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Who was Walter Spies? A German from Moscow, painter, pianist, conductor, ethnologist, historian and collector.
Walter Spies comes from an upper-class German house that was based in Moscow for a long time. The grandfather immigrated from Elberfeld in 1846 and founded a trading company in imperial Russia. Walter Spies's parents were Leon, one of the four heirs to the trading empire, and Martha von Mohl. She comes from an old Württemberg family. Her father was a consul in Naples. They had four children, all of whom were artistically gifted.
Walter was born in 1895. He made his first musical experiences at home. He passed his Abitur in Dresden. At the beginning of World War I, back in Moscow, he and his brothers were interned in the Urals as a 19-year-old "conscripted enemy alien". In 1917, after the armistice, he returned to Moscow, gave away the pictures he had made during his internment and got a job as a theater painter. In 1918 he went back to Dresden and studied painting. In 1921 he moved on to Berlin and devoted himself to music and composing.
But it doesn't last long in Berlin either. In 1923 he was hired on the steamer “Hamburg” and came to Java. His first stop is Bandung, where he earns his living playing the piano in silent movie theaters and concerts. He did not stay there long and shortly afterwards moved on to Yogyakarta. In December 1923 he was appointed director of the court orchestra by the Sultan. In Yogyakarta he studies gamelan music and invents a notation for recording.
In 1925 he came to Bali for the first time at the invitation of the Prince of Ubud, Tjokorde Gde Raka Sukawati. He deals with Balinese dance, one of which he later choreographed into the most famous Balinese dance, the Kecak.
In 1927 he finally moved to Bali.
In Bali he deals with art and culture:
He takes care of the gamelan musicians and writes down their music. The result is the book on "Dance and Drama in Bali", which he edited together with Beryl de Zoete. He learned the art of wood carving and is now considered the inventor of the narrow, wooden figures. He paints and sells or gives away his pictures; makes the film "Island of Demons" with Viktor von Plessen; deals with Hinduism and studies Balinese history, which benefits Vicky Baum's book ("Love and Death in Bali"); designs princely houses for Tjokorde, sets up a museum and does a lot more.
In the 1930s, Spies ’house became the cultural center of Bali. The list of famous personalities he invites there or who simply come to him is impressive: Charlie Chaplin, Leopold Stokowski, Noel Coward, the aviation pioneer Elly Beinhorn, the filmmaker Viktor von Plessen, Cole Porter, Barbara Hutton, Vicky Baum, Margaret Mead and others. From 1938 he withdrew more and more. Partly because he no longer wanted to be a tourist guide and partly because he was hostile because he was homosexual.
He does not die in Bali but at sea west of the port of Sibolga. When Hitler's armies overran the Netherlands in 1940, most of the Germans were interned in the Dutch East Indies. The men began to be shipped to India because it was feared that they might assist the Japanese in the impending invasion. Walter Spies was in internment camps in Sumatra and was loaded onto the freighter “Van Imhoff” in January 1942 with 500 other Germans. A Japanese bomb hit the ship not far from the island of Nias. The crew saved themselves, but more than 400 German prisoners drowned, including Walter Spies.
Because he could not come back to Europe, he was initially forgotten. Gradually one begins to rediscover it. On the occasion of Walter Spies' 100th birthday in September 1995, there were two major exhibitions in Indonesia in cooperation with German museums: in the National Gallery in Jakarta and in the Agung Rai Museum in Bali.
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