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
It 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 Campuan 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.
Since 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
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.
When 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.