Donald Friend in Bali
Being from Adelaide, I had not heard of Donald Friend until I arrived in Sydney in early 1971. There was nothing unusual in this, as Sydney had a charm school, while Adelaide had a dull school. But this ignorance was temporary as contemporaries, such as Martin Sharp, Peter Kingston, Richard Liney and Gavin Wilson, were busy extolling the virtues of the charm school artists, and of one in particular, Donald Friend.
There was a romantic aura about Friend, which was amplified by the rumours of his regal lifestyle in Bali. This was before Australians had begun flocking to Bali in any numbers, but stories of the island’s beauty, culture and sensuality fuelled the imagination.
There seemed to be a popular perception that Donald Friend was an exile, either banished for some indiscretion, imaginary or otherwise, or, perhaps even worse, Australia had failed to live up to his expectations as a place in which to create great works. This was also at a time when anyone who left Australia for any length of time was regarded virtually as a deserter.
But the notion of Donald as an exile is far from reality. From early in his life he had been a seeker, precociously aware of his genius, and the burning need to let it shine. While many great Australian artists, including Tom Roberts, Sidney Nolan and Brett Whiteley were to do grand tours to the art houses and museums of Europe for inspiration, Donald Friend always sought his own path to the holy grail of art. Firstly to the Torres Strait, then Nigeria, where, typically, he found his way into a royal court and, after the war, to Sri Lanka. It was there in the great hotel and garden creations of the brothers Geoffrey and Bevis Bawa that Donald first saw how traditional tropical living spaces could be reinterpreted for western life styles, while maintaining the essential integrity of design .
Donald first set foot in Bali in 1966, on a stopover to Greece where he planned to meet his lover Attilio [Guarrancino], and fellow artist, Justin O’Brien. Making his way to the artists’ village of Ubud, he was appalled by the cheap mass-produced tourist art. But this bleak outlook was soon to change. His friend Mitty Lee Brown arranged a meeting at the Sanur house of a Manadonese architect, Wija Wawo-Runtu. Wija was originally from the north of Sulawesi, but had moved into the Sanur area in the early sixties, establishing a house and a small bungalow hotel, called the Tanjung Sari, along the coastal strip. Wija’s home was crammed full with antiques, terracottas, bronzes, cloths and Balinese paintings, and for Donald, this was an epiphany. That day, at Wija’s house, a collector was born in the artist.
Sanur was where tourism first developed in Bali in the 1930s. It was very low-key, with a few expatriates and artists living in simple beach bungalows. At this stage it was very much their own private paradise. The occasional steamship would dock at Singaraja and tourists such as Charlie Chaplin would then motor down to Denpasar, staying at the Bali Hotel. A quick run around the temples, a few photographs, and they were gone.
The word about the allure of Bali began to filter through with the publication of George Krause’s book, Bali Volk, in 1926, his outstanding photographs revealing a culture that had remained virtually unchanged through centuries. By the 1930s there were documentaries such as ‘Island of the Demons’ and ‘Goona Goona’, which played heavily on the stereotype of beauty and culture, with a smattering of bare breasts. While the audience for these works was limited, this was soon to change when, in 1937, Vanity Fair artist Miguel Covarrubias published his authoritative work Island of Bali. Filled with astute observations gleaned from his nine-month stay in 1930 as a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, his stunning illustrations and photographs by his wife Rose were to capture the imagination of an audience weaned on National Geographic. It was Covarrubias who was to make the observation that ‘everybody in Bali seems to be an artist’, a construct that lingers to this day.
Continuing his journey to Greece, Donald must have been excited by the prospect that he had a new friend, a new passion and, at last, a place in the world to call home. Before leaving Bali, Donald gave Wija some money to purchase a block of land, but this was to fall through. Returning in 1967, he managed to secure another block at Batu Jimbar, located between the Tanjung Sari Hotel and the Bali Beach Hotel, and set about building his house. The design was outwardly along the lines of traditional Balinese domestic architecture, with the kitchen in the south, the temple in the north-east, and his bale in the west.
Inwardly it was built to accommodate a studio and grand living space, and later a museum to house his work and growing antique collection. Watching the progress of his house being built, Donald was inspired by the achievements of the skilled Balinese craftsmen and the re-shaping of traditional Balinese form. But primarily he was there to work, especially to create major canvases that would assure him of his place amongst Australia’s great artists.
There was nothing unusual for the people of Sanur having an artist in their midst. Artists had been living in the Sanur area since the early part of the twentieth century. In the 1930s, Belgian impressionist painter, Adrien la Mayeur, settled there and built an elegant Balinese style house, which still stands just north of the refurbished Bali Beach Hotel. La Mayeur immersed himself into the local culture, eventually marrying the famous Balinese dancer Ni Polock, and did not leave the island until the mid-fifties, when he returned to Belgium for cancer treatment.
