Walter Spies: Painter and Bali expat

German artist Walter Spies was born September 15, 1895 in Moscow. From an early age he had an interest in the arts, including painting, dance and music. Attending university in Dresden, gave Spies the opportunity to interact with musicians and composers, such as Paul Hindemith and Arthur Schnabel, and artists such as Oskar Kokoschka and Otto Dix.

The 1920’s saw an influx of foreigners to Bali, including Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Vicky Baum, Miguel Covarrubias, Margaret Mead and others. Spies was one of the first, and living in Campuhan close to Ubud.

Pita Maha arts movement
Walter Spies was a driving force in the modern Balinese art scene. In 1936, he and Rudolf Bonnet, Gusti Nyoman Lempad and Cokorda Gede Agung Sukawati, founded the Pita Maha arts movement. This movement was designed to preserve the quality of Balinese art, which had seen a sharp decline, since the arrival of the first foreign tourists in the early 30’s.

The Pita Maha arts movement lasted for 6 years and boasted a membership of 150. The group met at Spies’s Campuhan house, to review by the members, which included painters, sculptors and carvers. One of the directions the Pita Maha arts movement wanted to go in, was self expression by the artist, as well as exploring everyday themes, rather than just repeating mythical themes. The Pita Maha arts movement and it founders organized art displays around the world, trying to sell the best examples of the new modern Bali art styles.




The ARMA (Agung Rai Museum of Art) in Ubud contains the Ruang Walter Spies. This gallery features one of Spies’s paintings, the Calonarang, which shows terrified villagers watching an apparition.

Spies’s style
In my opinion Walter Spies was one of the best foreign artists ever to set foot in Bali. He uses silhouette and contrast to give the feeling of a Balinese landscape as the light is falling. His stick-like figures make his paintings immediately recogizable. Actually riding around Ubud I have stopped and said to myself ‘this is where Spies painted that picture,’ after turning a bend and seeing the landscape. Spies also spent time in Iseh, close to Sideman in East Bali, where he painted ‘Iseh im Morgenlicht‘ (Iseh in morning light).

Spies’s death
Walter Spies, being German, aroused anxiety among the colonial Dutch, who occupied Bali before WWII. He was arrested and accused of indecent activities, mainly getting a bit friendly with some of the young guys in the village. Who knows if that was the case, but Spies was shipped off to a Dutch Indies prison camp in Sumatra. Due to the Japanese threat in Indonesia, all German prisoners were set on a transport from Sumatra to Ceylon. Spies was also a passenger on the ship Van Imhoff that set sail to Ceylon January 18, 1942. The ship was bombed enroute and sank with Spies and the rest of the German prisoners trapped inside.

Spies’s house in Campuhan is now Hotel Tjampuhan.

Related Content