Walter Spies – Bali’s Most Famous Resident

Day 131 of Colourisation Project – September 15

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Born this day, 15 September 1895, Walter Spies was a Russian-born, German painter, curator, composer and a co-founder of the Balinese Pita Maha art movement, an organization of artists in Ubud that was active in arts and culture in the 1930s and 1940s.

Spies is credited with influencing the direction of Balinese art and drama. He spent 15 years on the island and was noted for his unique style of blending Western and Eastern elements, and of exploring spiritual motifs of Balinese culture while applying techniques of contemporary European art.

Walter Spies

Library of Congress – Walter Spies 1939 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Mexican artist and anthropologist Miguel Covarrubias, who also lived and researched in Bali, wrote in his 1937 book, The Island of Bali, “Walter Spies, Bali’s most famous resident, was the son of a German diplomat in Moskow at the outbreak of the World War. Spies was already well known in Europe as a painter in 1923. (…). As fine a musician as he was a painter (…), after the war he ran away from disorganized Europe to the East until he reached Java, where he was called by the Sultan of Djokjakarta to organize and lead a Western orchestra. He lived for years in the Sultan’s court learning their music. Then one day he went to Bali on a visit and has remained there ever since.”

In December 1938, Spies was arrested as part of a crackdown on homosexuals by the Dutch colonial masters. If not for the efforts and influence of anthropologist, Margaret Meade who testified on his behalf, he would not have been released in September 1939.

Three years later, Spies life was cut short when he became the unfortunate casualty of war. Soon after the outbreak of World War II, as a German national in the Dutch East Indies (as Indonesia was then known), Spies was arrested and held for 20 months in internment camps on Java and Sumatra, where occasionally he was able to paint and study music. Facing deportation in 1942, he was put on a transport ship bound for Ceylon. A day after leaving Sumatra, the ship was hit off Nias Island by a Japanese bomb. The Dutch crew abandoned ship without setting free its cargo of German prisoners. Spies drowned with the rest of the prisoners.


“I have little contact here with Europeans as they are only interested in politics and money, whereas I am more interested in woods and the beautiful eyes of the Javanese.”  –  Walter Spies

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