Adrian Vickers

Donald Friend and Balinese Art

Adrian Vickers

What is involved in a meeting between someone imbued with the sensibilities and history of European art and an Asian artistic tradition? The cultural meeting between Donald Friend and Balinese art goes beyond the aesthetics of Donald Friend’s work in Bali, and beyond the accompanying decadence of his lifestyle. It was a meeting that attempted to transcend the restrictions of colonial background, but one which was only partially successful in so doing.

Donald Friend belongs in a story of the romance of foreign artists in Bali, and this story obscures our view of his interactions with Balinese art. This is a story written by those who see themselves as belonging to the same expatriate genealogy, but in more recent times it has also been embellished by glorification of expatriate artists in collections made by Indonesian patrons. The role which this myth of Bali has assigned Donald Friend is that of the empathetic artist, but that role ignores the daily practices of self-absorption necessary to produce works like the Friend diaries. His accumulation of objects and paintings was mainly curiosity-driven and unsystematic, motivated by the desire to create a lifestyle absorbed in art. There is a marked disjunction between these motivations and the subsequent commodification of ‘lifestyle’ in the interests of tourist corporations and art investors. This commodification relies on appropriating Balinese art and culture for other ends. Was Donald Friend also appropriating Balinese art?

Before discussing the role of Balinese art in Donald Friend’s eyes then, it is important to unwrap parts of the myth and to look at what has become of the Friend legacy. The elements of the story of Donald Friend in Bali have been well told, both by Donald himself in his diaries and publications, and in the catalogues accompanying the retrospective of 1990. [1] A key moment in the story was the designing by Geoffrey Bawa of the Donald Friend house, and Wija Wawo Runtu’s Tanjung Sari hotel and Batu Jimbar estate. Friend, Wawo Runtu and Bawa combined three unique aesthetics: Friend’s ‘tropical’ interests and his experiences in Northern Australia, Africa, the Mediterranean and Sri Lanka; Wawo Runtu’s appreciation of artistic heritages from all over the Indonesian archipelago and his links with antique dealers and collectors; and Bawa’s Sri Lankan influences in architecture and landscape gardening. The three, guided in particular by what Wawo Runtu’s friend and neighbour Jimmy Pandy had already done in Sanur [2] , produced a whole experience of luxurious good taste, harmonising gardens, building and objects. Friend and Wawo Runtu encouraged innovative Balinese traditional architects and sculptors, such as Wayan Cemul, to produce works which added Balinese depth to this aesthetic, and likewise supported local artists such as Ida Bagus Nyoman Rai. The living aspect of this art fitted in with the picture of active involvement with the local community and merging of interests to create a complete experience. A hollow version of this experience has been turned into a commercial prospect by the tourist industry.

From the late 1980s, the Indonesian government encouraged the concept of ‘elite tourism’ and the building of large and expensive resorts. The majority of these resorts have become links in international hotel chains. In order to put a ‘Balinese’ stamp on these resorts the Friend-Wawo Runtu-Bawa style was copied, directly and indirectly. Along the way a number of creative designers learnt from the style and made something unique of their own. Made Wijaya is the most prominent of these and, in the best of the resorts such as the Four Seasons, we see a blending of his creativity and the need to provide a taste of luxury during a brief stay on the island. I feel uneasy, however, that this style is now identified as ‘the Balinese style’, or that an author writing about ‘contemporary Balinese gardens’ should choose his examples from the grounds of hotels and the mansions of expatriates, rather than the houses of Balinese. [3] What started as an earnest appreciation of elements of Balinese art and culture has ended in corporate appropriation of Bali into a generic ‘tropical style’.

The corporate ‘tropical style’ is a long way from the eccentric processes by which Donald Friend brought together the art that went into his Balinese lifestyle. As well as bringing practising artists into his house, Friend, drawing on Wawo Runtu’s extensive networks of collectors and dealers in Indonesian antiquities, produced an unsystematic assemblage of objects, in the best tradition of the European avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s. Objects and paintings were not chosen necessarily as exemplars of a style for a museum-like collection, but in much quirkier terms of their ‘charm’—qualities of beauty, but also of emotive force, raw energy, eroticism, humour, or for being bizarre.

