Balinese legend, undated - oil on canvas
Walter Spies was born September 15, 1895 in Moscow as the son of a German diplomat. He
grew up in an intellectual and art-minded environment.
As a child he already had a great interest in nature, music, dance and painting. He spoke
several languages and started studying in Dresden, at that time the centre for the arts in
Europe where, after WW 1, he met artists like Oskar Kokoschka and Otto Dix. He admired the
works of Chagall and Paul Klee and discussed music with composers like Paul Hindemith and
In the summer of 1919 he presented his first paintings and got immediate reckognision.
He moved to Berlin to devote himself to film and musical. To escape hectic Berlin he often
retreated to the island of Sylt. In 1923 he decided to escape Europe and sailed to Java.
He travel to Bandung, and later to Yogyakarta. He easily learned to speak Melayu and
Javanese. He was touched by the gamelan music and court dances. He was asked by the sultan
of Yogya to lead the keraton's European orchestra. He immediately moved to the keraton.
This way he could study the gamelan music and even invented a way to transcribe the
gamelan music to paper.
In 1925 he visited Bali and was attracted at once, so in 1927 he left the sultan's
palace and moved to Bali permanently. He had a great influence on the local painters like
Soberat or Anak Agung Gede Meregeg and many others.
In 1926 German movie-makers documented the Balinese arts. The success of these movies
around the world attracted many other artists, actors and writer to Bali. Among which Noel
Coward, Charlie Chaplin, Vicky Baum, Covarrubias, even Margaret Mead.
Spies worked together with von Plessen to create the movie "Island of demons"
which was of great influence for the way the world looked at Balinese art and culture.
The Dutch government, anxcious to preserve the western moral standards was reluctant to
see the coming and going of all these artists and their free and loose moral lifestyles.
Spies was arrested for so-called indecent behaviour and set to prison from december 1938
until september 1939. But Spies continued and, under the influence of dr. Lieftinck of the
zoological museum, he started observing and drawing insects and marine-fauna.
World War II started and Germany invaded Holland. Promptly all germans, also Spies,
were arrested by the Dutch-Indies government and put in prison camps 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.
One day later, the ship was hit by a bomb and started sinking. The Dutch crew abandoned
ship. but the captain was afraid to set the German prisoners free without orders. The
result was that most of the German prisoners, Spies included, drowned in the slowly