EXOTICISM: Art, social anthropology and paedophilia
A few days ago I saw a picture of an artist I have not seen or heard of before, something that is not particularly surprising considering how much art there is to be seen in the world. But nevertheless, I was for some reason pleasantly surprised by that picture - House by the Lake: Skaters on the Lake, painted in 1922 by a certain Walter Spies. A peculiar light engulfs the motif, as well as a singular musical rhythm. The figures in the foreground are smaller than those in the background and the perspective is taken from above, stressed by a lone viewer who leans on a fence, high above the skaters. A realistic picture, but it nevertheless appears as a depiction of a dream, or a memory. The figures are deathly pale, reminding of stiff paper masks. They all lack personality. All of them are serious and an eerie silence prevails, in spite of the dancelike movements.
The picture brought about childhood memories; winter evenings that soon became night and yet I could continue to entertain myself with skating even if the hour seemed to be late and darkness spread around the Vena pond. The white light reminded me of the streetlights glowing on the ice, while the yellow light coming from the house, where the skaters apparently rented their skates, made me think of the cosy, warm light that greeted me when I after skating, happy and contented returned home to drink hot chocolate. I enjoyed the comfortable feeling after I had taken off of my skates. How nice and easy it was to casually and gently move over the ground. Like walking on clouds, though it had also been nice to glide across the ice.
I found the picture in an art magazine, which I always look forward to buy on the first day of each month - Art e Dossier, a journal with admirably crisp reproductions. This month's theme was "magical realism". The author's starting point for his description of an art movement that was strong during the European Twenties was a book by the German photographer and art critic - Franz Roh Nach Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus: Probleme der neuesten europäischen Malerei ” "After Expressionism: Magical realism: Questions about the newest European painting." Roh´s book was translated into several languages and especially the one of the famous Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset was read and commented upon among literary circles in Latin America. It came to influence the Latin American literature which later came to be gathered under the denomination Realismo magico, which main representative was the Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez.
Unlike the English version I got hold of, Roh´s original book was richly illustrated and the by now in Europe virtually unknown Walter Spies was represented with the largest selection of reproductions, no less than seven. What, according to Roh characterized Spies´s art was its movement, musicality and an understanding of the importance of details.
What did Roh really mean with "magical" realism? Part of the explanation can probably be found in the fact that Roh was a photographer. Through his profession he had been trained to consider the reality, the objects and the people surrounding us, with a peculiar look. A photographer is a "realist" in the sense that he/she must proceed from reality and is compelled to regard it through a gadget. In their search for the right angle, the right light and the right technology photographers are confined to the camera and the development opportunities available to them.
To describe the art he appreciates Roh uses the adjective "magic", instead of "mystic". For Roh "magic" has to do with craftsmanship. A magician performs his tricks by using spells and instruments to transform what is already there. In this manner a photographer is similar to a magician. Mysticism is something completely different – a mystic sees beyond our everyday existence and reshapes reality.
An expressionist founds his/her art on expressiveness, on interpretations of the reality, not on impressions. Accordingly, expressionism is more akin to mysticism than realism, in the sense that it allows ideas and emotions to govern representations of reality. When an expressionist depicts a city, s/he does so by applying emotional excess - agitated crowds, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mass hysteria. If s/he wishes to portray evil in a person, facial features are distorted and the portrayed individual is turned into a demonic creature, while cows and horses are painted blue or red. Everything is transported into a parallel reality. Expressionists do not find their point of departure in the objects themselves, but from their ideas about the creatures and things surrounding them, thus expressionists are not realists, but idealists.
On the contrary, a magic realist creates art by being directly inspired by objects that can be seen and touched. S/he has no need to distort reality. A magic realist makes us see everyday objects in a new light by making use of meticulous observation and profound deliberation, thus, just like a magician, they make us perceive reality in a different manner, making it magic.
Who was Walter Spies? As so often before when I have opened a door ajar, searching for the reality behind a name that previously has been unknown to me, a new world is revealed with paths branching out in various directions. In the case of Walter Spies, I ended up in contexts that I could not possibly have expected.