The Friend collection was never unified, just as it is now dispersed. The main interests were Javanese terracottas, ancient Javanese and Balinese bronzes, wooden sculptures, textiles and other antiquities such as krises, and a large number of Balinese paintings. At the time of collecting, superb paintings could be bought for a few dollars and dealers from all over Bali and Java came to the Sanur area to bring new pieces to Donald. Some of these objects are of such quality that they have ended up, or perhaps one day will end up, in major collections. One example is the splendid ancient Javanese bronzes acquired by the National Gallery of Australia when it was setting up the Asian collection. Other objects remain, appropriately, with family and friends, while others are ‘whereabouts unknown’. Many of the bronzes and apparent antiquities are copies, fakes, since ‘authenticity’ seems never to have been a criterion for the Friend collection. These dispersed fragments of a lifestyle speak of certain obsessions: the phallic, deers and deer horns, vibrant and earthy reds and browns.

Balinese art was primitive art for Donald Friend. The problem is that the connotations of the term have been transformed by the critiques of recent decades. Picasso’s passion for African sculpture and the Surrealists’ interest in ‘Oceanic’ art were inspired by that art’s ‘supreme ability to unlock our hearts’. [4] These same ‘exuberant’ qualities of ‘the marvellous’, in André Breton’s words, ‘with all that it presupposes in the way of surprise, of pageantry, of glittering visions of something other than that which we can know’ [5] , resonate with Friend’s sense of joie de vivre. When Breton speaks of the interest in the primitive as one of ‘osmosis’ [6] in art, he could well have been writing of the saturation of having Balinese art fill every space of the Donald Friend house.

Up until the 1970s, anthropologists still wrote of ‘the primitive’ and ‘the savage mind’, and for at least a decade longer philosophers had no problem with these categories. In popular culture, the term ‘stone age’ still crops up from time to time, but those who were supposed to be ‘primitive’ have found the designation insulting. The rejection of such terms in anthropology largely came from the recognition of their colonial origins, that is the mode of thought which has upheld one line of ‘development’ as the natural form of progress for all humanity.

What is intriguing about Donald Friend is that he experienced a range of circumstances we might call colonial, from the race relations of northern New South Wales and Queensland to African colonialism. He rejected the racist underpinnings of that colonialism: for example, he crossed the colour lines in Queensland and was horrified particularly by the way the French treated their colonial subjects in Eastern Africa. But in order to ask whether he could come to terms with Balinese art we have to ask whether his preconceptions about that art really transcended the limitations of his background and the assumptions in western art about ‘the primitive’.

In his amazing repertoire of stories, Donald the great raconteur had one that sheds some light on this question—although I should add the caveat that this is as I remember the story through a thick haze of red wine, so some of the details may not be as originally told (in 1981). He had once been commissioned by the Indonesian government to do a work to be hung in some official place or other in Jakarta. So he depicted his house—or as he told it, he depicted himself looking out over his garden. The painting was rejected, the problem being that he showed his gardeners and other staff below him, and the Indonesian officials did not like the idea of a white man shown above Indonesians. Although Donald did not put it in those terms, they probably found this a little too colonial for comfort, what with being only 20 years from independence, and only about ten years from Sukarno’s nationalisation of Dutch assets. Donald genuinely could not see what the fuss was about, and I think many would sympathise and say, in 1990s terms, that this was all a bit too ‘politically correct.’ But for many Indonesians the idea of constantly being ‘looked down upon’ by the West has been a little hard to stomach.

So here we have two irreconcilable views of the world which return us to the question of whether the meeting between Donald Friend and Balinese art could have been a meeting of equals. There are many stories of Donald’s amazing generosity, many Balinese can recount how he helped them out, gave them the gift which changed their life, or simply showed great kindness. For others he was still another rich white man, a category apart, whose status also allowed for a rumoured, less-public sexual exploitation. These two elements of his character cannot be reconciled, but this is not the point in terms of his art. The question is more: would he have regarded Balinese art as being on an equal footing with western art? I think not, and certainly I am supported here by Donald’s view of modern Balinese art as he saw it circa 1970. [7]

So far this sounds like another one of those narratives of expatriate glamour that diminishes places like Bali. The story of a declining artistic scene given a new lease of life by a great western artist has been retold in a number of contexts, and Andrew Sayers has documented versions of this also for nineteenth-century Aboriginal art. [8] In the case of Bali, the German expressionist artist Walter Spies and his friend and colleague the Dutch artist Rudolf Bonnet have usually been ascribed the roles of western creators of modern Balinese art in the 1930s. Their story is based on an underlying assumption that the West is creative, the rest imitates. Although some of us have been working hard to overturn that myth, at present it survives in a watered-down form, with a number of postwar artists, notably Arie Smit, also being assigned starring roles. The story has been absorbed into the valuing of expatriate art, and so in the 1990s fuelled a price boom that began from the collections of a number of upwardly mobile Balinese. These people, notably Suteja Neka, Rudana and Agung Rai, had their imitators amongst the nouveau richeof Jakarta, leading to the usual over-inflation of prices and the production of a lot of second-rate works and forgeries. In a colder light most of the expatriate artists who have lived on Bali are very second-rate, were not famous before they came to Bali and, if they did not have a romantic myth attached to their work, would never have been heard of.