There was also nothing unusual in a gay man living in the community, as there had already been a long tradition of homosexual artists taking up residence in Bali. Known locally as ‘The Group’, artists such as Walter Spies, Rudolf Bonnet and Auke Sonnega were to exist there for long periods, living a thin line between acceptance and scandal. In the 1930s, Bali was known in gay circles as a place tolerant to gay lifestyle and where a little money could buy a grand lifestyle. New York at the time even boasted a gay nightclub called ‘The Sins of Bali’, but just whose sins they were celebrating is not clear. While Balinese culture does not officially recognise gays as a separate lifestyle, they do recognise that sexuality is fluid and manifests itself in many forms. This tolerance was historically evident in the Indo Malay courts of Java.
Donald arrived in Bali just two years after Indonesia’s greatest political crisis to date—the coup against President Sukarno, which unleashed an orgy of bloodletting throughout the islands against suspected communists, ethnic Chinese, and anyone that somebody else did not like. Conflicting with their stereotypical image as being a peaceful people, this carnage also impacted on Bali. Out of a population in 1965 of around one and a half million, tens of thousands were killed. Before that, in 1963, the sacred mountain Gunung Agung had erupted, killing many and destroying entire villages. The Bali that met Donald was racked with the aftermath of immense social unrest, natural disasters and rampant inflation. These were conditions that were to work favourably for Wija and Donald in their acquisitions of property and antiquities.
That Donald and Wija could get the beach land at Sanur for the Tanjung Sari and Villa Batu Jimbar was due to the fact that the land had little value in the eyes of the Balinese. It was only used for grazing cattle or growing coconuts, and did not even come under the control of the village council called the banjar. This was because it was near the sea and looked over to the island of Nusa Penida, where the one the most evil spirits in Balinese cosmology, the Fanged Demon, Djero Gede Metajaling lived. Unlike most island cultures, the Balinese looked inwardly, the mountains being where the gods lived, and the sea being the place where demons resided.
As outsiders, Donald and Wija paid little attention to how the locals viewed the land. Much to his delight, Donald was known in the area as Tuan Raksasa, or Lord Devil, so it was only appropriate that he felt quite at home on the Devil’s land. The race for the beach was on. In 1963 Suharto’s New Order had decreed that Japanese war reparation money was to be spent building a concrete bunker called the Bali Beach Hotel, on the beach to the north of Villa Batu Jimbar. Its position and height was in total disregard of local sensitivities. Completed in 1966, from the start the people of Sanur regarded the hotel as cursed, a sentiment that was later reinforced when it burned to the ground. Meanwhile Donald and Wija were busy in a joint venture, extending the Tanjung Sari Hotel and acquiring new leases along the coastal strip, including the land where the Hyatt is now. This was made easier because the Sanur beach strip was not owned by aristocrats but by cash-strapped families from the area and inland Denpasar.
By the time the sixties stopped swinging, Sanur was becoming a focus for a new international set of expatriates and artists looking for their slice of paradise. Made up of well-heeled professionals from the United States of America, Singapore, Europe and Australia, they were particularly eager to lease any beach land. The tenor of Sanur was still low key and discreet, which suited everyone as a way in which to conduct business and to live. Many from this group were to start small businesses, mainly aimed at the growing tourist industry. The social life for this set was to centre around the bars of the Tanjung Sari and La Taverna Hotels, with Donald’s house in the middle becoming an increasingly important part of the social scene. As the villagers lived some distance from the developing coast, there was little contact with the locals other than those employed in domestic work. The foreigner enclave along the beach was quickly becoming an island within an island. The air was charged with sexual electricity.
In contrast, Kuta was just being put onto the map. Sanur was too expensive and too exclusive for them, and besides, the surf was lousy. Kuta was only a few kilometres, but a whole world away, from Sanur. The thriving tourist industry that was to centre around the hippy trail and surfing was still some years away. Just as the Kuta set did not venture into the elegant gardens of Sanur, neither did the Sanur set venture into the poor fishing villages of Kuta and Legian.
The other centre where expatriates gravitated to was into the mountain village of Ubud. This was the home of Lempad, an 116-year-old artist who was regarded as a master of architecture, sculpture and pen and ink drawing. In the early seventies Lempad was the subject of the film, Lempad of Bali, made by John Darling and Lorne Blair, both residents of Ubud at the time. It was also the home of Arie Smit, an artist who had started the ‘Young Artists’ school of foreigners in Bali, and who became a close friend of Donald’s. Each of these enclaves existed separately and independently of each other, with social divisions as strong as any found in the Balinese caste system.
By now, the daily routine at Villa Batu Jimbar was organised to serve Donald’s needs. This was an extremely productive period in the life of someone who always worked hard. Donald knew that he was ill and that this would be the last chance for him to make his name as an artist. Works were methodically recorded before being freighted back to Australia for exhibition. Those that did not meet his standards were disposed of to the ever increasing tourist trade that ventured into the studio. Attending to his diaries and writing books such as Donald Friend in Bali and Bumbooziana, also took an increasing amount of time. The fact that the diaries arrived back in Australia in such good condition is an indication that Donald meant they were to be also to be considered as one of his major works.