Walter Spies was born in Moscow in 1895, as the son of a wealthy businessman, Leon Spies, who was also the German Consul at Nicholas II's court. Since more than fifty years back Walter's relatives and family members had been German-speaking Russian citizens. One of his aunts maintained a literary, musical salon with well-known visitors as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin and Maxim Gorky. Walter was a precocious musical young man who soon became popular among the members of the Russian elite who were befriended with his family. 1910 Spies began his studies in Dresden, but he spent his summers in the family home.
When Russia in1914 declared war on Germany, Walter's father was immediately arrested as a suspected German spy, but was released after the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, 2 March 1918. The family had by then lost its fortune due to the revolution and moved to Berlin. Because of his father's suspicious contacts with Germany the nineteen-year-old Walter Spies was not summoned to the Russian army, but instead forced into exile in the city of Sterlitamak in the Ural Mountains. His exile was far from being as harsh as it would be for prisoners in the later Gulag Archipelago. Walter Spies first ended up in an internment camp but was soon transferred to a wealthy Tatar family, by whom he had his own room, with Oriental carpets and a piano. Sterlitamak had several leather industries, vodka distilleries, beer breweries and a wealthy upper class in which Walter and other exiled intellectuals were welcomed. He took violin lessons, learned Arabic, Turkish and Persian and began painting, inspired by works of avant-garde artists such as Chagall and Larionov.
After the war, Walter returned to Moscow where Maxim Gorky had found work for him as a stage designer at the Moscow Opera. However, he stayed in Moscow for less than half a year, moved to Germany where he enrolled at the Academy of Arts in Dresden and was hired as assistant to a wealthy, Dutch sculptress. In Dresden, Walter Spies met and exhibited with famous expressionists like Oskar Kokoschka and Otto Dix
The young, remarkably handsome and talented Spies, with an exciting background among Tatars and Bashkirs in the Urals, made no secret of his homosexuality. Attracted by the permissiveness in Berlin he left Dresden and while he supported himself as a tango dancer in night clubs in the German capital he eventually ended in the gay circle around the bisexual actor Conrad Veidt, who introduced him to his friend Friedrich Murnau.
Murnau engaged Walter Spies to decorate his villa in the fashionable neighbourhood of Grunewald. Murnau had inherited the big house after the mother of one of his lovers. While he covered the villa's walls with frescoes, inspired by Persian miniatures, Walter moved in with Murnau and they soon became inseparable. Murnau had by the beginning of his acting career changed his strange name from Friedrich Plumpe, which means “scurrilous”, something he definitely was not. Murnau was known as an accomplished aesthete, with a discreet demeanour, He was furthermore a war hero, who during the war had been a bold and decorated flying ace.
Murnau engaged Walter Spies as an assistant for his epochal vampire film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror and they travelled a lot together, including on the Baltic Sea with Murnau's sailboat. They seemed to be inseparable. Murnau declared that he could not live without Spies´s "sunny cheerfulness and indomitable vitality”. Nevertheless, by all accounts, the adventurous Walter felt trapped. The seven years older Murnau behaved like a father to him. Walter asked one of his friends, Georgette Schoonderbeek who had organized a one man show of his work at the prestigious Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, to convince Murnau that the young man "needed his freedom." She wrote in her memoirs:
I tried to get him to see that what we freely give up and let go is always there for us, whereas what you try to hold on to inevitably gets lost. Whoever renounces something retains it; whoever clings loses it forever. And suddenly Murnau saw the truth of it, so that he could say with total conviction: “Walter must be free to go. I must not try to stop him.”
Walter Spies went to Indonesia and the two men never met again, though they regularly wrote to each other. Occasionally, Murnau also sent money to his friend. Repeatedly Murnau told Spies that he planned to shoot a film in Bali, where his younger friend had settled, but these plans never took shape. When Spies in 1931 was reached by the news of the master director's death, he wrote: "He was the only man on earth who loved me and that I could trust."
By signing on as a sailor on a freighter and then jump ship, Spies ended up in Indonesia. In 1923 we find him in Bandung as piano accompanist at a Chinese movie theatre. After a few months, he went to Yogyakarta, where the Dutch legation regularly invited him to entertain its guests with piano playing, there he attracted the attention of the Sultan of Yogyakarta, who hired him as the leader of a salon orchestra he had put together by engaging various wind-driven musicians.