Donald Friend was an exception in this tradition. He was already famous, and in many ways he helped make Bali better known to Australians—the opposite of the path of the other expatriate artists who used Bali to try to make themselves known. [9] Despite this difference, the name ‘Donald Friend’ has now been absorbed into the more general myth and his paintings have entered the list of desirable items for aspiring Indonesian collectors. While there have been some attempts to credit him with influence over Balinese artists, most commentators have sensibly noted only that he was a patron who stood to one side of the Balinese tradition. The only artist who had sustained contact with him, Ida Bagus Nyoman Rai, does not show any stylistic influences. Ida Bagus Rai’s prewar works are continuous in style with the works he did after the 1960s, when Donald become his close friend and freed him from commercial needs to paint by providing a steady income and assistance with fixing his house. [10] The Friend studio style of working allegedly produced a number of Balinese artists who directly copied Donald’s style to produce what we might call ‘fakes’. I have heard it rumoured that, with a mocking wink at posterity, Donald himself signed some of these works, much in the way he enjoyed collecting the recent Javanese and Balinese copies of ancient bronzes. The imitation Friends left no real stylistic legacy in the mainstreams of Balinese painting.

What then was the role of Balinese art in relation to Donald Friend’s work? It was a source of inspiration and thus also an indulgence, an absorption of the other into the self as means of distilling creative energy. The paintings collected were mainly older works, in various forms of what is called the ‘traditional’ style, or rather styles. The majority of the paintings that filled—even made up—the walls of the Batu Jimbar house are from the village of Kamasan, the home of classic Balinese painting. [11] Nevertheless Donald Friend also collected a large number of ‘traditional’ paintings from other areas. Sadly, and I think this also reflects the fact that these were collected out of a search for artistic connections rather than any sense of the kind of appreciation that builds art histories, none are documented as to provenance (although a lot of valuable incidental information died with the collector). The major attempt to document these non-Kamasan traditional works, by Tom Cooper, has had to start late, after the death of many of those who might have been able to fill the many gaps in such studies. [12]

The works themselves are windows to an extraordinary vitality. The senses of composition, colour and energy that come from the best of them have the ‘rawness’ which one seeks in ‘the primitive’ but with the sophistication of over 1000 years of history behind it. Putting them next to Friend’s work you can see the ‘kindred spirit’ qualities of Balinese painting, the humour—frequently pornographic—and the experiments with composition that may have also intrigued Friend. Most obviously, Donald was a linear artist, and this was a linear style. Despite Barry Pearce’s attempts to reclaim the painterly aspects of Friend’s work in his retrospective catalogue of 1990 [13] , the sense of line, the basis of his art in drawing, makes Friend unusual in modernist Australian traditions of painting, but ‘at home’ in Balinese art.

‘Influence’, ‘meeting’, ‘immersion’, ‘osmosis’, how does one cross from one style to another? If Friend had no profound influence on Balinese painting, Pearce argues that Balinese painting had no profound influence on Friend in the sense that the features of his style were all present in pre-Balinese works from Sri Lanka. [14] Pearce notes that ‘the majority of Balinese cultural motifs in his work are objects observed; fabrics, bronzes, stone and wood carvings, puppets and so on. In other words they are depicted from the outside rather than the inside.’ [15] Bali provided Donald Friend with experience, that is, it and its arts enriched his subject matter. There is one point that disturbs Pearce’s notion of the ‘Euro-centred detachment’ in Donald Friend’s approach to Bali. Bruce Carpenter, documenting Ida Bagus Nyoman Rai’s association with Friend, observes how Friend’s studio approach involved ‘allowing Rai to paint large areas of his canvases with waves and other Balinese motifs’. [16] Carpenter sees direct influence on Friend’s paintings of Sanur Beach from Ida Bagus Rai’s earlier depictions of the same subject. [17] Whatever the veracity of Carpenter’s claims, they tend more to depict Donald Friend as another western appropriator rather than someone who is interested in Balinese art in and for itself.

