Neka Art Museum

Neka Art Museum

A History of Balinese Art

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Neka Art Museum offers Ubud’s finest collection of Balinese art curated to provide an overview of the development of the different schools and influences, including the works of foreign artists who have made Bali their home.

Travelfish says:

If you know nothing about Balinese painting, then Neka Art Museum is a good place to start, while if you are well versed, you’ll be delighted by the diversity and quality of the works. And if you don’t really like art and have been dragged along by someone who does, the garden’s pretty.

Full Moon Ceremony. Arie Smit. : Sally Arnold.
Full Moon Ceremony. Arie Smit. Photo: Sally Arnold

This museum is the private collection of local philanthropist, Suteja Neka, son of one of Bali’s most renowned carvers. His interest in collecting art was influenced by friendship with Dutch artists, Rudolf Bonnet (1895–1978) and Arie Smit (1916–2106). The museum was opened in 1982 and continues to inspire and educate visitors.

Pick up a map at reception which will lead you on a chronological journey through the history of the development of painting in Bali exhibited in separate traditional buildings. Each period is introduced with explanations in English and Japanese, and the individual artworks are well labelled with the whys and wherefores.

Self portrait. Affendi. : Sally Arnold.
Self portrait. Affendi. Photo: Sally Arnold

The Balinese Painting Hall begins with the classical Wayan Style, named for the similarities with shadow puppets. Paintings are crowded with figures in three-quarter view, illustrating scenes from Hindu epics or folktales. Others are astrological charts, almanacs, or amulets sometimes painted on bark or handwoven cloth. Dating from the 17th century, this style is a living tradition and is still produced in villages across Bali. The Transitional Style depicts similar stories, but figures are a little more natural in appearance introducing light and shadow, with attempts at perspective due to Western aesthetic influences on Bali from the mid 1800s. Look for the lovely lyrical work “Life in Bali” by I Ketut Liyer of “Eat Pray Love” fame.

The Ubud Style evolved during the 1920s and was influenced partly by Western artists, Walter Spies (1895-1942) and Rudolf Bonnet (1895–1978) who both lived in the area. This new genre found a fresh market for local artists as souvenirs for tourists. Interesting is the unfinished work (also called) “Life in Bali” by I Nyoman Lesung which shows the time-consuming process of pencil sketch, ink washes and final colour and highlights. Today the Ubud Style is more widespread and is no longer limited by geography.

Life in Bali. I Ketut Liyer. : Sally Arnold.
Life in Bali. I Ketut Liyer. Photo: Sally Arnold

Moving to the next gallery, Batuan Style beginning in the 1930s in Batuan village had less influence from Western aesthetics. The works are dense and dark responding to increasing social changes, with a sometimes humorous or journalistic aspect. Look for the works of I Wayan Bendi and I Made Budi both with social comments on modern-day politics and tourism, you’ll find camera-snapping tourists amongst the temples and rich foliage.

The Arie Smit Pavilion shows the works of influential Dutch-born Indonesia artist Arie Smit. His vibrant paintings are a celebration of colour, influenced by Gauguin and Cézanne. With Smit’s encouragement, a colourful naive style of painting that became known as the Young Artists’ Style began in the village of Penestanan. The term is still used to describe work by anyone with the same style, and many of the “young” artists are now in their 60s and 70s. Paintings on display in the lower level include early works by I Nyoman Tjakara and I Wayan Pugur as well as slightly later works by I Ketut Soki and I Ketut Tagen. This gallery also showcases contemporary Balinese painting including styles from cubism to abstract expressionism.

Around a village. I Wayan Bendi. : Sally Arnold.
Around a village. I Wayan Bendi. Photo: Sally Arnold

The Photography Archive Centre houses a collection of documentary photographs of village and ceremonial life from the 1930s and 40s by American Robert Koke who, along with his wife Louise, opened the first hotel in Kuta in 1936. He is also credited with introducing surfing to Bali. Extracts from Louise Koke’s book “Our Hotel in Bali” accompany the photos.

Ink works by I Gusti Nyoman Lempad (1862?—1978) are displayed in the small Lempad Pavilion. Lempad was a traditional craftsman (architect and sculptor) before he began producing works on paper derived from lontar (palm leaf books) drawing traditions. Drawings depict Balinese legends and mythology with little Western influence. His work has international acclaim and can be found in museums in The Netherlands and Switzerland.

The Contemporary Indonesian Art Hall offers a wide range of works by mostly formally trained artists. Look for the much copied diptych “Mutual Attraction” by Abdul Aziz. Interestingly the portraits of a man and a woman were painted separately in different years (1974 and 1975), and the work became a “diptych” when Neka Art Museum first displayed them together in 1980 (You can by the T-shirt in the gift shop).

The bull fights the lion. Ida Bagus Made Togog. : Sally Arnold.
The bull fights the lion. Ida Bagus Made Togog. Photo: Sally Arnold

The East-West Art Annex continues with works by important Indonesian artists, many whom have travelled or studied internationally. Look for works by the Javanese expressionist Affandi. You can also visit the Affandi Museum in Yogyakarta. The upper floor features works by international artists including Theo Meir’s radiant interpretations of the tropical light, Donald Friend’s dreamy, gold leaf enhanced studies, Rudolf Bonnet’s classical portraits, Chang Fee-Ming’s large and detailed watercolours and Antonio Blanco’s erotica (you can also visit the Blanco Museum in Ubud). A collection of portraits of Suteja Neka are also on display in this annex.

The Special Exhibitions Hall has changing exhibitions on the lower level, and an impressive display of Indonesian krises (daggers) on the upper level. In traditional Indonesian culture the kris is considered to possess magical and spiritual power and is included on the UNESO list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Along with the exhibitions, Neka Art Museum offers a small book shop with artists monographs and collective works produced by the museum, as well as postcards and prints plus a souvenir shop and a research library. If you plan to visit only one art museum in Ubud, this is the one. Art buffs could easily allow a couple of hours wandering the pavilions while those with only a casual interest could spin through in 20 minutes.

Digest all the art at Warung Kelapa. : Sally Arnold.
Digest all the art at Warung Kelapa. Photo: Sally Arnold

If you’re really keen for an art fix, visit Museum Puri Lukisan, ARMA, Museum Rudana, the Blanco Renaissance Museum, plus one or more of the numerous commercial galleries around Ubud.

For a break, head to nearby Warung Pulau Kelapa offering Indonesian street food spanning the archipelago (mains 40,000–90,000 rupiah), housed in a traditional wooden building with the same owner as the wonderful Setia Darma House of Masks and Puppets in Mas.

Neka Art Museum is open daily 09:00—17:00. Entry fee is 75,000 rupiah, free for children under 12. Non-flash photography is permitted in most galleries.

Warung Pulau Kelapa Jalan Raya Sangginggan, Ubud; T: (0361) 971 872 Open daily: 10:00—20:00

Contact details for Neka Art Museum

Address: Jalan Raya Campuhan, Ubud
T: (0361) 975 074;
Coordinates (for GPS): 115º15'11.88" E, 8º29'31.92" S
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: 40,000 rupiah

Reviewed by

Sally spent twelve years leading tourists around Indonesia and Malaysia where she collected a lot of stuff. She once carried a 40kg rug overland across Java. Her house has been described as a cross between a museum and a library. Fuelled by coffee, she can often be found riding her bike or petting stray cats. Sally believes travel is the key to world peace.

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