Spies who had a knack for languages, quickly learned both Javanese and Malay, which were the trading languages among Indonesia's thousands of islands. His open-minded approach to people helped him to make friends among the local elite. In 1927, he was invited to Bali by the tjokorde gede, "duke" of Ubud, a small town in the island's highlands. Rake Sukawati, the name of the tjokorde, gave Werner Spies a piece of land close to his palace and soon had the elegant German attracted a group of both foreign and domestic artists, with himself at the centre, as arbiter elegantiae and philosopher-raja.
It is possible to Sukawati´s invitation to Walter was part of the Dutch colonial policy. The Dutch feared that the population in Bali could become affected by trends from the larger islands of Java and Sumatra - anti-colonialism, communism and radical Islam – and as a countermeasure tried to bestow more power upon the local aristocracy, which received funding to "balinize" the small island "kingdoms". The Dutch authorities assumed that the traditional, religious respect for local Rajas and the complicated, traditional celebrations and rites performed under their supervision would keep the locals busy enough to avoid falling into the traps of unwanted influences.
Dutch, bureaucratic reports provided recommendations about the best way to control their Balinese subjects through different means of support to the local power elite and how continue and deepening the successful balinizing policies, by strengthening folk traditions and promoting the Balinese interest in dance, music, painting, carving, religious ceremonies and celebrations.
Every day, large numbers of indigenous artists gathered in Spies huge bungalow, to present and exhibit their artwork, tune instruments and practice different dances. His home also became the centre for wealthy tourists attracted to Ubud after De Koninklijke Paketvaart-Maatschappij, the Royal Steamboat Shipping Company, started calling at Buleleng on the north coast. The coveted, affluent visitors were transferred by car to Ubud, which was in the interior of Bali. However until 1940, it was only hundreds of tourists who annually came to the island, but they were generally a quite renowned company; like the entertainer and composer Noël Coward, world-famous authors like H. G. Wells and Vicki Baum, the former French president and war hero Georges Clemenceau, the anthropologist Margaret Mead, Charlie Chaplin, Barbara Hutton, the world's richest woman and many other celebrities. All of them visited Walter Spies.
Several of the visitors wrote down their enthusiastic impressions of their host. Chaplin who visited him twice, in 1932 and 1936, described how the thin, slender Walter Spies was served by handsome young men and surrounded himself with tame monkeys and cockatoos. According to Chaplin was Walter Spies, with his "fine, sensitive, clean-cut features and quite manner […] not so much representative of Bali as he was typical … of a German aristocrat.”
There is a collection of amateur films in which we see how Chaplin in the company of Spies feeds monkeys, visits markets, local celebrations and dance shows. Chaplin's cynical travel companion, Noël Coward, wrote a little ditty suggesting that it all had become a somewhat too much of a good thing:
As I said this morning to Charlie,
There is far too much music in Bali.
And although as a place it's entrancing,
There is also a thought too much dancing.
It appears that each Balinese native
From the womb to the tomb is creative,
And although the results are quite clever,
There is too much artistic endeavor.
Margaret Mead described Walter Spies as "fair and full of grace."
Walter lived in a world which he made as claimless as possible, even his own genius as a painter was allowed to make no heavy duties on his spirit. If a visitor to Bali wished to order a Walter Spies painting, he made a painting. In between, for many months, he would do other things….The Balinese painters whom he helped and inspired treated his work with the kind of awe they reserved for the miraculous …
The Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias spent most of 1933 travelling with his wife Rosa and Spies all over Bali. In search of magical places, ruins and folk art they often slept in tents and ended up in places rarely visited by others than local residents.
The months went by as we roamed all over the island with Spies, watching strange ceremonies, enjoying their music, listening to fantastic tales, camping in the wilds of West Bali or on the coral reefs of Sanur.
The result was an excellent book, which through its photographs and well-written observations about Balinese history and culture attracted much attention in the United States and even influenced the art scene. Covarrubias manner of describing Bali followed a pattern that was to become quite dominant for most visitors to the island. Even if the book contained some criticism of the Dutch colonial power and hinted that modernity and consumerism threatened the island's unique culture, Covarrubias book is a careful selection of descriptions and comments aiming to produce a vision of a paradisiacal realm, which to a large degree has survived unscathed from Western culture levelling. Bali is turned into a dream-like parallel world.
