serve in Jakarta (then called Batavia), it seemed like a dream come true.

Born in Zaandam in The Netherlands on April 15, 1916, the third of eight children, he was christened Adrianus Wilhelmus Smit. Already as a young boy he showed signs of artistic talent so, after leaving school in his home town, he studied design at the Academy of Arts in Rotterdam. Whenever there was a major art exhibition at the museums in Rotterdam or Amsterdam, he would go there and carefully study the paintings. Smit remembers being especially impressed by the watercolours of Signac, and the paintings by Gaugain and Cezanne. “I’ve looked really closely at the paintings of Cezanne, how every touch is pure. And that I have tried to sustain in my own paintings.” Then he laughs: “Cezanne was so intrigued by his own technique that sometimes his hand would quiver – ‘Shall I do this, shall I put this touch of blue there?’ Although I admire Cezanne very much, I’m not like that.”

When Smit arrived in Jakarta the army put his knowledge to good use by assigning him to their Lithography & Drafts Department in the Topographical Service. There he became a chromo lithographer and worked engraving relief maps of the Indonesian islands. “I used to etch Balinese mountains onto maps … and I always promised myself that one day I would go to Bali,” he says. During this time he already dreamt of becoming a full-time artist and he’d spend all his free time searching for motives for his watercolours. When the war came, Smit was transferred to the infantry in East Java but was soon captured and sent as a prisoner of war to the infamous Burma railroad.

He was young and strong, so he survived this three-and-a-half- year-ordeal and, when after the war, he was discharged from the army, he decided to stay in Indonesia. “Life in Holland was at a low ebb, and Indonesia offered a wonderful climate, beautiful landscape and hope for the future.” In 1950 he became an Indonesian citizen. “I was so sure that this is my country,” he says.

During the next few years Smit taught lithography and graphics at the University of Indonesia Bandung (now the Bandung Institute of Technology) while devoting more and more time to his own art. In his spare time he criss-crossed Java as a painter and in 1953 had his first exhibition in the oil centre of Palembang, Sumatra. He showed paintings from Bandung, Yogyakarta, Parangtritis, Prambanan and Borobodur.

arie smit paintingIt was not until 1956 that his dream to visit Bali was to come true. He had met the well-known art dealer and connoisseur, Jimmy Pandy, at an exhibition of Balinese art in Jakarta and Pandy had insisted: “You must come to Bali. I’ve got a place for you to stay.” So when Smit arrived in Sanur, there was a room waiting for him in a little house on stilts at the beach. Pandy and Smit became good friends, and for 16 years Pandy sold the works of Arie Smit through his gallery. It was a successful partnership. Pandy had many friends in high places and Sukarno himself would bring his state guests to the small gallery.

It wasn’t long before Arie set off to explore the different regions of Bali. “I like to change my subject matter – I am a kind of old-fashioned Dutch discoverer.” His eyes light up, when he adds: “I’ve always wanted to see what is behind the next hill, and that makes one into a landscape painter – and I do think Bali deserves a landscape painter.” So while most Western artists have concentrated on the people of Bali, Arie has focused on the villages, the swaying palmtrees and the emerald green rice terraces. But most of all he’s focused on the temples. “I like solitary things when I paint and I like to be alone. I also love architecture and I find that the firm and beautiful shape of a temple in a landscape sets off the two.”

One day in 1960, when Arie Smit lived in a house near Campuhan in the Ubud district, he went for a walk through the rice fields in neighbouring Penestanan. There he found a young boy drawing pictures in the sand. Smit invited the youth to his studio and gave him crayons and paper. The name of the young boy was I Nyoman Cakra. As a true Balinese, Nyoman didn’t want to be alone, so he asked, “Can my nephew come too?” His nephew was I Ketut Soki, and these two youths became Smit’s first pupils.

