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Walter Spies, Moscow 1895 – Indonesia 1942

13 August 2014 | By Bazarov

Walter Spies, Moscow 1914

From the chill of the Urals in winter to the exotica of Bali’s natural and cultural life, and a horrible death by drowning in the Indian Ocean, this is the life of a Russian-born artist who lived a full artistic life against the odds.

Spies family home at 3 Archipova Street, Moscow, Neka Museum, Ubud, Bali

The son of a German diplomat in Moscow, the young Walter Spies appears to have lived a life of bourgeois comfort in the family mansion, with growing interests in art and music.

This was a period of intense artistic ferment in Russia, and when exiled to the Urals as an enemy alien during the First World War, Spies not only used his time to learn Arabic, Turkish and Persian, but familiarized himself with the work of his avant-garde artistic contemporaries, going on to produce competent canvases in the style of Mikhail Larionov and Marc Chagall.

Das Abscheid (1921)

Das Karusell (1922)

Baschkirischer Hirte (1923)

In Germany after the war he designed sets for plays and operas, studied piano, and painted. Kokoshka, Feininger, Dix and Klee were among his acquaintances, and Klee’s is perhaps the most enduring European legacy in his later work, with its decorative and sometimes whimsical attention to detail

Leaving the chaos of post-war Germany, Spies moved to Java, then part of the Dutch East Indies, in 1923, and in 1927, drawn by his love of gamelan music, he moved permanently to Bali. Here he collected, painted and drew, attracting a social circle of sometimes eminent visiting Europeans and Americans. He was the cofounder of the Balinese artists’ cooperative Pita Miha, establishing a style of delicate, romanticised landscape painting that continues to influence the output of Bali’s artists, the talented and the less so.

Left: Desa auf dem Dijengplateau (1924). Right: Balinisische Legende (1929)

Immersing himself in the landscape and legend of his adoptive island, he was befriended by anthropologists  such as Margaret Mead and Miguel Covarrubias, with whom he “roamed all over the island, watching strange ceremonies, enjoying their music, listening to fantastic tales...”.

Die Landschaft und ihre Kinder (1939)

Spies also sought out the colourful and strange wildlife of Bali which he drew in minute detail before their colours faded with death. 

Libelle (Orthetrum pruinosum) 1939

For many years Spies seemed to live a charmed life in Bali. Mead recalls: “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…”.

Spies eventually retreated fr om the increasingly populous town of Ubud in Bali to the slopes of the volcano Gunung Agung, Bali’s sacred mountain, where the landscape he knew, very remote from the Urals of his youth, is still largely unchanged.

Walter Spies’s Bali today. Near Iseh (photograph by Bazarov)

Enjoying what Mead terms a “light involvement with male youth”,  Spies left exquisite sketches and photographs of his acquaintances. In 1938 however he was arrested as part of a Dutch colonial government crackdown on homosexuals. He was released (with Mead’s help) in 1939, and the following year interned for the second time following Hitler’s invasion of Holland.

Hamid (1923)

Left: I Wajan besucht den alten Einsiedler…Right: Spies’s last postcard from his internment, Neka Art Museum, Ubud, Bali

Tragedy soon followed. In 1942, the transport ship carrying Spies and other internees to detention in Ceylon was bombed by a Japanese plane with the loss of all German internees on board.

Although of negligible interest to art historians today, and absent from the Russian canon, Spies’s name is still greatly respected among artists in Bali, and his influence evident from the walls of major collections in Bali to the art shacks along the highways.


Images I have seen in Bali suggest that Spies perhaps had rather more than a “light involvement” with other men. Apparently he had a long standing relationship with film director Friedrich Murnau,  Director of Nosferatu, and supported him in his Will. The photograph, from the original in the Neka Art Museum at Ubud, is claimed by the museum to show Murnau seated in front of  a Spies mural.

Right: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau in front on a wall of paintings allegedly by Walter Spies (Persian Miniatures), Neka Art Museum, Ubud, Bali. Left: Spies in Bali, date unknown

Spies was also involved in production in 1933 for the Dutch tourist authorities of a film, Insel der Dämonen, wh ere the homoerotic allure of this tropical paradise is made quite explicit in the stills.

Scene from ‘Bali - Insel der Dämonen’ 1933, directed by Friedrich Dahlsheim and Victor von Plessen, Neka Art Museum, Ubud, Bali.


Hans Rhodius, Walter Spies (Maler und Musiker auf Bali).

LJC Boucher, Den Haag, 1964.

John Stowell, Walter Spies: a life in art.

Afterhours Books, Jakarta, 2012.