Like Margaret Mead, Covarrubias was impressed by Walter Spies´s "charmingly devil-may-care attitude" and also described Spies´s both capricious and painstaking way to devote himself to his art:
Walter loves to collect velvety dragonflies, strange spiders and sea slugs, not in a naturalist´s box, but in minutely accurate drawings. For hours at a time he would sit in his tent drawing them, because once dead, their beautiful colors disappeared. He was temperamental when he went into seclusion to paint, he would work incessantly for months on one of his rare canvases, great pictures that made the Balinese exclaim: “Beh!” with their mouths wide open in astonishment, and that were snatched by prosperous art-loving travellers who were lucky enough to find Spies with a finished painting. There were never two paintings in his house at once. He paints dream-like landscapes in which every branch and every leaf is carefully painted, done with the love of a Persian miniaturist, a Cranach, a Breughel or a Douanier Rousseau.
Spies´s celebrity guests got to see the island through his eyes and intermediation. In Ubud, Spies established a museum of art and history, organized and choreographed major dance events and gave lessons in painting techniques to Balinese artists. The English ballet dancer, poet and anthroposophist Beryl de Zoete wrote with him an influential book on "dance and drama" in Bali.
The prominent social anthropologists Margarete Mead and Gregory Bateson came to Walter Spies as newlyweds and he came to have a great significance for their "multi-layered" descriptions and documentation of the "Balinese character". The anthropologist couple dedicated an important part of their work to film and photographs. They investigated the relationship between parents and children, ritual ceremonies and artistic creation. Their films provide me with an odd sensation. Mead comments in great detail what anonymous people are doing on the screen, as if they were animals in a zoo. Probably does this, to me quite ridiculous approach to fellow humans, represent some kind of misguided "scientific observation". Mead and Bateson collected 1200 works of art, co-wrote the book Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis (1942) and produced a film, Trance and Dance in Bali (1952).
Mead was complaining that “Westernisation” affected her ability to study the "character" of indigenous peoples. When she long after her Balinese studies obtained the opportunity to work among the Arapesh people in Papua New Guinea, she found them to be “badly missionized”. Mead found their great interest in adapting to extraneous influences to be very “annoying". Therefore, she organized them into groups in which she encouraged the Arapesh to live in accordance with their earlier traditions. Something that makes me wonder who adapted whom, and how. To me Mead´s method appears to be based on arbitrary decisions and even suggests an “annoying” disrespect for others.
Mead's approach has been labelled as culture collecting. Not only does she organize and analyse collected material, but occasionally she even organizes the people she is studying, and it often appears as if this is done in accordance with notions of her own, while arbitrating what she assumes was their authentic culture and character. This makes me think that such behaviour was also a prominent feature of Walter Spies, who was not a social anthropologist but mainly a performer, an artist, musician and choreographer. As artist and choreographer he converted Balinese traditions in accordance with his own tastes, probably trying to make Balinese more "genuine", than they really were.
Spies´s aesthetic, sensual way of looking at his surroundings, his magical realism, was probably reminiscent of the way a lover is trying to transform the object of his/her desire, in such a way that it enhances his/her passion. I assume that's how many artists behave when they portray a loved one. Once I was told that when she was staying with the famed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman at their shared and isolated home at the island of Fårö, his actor wife Liv Ullmann had to wear clogs and a specific striped dress. When Liv Ullmann several years after her divorce from Bergman visited him at Fårö she found that Ingrid von Rosen, Bergman's new wife, was dressed in exactly the same wooden clogs and striped dress. Maybe Walter Spies behaved in a similar way, trying to transform his beloved Bali to an equivalent of his dream of a paradisiacal island.
The Dutch anthropologist Johannes Fabian wrote a book that made a great impression on me when I in my youth was studying history of religion - Time and the Other: How anthropology creates its object. What worried Fabian was the lack of respect many anthropologists revealed in their interaction with the individuals they studied. They conversed with them, but anthropologists did not generally behave as if they were talking to friends and colleagues of theirs. Instead, they regarded their informants as objects of study, separated from themselves, both in time and space, thus real people were converted into to structures/interpretations created by the anthropologists. Like when Mead films Balinese mothers and comments on their performance. They turn into performers within acts sanitized/interpreted by her.