This casual meeting was to spark a whole new art movement, the “Young Artists”, with Smit becoming known as the “father” of this naive, brightly-coloured style. Although he shrugs off the epithet “father”, Smit’s generosity with time and art materials has earned him lasting gratitude from the still active (but no longer young) painters. In fact, his art lessons became so popular that he got into trouble with the local schoolteachers. He had to promise only to invite children who had already left school, otherwise the youngsters would rather go to Bapak Arie than to school. During his years in Bandung, Smit had become interested in children’s art and had studied the subject in depth, so when he arrived in Bali he was well qualified to try out what he had learnt. Conscious of the need to teach lightly and not overpower his young pupils he would only suggest, but never tell them directly, what or how to paint.

In a ripple effect, his 40 or so young pupils in turn inspired their friends and, at the height of the movement, there would have been between 300-400 “Young Artist” painters. I Ketut Soki, went on to become the most famous and successful of them all.

arie smitSince his arrival in Bali, the now 82-year-old Smit estimates he has moved close to 40 times. At first, he would only stay half a year in one village and then move on. Then came some one-year- stays. However, when he came to Karangasem and Buleleng he stayed four years in each place. In his opinion, these are the best parts of Bali. “I like to live in a village, because it’s quite different to visiting. And as a painter you must see the early mornings and the late evenings.” Light is of paramount importance to an artist, and Smit has spent a lifetime trying to capture the ‘riotous light in Bali’. Not only as it’s broken by the tropical vegetation but as it sparkles off the ocean waves rolling onto the shores of Sanur, Lebih and Buleleng. He has tried to match this light by what he calls his ‘broken colours’, applying mosaic-like touches of paint, brushstroke upon brushstroke, while never quite covering the underlying layer. “I strive for poetic realism, a dream-like state of mind, a soft confrontation,” he once said.

During the 80s, Smit did paint the people of Bali. His works from this time show lithe, brown-skinned Balinese filling the canvas in a style reminiscent of Gaugain. Then, in an explosion of exuberant, expressive colour, he produced a range of lush, tropical flower paintings.

After many years of wandering, Smit has again settled near Ubud in the village of Sanggingan. Here he is close to his good friend and agent, Suteja Neka, founder of the well-known Neka Museum. After Jimmy Pandy’s death, Smit sold his paintings directly to the public but did not enjoy the many interruptions to his work that this involved. So about 20 years ago he approached Neka and they made a gentlemen’s agreement, “I told him: ‘I paint and you do the rest. And this still works.” Neka now sells most of Smit’s paintings to Indonesian collectors but the works also fetch good prices at Christie’s auctions in Singapore.

From his bungalow perched on a hill overlooking the Campuan Valley, Smit starts each day by greeting the shifting moods of Mt. Agung, Bali’s highest and holiest mountain. This magnificent view also moved him to create a painting with the name Selamat pagi, Gunung Agung (“Good Morning, Mount Agung”). Never going far without his sketchbook, he can often be found trying to capture the graceful Balinese workers making their way through the billowing waves of lalang grass in “his” valley.

arie smitWhen we visit Smit one morning in his studio, a just-finished large emerald-green painting stands on the easel. It lights up the room like a celebration of Bali’s tropical beauty. And, of course, it contains a temple and also a few pale figures. “Yes, I sometimes add people, but more as a kind of graph. I paint them in white or grey, not in true-to-life colour. This way they don’t dissolve into the landscape.” He stands back contemplating his work, and then says thoughtfully, “I think this will be one of my last large paintings. My peripheral vision is not so good any more. In future I’ll concentrate on smaller paintings.”

With numerous successful exhibitions behind him, not only in Bali, but also in Jakarta, Singapore and Honolulu, it is fortunate that many of Smit’s finest paintings will remain in Bali. This is thanks to the initiative of his friend Neka, who in 1994 opened the Arie Smit Pavilion in the Neka Museum. The whole top floor of this building is devoted to works by Arie Smit, showing his progressive change of style from “poetic realism” into a somewhat more abstract rendition of reality. But his abstractions never go beyond the point where his art stops being accessible to the viewer.

As he says, “Art is a kind of loving, a wish to communicate with the viewer.” And here in the Arie Smit Pavilion his vibrant art, celebrating the beauty and wonder of Bali, will continue to speak to art lovers from around the world of his love for life and for his adopted country.

Arie Smitis still living in Bali and his work is on show at the Neka museum close to Ubud.

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