I do not think ultimately that this question can be settled. We can subject various Friend works to intense stylistic scrutiny, but that is not hard evidence; it is a matter of judgement. We can look at various Friend works against Balinese paintings, producing some inconclusive links. Probably the clearest example is the possibly Balinese hand in depictions of waves, fish or figures in The Lagoon c.1975, and a possible Ubud original source being used as the basis for The Drama, Bali of c.1968. In neither case is there a dilution of Friend’s individual talents. The Balinese work in the first does not diminish the beauty of the central figure which could not possibly be by any one but Donald Friend. In the second case the composition, and particularly the sense of perspective, could not come from a Balinese artist. [18]

There is no denying that Donald Friend was a great egotist, or that his encounters with Balinese art took place in circumstances of extreme contradiction. It is those contradictions that push the value of that art beyond any ethnical or moral values, into a kind of creative decadence which has a life of its own. That life force fed off Balinese art, bent it to its own purposes, but without breaking it, in a way that has allowed values of Balinese art to emerge as autonomous powers. It would ultimately be an act of bad faith to Donald Friend’s art to ignore Balinese art, to treat it as merely a backdrop to his exotic life.


[1] See particularly Donald Friend, Donald Friend in Bali, London: Collins, 1972; and J. Menzies, ed. Donald Friend’s Bali, Sydney: Art Gallery of NSW, 1990 and Barry Pearce, Donald Friend, 1915–1989: Retrospective  (with contributions by Lou Klepac, Hendrik Kolenberg, Amanda Beresford and John Thompson), Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1990.

[2] Agus Wawo Runtu, interview 19 October 1993.

[3] William Warren, chapters 5–9 of W. Hutton (ed.), Balinese Gardens. Singapore: Periplus, 1995.

[4] André Breton, cited in Elizabeth Cowling, ““L’Oeil Sauvage”: Oceanic Art and the Surrealists’ in Suzanne Greub(ed.), Art of Northwest New Guinea:  From Geelvinck Bay, Humboldt Bay, and Lake Sentani. New York: Rizzoli, 1992, pp. 177–190.

[5] Cited ibid, p. 181.

[6] André Breton, What is Surrealism? Selected Writings, ed. and introduced by Franklin Rosemont, London: Pluto, 1978, p. 228.

[7] See Barry Pearce, ‘Donald Friend and Bali’, pp. 39–44 in Menzies (ed.) op. cit.

[8] Andrew Sayers, Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century. Melbourne: Oxford University Press in association with the National Gallery of Australia, 1994.

[9] Although he always had one eye on the myth, collecting stories from the colonial era for his repertoire, and obtaining for himself the car of K’tut Tantri, the most famous of the pre-war expatriates.

[10] For some details on the relationship, including an interview with Ida Bagus Nyoman Rai by Cok. Sawitri,, see Ambara B. Arini and Bruce Carpenter (eds.), Ida Bagus Nyoman Rai and the Sanur School of Art. Jimbaran Bay: Ganesha Gallery/Four Seasons Resort/Jakarta Post, n.d.

[11] See Anthony Forge, Balinese Traditional Paintings. Sydney: Australian Museum, 1978.

[12] Tom Cooper, Sacred Painting in Post-World War II Bali. Tradition in Transition. PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2000; and Joseph Fischer and Thomas Cooper, The Folk Art of Bali: The Narrative Tradition. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1998.

[13] Pearce, Donald Friend, 1915–1989: Retrospective, op. cit., p. 19.

[14] See.ibid; and Barry Peace ‘Donald Friend and Bali’, in Menzies (ed.) op. cit.,pp. 39–44.

[15] Pearce, ‘Donald Friend and Bali’, in Menzies (ed.) op. cit.,p. 39.

[16] In Ida Bagus Nyoman Rai op. cit., p. 10. He adds, ‘While only Donald’s signature appears [on] these works many should be attributed to both artists.’

[17] However Carpenter then goes on to argue that Rai borrowed phallic elements from Friend’s art, ignoring the phallic abundance of 1930s Sanur painters from the same school as I.B. Rai (and in fact related to him).

[18] Pearce, Donald Friend, 1915–1989: Retrospective, op. cit., ills. 86 and 95 respectively.

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