Anthropologists, at least until recently, often assumed the existence of a primitive culture, prior to “our own”, thus creating an image frozen in time, like a work of art. They describe people as if they existed within a realm different from “our” own. Studied individuals lose their personality and become "savages," "primitives" – or more “politically correct” Indigenous People. The Other becomes locked in a timeless realm. "Indigenous" traditions and life seem to be constant, not influenced by external conditions and above all do personal initiatives seem to be absent. The Other's personality and way of thinking appear to have been predestined by a timeless room to which anthropologists have banished her/him, sealing it with the word "culture".
According to this approach a Balinese is no longer an individual, but the result of a world that is often described as a timeless paradise. A fabulous place that houses communities created way back in time. If you apply a Western scale of values perhaps the existence that characterizes a Balinese life may appear as poor, but in fact it is astoundingly rich in spiritual values and joie de vivre. Bali is a place where an aesthetically sensible person is confronted with a culture characterized by art, manifested not only through an astonishing range of aeshetic works of art, but mainly by life-enhancing, society and personality developing ceremonies, endowed with layer after layer of symbolism. A peaceful, open society, for which music and dancing is one of the finest expressions.
This seemed in any case to be the impression that Walter Spies wanted to convey to his guests; anthropologists like Margarete Mead and Jane Belo, travel writers like Miguel Covarubbias and Geoffrey Gorer and a composer like Colin McPhee. Among those who spread Spies´s image of Bali over the world was also the at the time very popular Vicki Baum, who for a year, lived in a bungalow which Spies had let be built for millionaire Barbara Hutton, who had fallen hopelessly in love with him, but she left the island when she found her feelings unanswered.
Vicki Baum, who had been married to Richard Lert, one of Germany's foremost conductors, was when she appeared in Ubud already on friendly terms with Spies´s musically gifted family. In Ubud, Baum wrote her novel, Love and Death in Bali. A dramatic love story set against the backdrop of the Dutch brutal occupation of the island in 1906, called Puputan, "The End" by the islanders. Baum was able to skillfully weave together complex social contexts and her passion for women's liberation, with her bestselling abilities. In her novel, which became a worldwide success, Vicki Baum did in the usual manner depict the Balinese as a passionate but peaceful and deeply religious people, steeped in a refined culture.
In the preface to her novel, Vicki Baum expresses her gratitude to a certain Dr. Fabius, who had entrusted her with meticulous notes he had written during his long-term residence in Bali. Of course, "Dr. Fabius” is a pseudonym for Walter Spies, who according to Adrian Vickers, professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Sydney, had a decisive influence on the outside world's perception of Bali as a paradise. According to Vickers, Spies cultivated contacts with influential cultural role models while he ignored or opposed, those who did not share his views. All in accordance with the title of Professor Vickers interesting book, Bali, a Paradise Created.
Vicki Baum knew how to spice her novels with an appropriate dose of passion and love, and here we find an undercurrent within the Western world´s fascination with Bali. A construction of The Other. In several Western notions is the image of the Balinese as a child of nature living within an open, permissive and peaceful society. Much of the art and dance which have been praised as genuinely Balinese have in reality been influenced, and in some cases even created, by Walter Spies and much of it has been seasoned with a suitable dose of sex.
The bisexual Margaret Mead spent a large part of her research to track down attitudes to sex among different indigenous peoples. Customs and traditions which she contrasted with Western bigotry and inhibitions of healthy sexual expressions. Mead became a representative of the women's liberation, not least when it came to women's rights and opportunities to recognize and realize their sexual desires. Margarete Mead did in several of her books communicate insights she had gained about sexual behaviour through her studies of indigenous peoples, for example Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935).
Like many of his guests Margarete Mead had noted what she called Spies´s “light involvement with male youth”. She explained Spies´s "liberated" behaviour as a "repudiation of the kind of dominance and submission, authority and dependence which he associated with European culture”. Such freedom was also found by Spies fellow artist Rudolf Bonnet, where he in his bungalow not far from Spies lived in openly gay relationships. So did the Swiss artist Tho Meier, whose "decadent lifestyle", however, was so outrageous that it was even condemned by the otherwise so tolerant "foreign circles" in Ubud.