In the early days, Donald would mount expeditions to places such as Singaraja and Karangasem, exploring the landscape and immersing himself in the culture and traditions of the island and its people. However, as life became more complicated with efforts to keep Villa Batu Jimbar running, these forays became fewer.
Besides maintaining an enormous output of work, much of Donald’s day was now taken up with adding to his collection. His reputation as an astute buyer of bronzes and cloth had now spread outside Bali, bringing dealers from across Indonesia to his door on almost a daily basis. Some of these pieces found themselves in the newly enlarged Tanjung Sari which, by now, was regarded as one of the great hotels in the world.
He established a network of regular contacts, which included Pandi, who operated a home stay that also doubled as an art gallery and thriving antique centre. These two were to develop a rivalry, common amongst people of similar interests, but this did not prevent Donald and Wija from attending Pandi’s parties in full Balinese regalia. When Donald had begun trading, there was little interest in South-East Asian art outside some of the major international museums and private collections, such as that of New Yorker, Sammy Eilenberg. The goods were cheap and plentiful, and there were no restrictions on getting them out of the country. Trading antiquities now provided an essential secondary source of funds to keep the work and lifestyle going.
In the late sixties the Gorton Government set up the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board to collect South-East Asian pieces for Australia’s National Collection. The job was given to artist William Dargie, to source collectors in various parts of South-East Asia and Papua New Guinea. Donald’s passion and growing knowledge, combined with his extensive contacts across Indonesia, made him an obvious choice to start adding to the fledgling collection. Before the National Gallery was built, works intended for the National Collection were stored in the basement of this building. Whether coincidence or not, it was almost 30 years ago exactly that the first major Australian exhibition of Asian art was held here. The 28th International Congress of Orientalists was chaired by the then National Librarian, Mr Burmester, at the National Library on 6 January, 1971. Curated by Pam Gutman, the show included a number of Madjaphahit terracottas from Java, and a magnificent Balinese kris and scabbard collected by Donald. The hilt of the kris just happened to be in the shape of the demonic figure Raksasa, the Demon that was Donald’s Balinese namesake.
The fame and notoriety of Villa Batu Jimbar soon spread to a new generation of Australian artists. Donald was always welcoming and supportive of those who showed industry and skill, but would be instantly dismissive of any deemed boring. His diary entries for the early seventies note the arrivals of Tim Storrier, Van Weiringen, Shane Sweeney and Brett Whiteley. He was particularly taken by Brett’s Orphan Annie hairstyle. The compound also attracted Balinese and Indonesian artists such as Kay It, who was introduced to Donald by the architect Kerry Hill. Kerry Hill at the time was working in the Sanur Beach Hotel and commissioned Donald and Kay It to produce decorative tiles for the entrance.
Donald’s interest in architecture and garden design had probably been fired from the time that he stayed with Geoffrey and Bevis Bawa in Sri Lanka. As Wija’s hotel developed, and new ones were built, Donald had considerable influence in evolving what was to become known as the ‘Sanur Style’, exemplified by low-rise dwellings inter-relating with meticulously designed gardens. Australian architects Peter Muller and Kerry Hill, and landscape architect Made Wijaya, were to spread the style through Bali and Asia, even to the Mustique home of David Bowie.
By the mid-seventies, Donald was recognising that his time in paradise might be over. Ill with the effects of TB and emphysema, in the 1975 Australia Council film biography, he felt that even though he wanted to keep living in Bali, it was changing too fast, saying, ‘it won’t last another 20 years’. He was, after all, a classically educated nineteenth-century man, who was watching the one place where he felt at home being taken over by tourism and cheap commercialism. By now he was also having constant problems with officials over visa extensions and doubts were setting in about his commercial arrangement with Wija. His diary entries for the period show that there was an extremely acrimonious feeling between Donald and Wija’s wife, Tati, to whom he refers to as a witch consuming his soul. Donald knew only too well the story of the battle of good and evil that was played out at nights across Bali, in the dance between Rangda, the witch, and the Barong, exemplifying good.
Donald was now needing to make more frequent visits back to Australia due to ill health. Eventually his health collapsed to the point where he had to move back permanently. Unfortunately, his worst fears about Villa Batu Jimba and other investments were realised when he failed to get compensation from Wija. Villa Batu Jimba was the one thing that Donald could not take with him, and this bitterness was to remain with him until his death. His silence as a partner was not recognised by Indonesian law. Like all giants, Donald had eventually outgrown his environment and his time. What Donald leaves us with is a rich legacy of art, writing and awareness of cultures that were pursued energetically and passionately. Most importantly, he was never boring. He was a great Australian artist who fully embraced the world.