The promiscuity in the circle around Spies might be regarded as a manifestation of what the Singaporean researcher Eng-Beng Lim has described as a manifestation of "homoerotic orientalism" in which undemanding "brown boys" act as a fulfilment of Western fantasies about erotic/exotic liberation. It was not just young boys who became lovers to much older men. At Sanur Beach south of Ubu lived, for example, the Belgian artist Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merpres, who 52 years old arrived in Bali and began a relationship with the then barely 15-year-old Ni Nyoman Pollok, who became his model for numerous drawings and paintings.
Eng-Beng Lim demonstrates the danger of "exotizing" our fellow human beings and in accordance with our own desires turn them into attractive objects, while they remain “different” creatures to their perpetrators. The sexual profiteer defends his actions by claiming that his victims are part of a permissive culture that has turned them into beings with different morals, needs and thoughts. A sublimation of reality that may obtain grotesque dimensions when older men sexually exploit under-aged girls and boys, without feelings of neither compassion and responsibility, nor shame.
Walter Spies´s sexual relationship with young boys was by his intellectual acquaintances defended as an aesthetically motivated ritual, which liberated him from stifling Western inhibitions. Eng-Beng Lim points to the fact that while a “common” paedophile may be harshly punished, the same behaviour of “artistic people” may easily be excused. Western artists residing in Ubud, like Walter Spies and the respected Canadian composer Colin McPhee, trained and successfully seduced not only the communities they lived in and exploited, but they also managed to gain the respect of people who unreservedly accepted their romanticized version of a lifestyle, which in reality was predatory. Their abuse of children was whitewashed through explanations that they were sensitive persons and great artists.
So was for example Colin McPhees relationship with the eight-year-old Samphi romanticized in light of the boy's masterful dance and McPhee´s sensitive "neo-classical" interpretation of the Balinese Gamelan music. This is how McPhee describes his meeting with Samphi in his lyrically written A House in Bali:
A crowd a small boys splashed in midstream, leaping from rock to rock. Their wet brown skins shone in the sun as they danced up and down in the ecstasy of nakedness. They were completely wild, agile and delirious as a tree full of monkeys.
McPhee fall accidentally into the river and pulled up to the surface of one of the boys.
He was perhaps eight, underfed and skimpy, with eyes too large for his face, daring and lightly mocking. I offered him a cigarette, but he suddenly took fright and was off into the water before I could say a word.
McPhee takes Samphi to his home as a house boy and trains him for the starring role in a particular dance form that Walter Spies had developed. Kecak was originally a trance-inducing hymn sung by men, but Spies transformed it into a suggestive male group dance in which scantily clad men, closely together with strictly coordinated moves, dance in accordance with what Eng-Beng Lim has characterized as a "homoerotic script".
The strange Kecak dance, which received international attention, is an example of what the anthropologist James Clifford has described as a process in which a Westernized art perception dislodges a rite that had previously been incorporated in a strictly religious context and transforms it into a separate artistic expression. The result is no longer part of a traditional, cultural context, even though it is presented as such.
The collective trance that the Kecak ideally should result in a kind of collective catharsis, though it may just as well be considered as homoerotic grandstanding. Kecak has been removed from its cultic context and is now merely a male ballet created by Walter Spies. A process by which he has transformed individual Balinese men into impersonal aspects of an artist's vision of a culture. The men are playing the roles expected of them, something that seems to be apparent in the lascivious, sidelong glances that some men directed towards the camera in Victor von Plessen´s film The Island of Demons (1933), for which Walter Spies choreographed the ritual dances. Some critics have praised von Plessen´s film for its suggestive dance scenes, while meaner voices have called it a queer masquerade, a kind of ethno-pornography where the actors move around relaxed and provocative, with cynical smiles, when they do not indulge in over-acted ecstasy.
In those kecak performances where Samphi became the central person, he was according to Eng-Beng Lim turned into the prototype of a tempting, undemanding, effeminate soft “brown boy", as in so many other homoerotic fantasies that Western desire has enforced upon the Orient. A construction that eventually became realized in paedophile abuse, which was defended through the discourse of The Other. Seemingly innocent "boys", it is included in the fantasy vision that that abused males have to be "boys" in the sense of being undeveloped children of nature who by their culture has not been endowed with moral inhibitions and are thus not subjected to any mistreatment, something that makes the abuser blameless.
Colin McPhee brought in 1952 with him Samphi on a highly acclaimed US tour together with a Balinese dance troupe. In 1954 Samphi´s dead body was found floating in the Lauh River, passing in front of his home village. He had been strangled.
Samphi´s violent death might be considered as a serious denial of the notion of Bali is a peace-loving paradise. In fact, Bali is not, and never has been, a harmonious, blissful place. Just as any other place on earth it is far from being a perfect paradise. This misconception is just like the legend of the willing brown boys a Western construct.
During the terrible carnage that followed Suharto's military coup in 1965 more than 80 000 people were massacred in Bali, shot with automatic weapons or hacked to death with knives and machetes. Nevertheless, the myth of a peace-loving paradise endured this horrific explosion of senseless mass murder.
The anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote about a variety of aspects of Balinese culture, not only about dances and rituals, but also about political structures in villages and small towns. While I read Geertz, I was overtaken by the same sense of timelessness evident in so many books by other anthropologists. Geertz is famous for his perception of culture, i.e. that culture is a multifaceted concept endowed with several dimensions and manifestations. Geertz make use of the term "thick description" to describe how he imagined an ideal description of an action, or a specific phenomenon, ought to be.
A social anthropologist would ideally search for as many aspects as possible related to the phenomenon s/he has chosen to describe. A method that for me offers an impression of a certain lack of dynamism. In any case, it may seem odd that Geertz only three years after the fact that 80,000 people had been killed in Bali, an island that for so many years had been the object of his “thick descriptions", in his book Interpretation of Cultures, published just three years after the massacres occurred, reduces his comments to that cataclysmic event to no more than a few paragraphs:
What happened was the mass slaughter of 1965 in which somewhere between a quarter and three quarters of a million people lost their lives. The blood bath in which the Sukarno regime with painful slowness was drowned was the result of a vast complex of causes, and it would be absurd to reduce it to an ideological explosion. Yet, whatever the role of economic, political, psychological, or – for that matter – accidental factors binging it on (and, what is even harder to explain, sustaining it), marked the end of a distinct phase in the progress of Indonesian nationalism.
The same year that Geertz published his Interpretation of Cultures the Australian-born artist and author Donald Friend moved to a big bungalow close to Sanur, a long sandy beach by the sea south of Udub. To some extent, it seems that the story of Walter Spies time repeated itself, as if nothing had happened. Friend presided over a household with a dozen servants and house boys, keeping an open house for a variety of world-famous celebrities, like Mick Jagger, Rupert Murdoch, Gore Vidal, Robert Hughes, the Duke of Bedford.
Like Walter Spies, Donald Friend was accused of paedophilia, but seemed to be completely unshaken by the accusations, which he did not deny. He was like so many other artists protected by his art and his friendly demeanour. Donald Friend did not admit any regret whatsoever for his sexual rapacity, not recognizing that it might hurt the small boys he surrounded himself with. For example, Dolog, just one of many other boys he used for his pleasure and who he described as “thoughtful and sweet and quietly happy”, was only ten years old.
After his death, the Australian National Library published Donald Friend´s diaries, which were hailed by the cultural elite for their exquisite style, this in spite that those diaries openly and lyrically depicted crimes for which any commoner would have been sentenced to several years in jail. Members of the Australian cultural elite could state that: "[Friend] was nobility … essentially a romantic, in search of an unfulfilled ideal”. However, it would actually have been more apt to describe Donald Friend in a far more unsavoury manner. He was actually a wealthy and cynical corrupter of young boys with poor parents:
It was a pleasant way to spend a morning, with the chattering children laughing and shouting at the waves. We swam and picnicked. Dolog kept giving me secret smiles and languid glances. I am understood to be his property now. Last night he quietly arrived and stayed again, and to my slightly horrified delight made passionately and expert love.
Walter Spies was twice arrested for abuse of minors. It was the religious wife of an elderly Danish and generally respected sculptor, Louis van der Noordaa, who turned Walter Spies in to the authorities, as suspected of paedophilia. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson immediately mobilized Spies´s many friends and acquaintances in a committed defence. The anthropologists related Spies´s behaviour to their scientific research results. To me their arguments appear to be quite absurd and I do not understand how they could convince a jury to proclaim Spies not guilty to all charges. For example, they claimed that because Balinese lack Western concepts of time, it is difficult to accurately verify the different testimonies against Walter Spies and even more difficult to determine the age of the sexually exploited youth. In addition, the Balinese believed that homosexuality was a perfectly normal behaviour and thus an accepted pleasure for unmarried young men. These dubious "expert opinions" may be compared with what Mead wrote in a letter, stating that she had not found "an ounce of free intelligence or free libido in the whole culture [of Bali]" and Bateson´s remark that the regulation of daily life by Balinese culture was an unpleasant reminder of the circumstances in "his England".
Walter Spies was acquitted from the charges, but not immediately released. When the Netherlands in May 1940 was invaded by the German army the already imprisoned Spies, along with several other "unreliable foreign nationals" was kept in custody. During his captivity, Spies was intensely engaged with his painting. His last motif was a golden temple behind dark palm trees – probably a picture of his incessant dream of a paradisiacal Bali.
After some time, Spies was transferred to an internment camp in Sumatra. Shortly before the Japanese attacked Indonesia, Spies was brought, along with 411 German citizens, aboard the cargo ship Van Imhoff. However, just outside the island of Nias the ship was sunk by Japanese attack planes. The Dutch crew had orders not to rescue any prisoner and they all drowned inside the holds.
What happened to Spies´s close friend Friedrich Murnau? He became one of movie history's most skilled directors. An innovator of the art of film, with acclaimed masterpieces as The Last Laugh, where he introduced the concept of subjective camera, Faust, an unforgettable piece of cineaste imagination, and not the least Sunrise, by many film critics listed as one of the best movies ever made. Murnau´s artistry survived his transition from the European scene to Hollywood and he eventually became a wealthy man, though he could not accept the “talkies”. His last movie Tabu from 1931 was actually shot as a “talking film”, but at the last moment Murnau removed the audio track.
Tabu appears to be a film version of Walter Spies´s homoerotic dream of an uninhibited, tropical paradise. At first, Murnau collaborated with the documentary movie anthropologist Robert Flathery, previously praised for his film about the Inuit – Nanook of the North. However, during the shooting the two directors could not agree about how to approach their story and even if they remained friends, Flathery ceded the direction to Murnau, something that probably favoured end product - an exquisitely filmed portrayal of South Sea life, without any distancing, anthropological glance at the participating Polynesians, who appear as any Western actors. However, what permeates the entire film is its portrayal of an existence characterized by peaceful children of nature. Even the opening credits declare that:
Only native-born South Sea islanders appear in this picture, with a few half-castes and Chinese.
The first part is denominated as:
Paradise – An island of enchantment, the island of Bora Bora, remote in the South Seas, still untouched by the hand of civilization.
The opening sequences bring us to a paradisiacal state of nature, where scantily clad, well-built young men cheerfully and boldly fish together, or tumble around among waterfalls and crystal clear lakes, surrounded by lush greenery. Not for nothing was this effectively told and skilfully filmed masterpiece soon becoming a cult film in gay circles.
It is possible that Tabu would be followed by the film that Murnau repeatedly had promised Walter Spies to be unfolding in Bali. But a week before the premiere Murnau´s rented Packard at high speed swerved for a truck and crashed into a lamppost next to California's legendary Pacific Coast Highway. At the steering wheel was Murnau's valet the Filipino boy Garcia Stevenson. He had persuaded Murnau to be allowed to drive the car, the driver sat in the back seat together with Murnau's German shepherd. All escaped unharmed, except Murnau who died instantly. Carcía Stevenson was fourteen years old.
Perhaps my blog developed into something like Geertz´s "thick description" and became lost among different layers and whims. Probably I ended up too far away from where I started. When I now once more look at Spies´s painting I am confronted with the same feeling of distancing that I first experienced when I looked at it. The people are accessories performing synchronized movements within an exotic, albeit Nordic landscape. It is a cold, yet poignant image, reinforced by the loneliness of the man who turns his masque like, pale face towards us. Is it Walter Spies who turns his face towards us, while he directs his gaze towards the skaters? Long before he found his paradise in Bali. Or did he ever find it?
Greta Garbo with Murnau's death masque, which she had having made just after his death. Nothing is known about their relationship, but Garbo kept the masque with her until her own death. She was one of the just eleven persons who attended Murnau's funeral.
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Charlie Chaplin's trip to Bali: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjHdPwAzgE8 Childhood Rivalry in Bali and New Guinea, with comments by Margaret Mead https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= gITZEVAc8DY