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Emilio Ambron: An Italian Artist in Bali by Bruce Carpenter

Bruce Carpenter, a perspicacious expert on Balinese art, who wrote very competent books on Willem Hofker and W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp, has now turned the full powers of his considerable erudition on Emilio Ambron, a hugely under- appreciated artist who lived in Bali for two highly productive years during the pre-war period.

In Europe, Emilio had first come under the influence of the Renaissance painters, the dead French masters, the American Agrarian Tradition and the Mexico School, then served as an apprentice under the brilliant Giacomo Balla. This was the Age of Futurism when the world seemed to be on the brink of an utterly new artistic expression.

Being an Italian Jew, the late 1930s in Europe were uncertain and dangerous times for Emilio. Hitler had formed a pact with Mussolini and the Fascists were on the rise - burning books, shutting down newspapers and marching bellicosely in the streets. The continent was becoming increasingly oppressive, the specter of war loomed.

Coincidental encounters in quick succession conspired to decide the course of the young painter’s life. In an bookstore in Basel, Emilio came across Dr. Gregor Krause’s 1920 book, Land und Folk, whose powerful and exotic photographs brought Bali to the attention of the entire world.

A few weeks later, Emilio was captivated by a documentary film on Bali. Shortly after, he came across a collection of Balinese paintings in a gallery. Emilio felt like he was being inexorably drawn to the tropics.

With his sister Gilda, he booked passage on a ship to Batavia and, in December 1938, they disembarked at Singaraja in north Bali. He quickly wrote home that the island was "infested with tourists."

But after the brother and sister rented a house in Klandis Kedaton outside Denpasar, it wasn’t long before Emilio found ample inspiration: "I am absorbed by this world of shadows and reflections, varied and mysterious, like an ancient tapestry."
As a resident, Emilio was likable and gregarious, befriending all he met. The Swiss artist Theo Meier built him a woven bamboo artist’s studio. Emilio also befriended Rudolf Bonnet and fell into a dispute over a model with Willem Hofker. His closest confidant was the Belgium artist Le Mayeur who lived not far away along the unpeopled Sanur coast.

Emilio received his resident visa on Bali at a time when Italy’s alliance with a belligerent Germany was growing stronger and war was becoming inevitable. In April 1940, Germany invaded Holland and the Dutch began arresting foreign nationals. Bali’s Golden Age of pre-war expatriate artists had come to an end.

Thus Emilio began six years of wandering through China, Indochina and India, often penniless and at the mercy of local authorities. This is a tale of high adventure. Cut off from his wealthy family, the artist lived solely by his wits and god-given talents.

One small but memorable photograph in the book shows Emilio dressed only in a loincloth searching the jungle for unknown temples among the great ruins of Angkor. At the time he was eking out an existence living with his Cambodian girlfriend in a grass hut on the banks of the river in Siemreap.

After a number of life-threatening close calls, Emilio finally manages to reunite with his family in Europe after the war. His star waned during the latter part of his life and by the sixties he almost disappeared from public view. In 1974, Italy’s Culture & Customs magazine wrote that he was "an artist of value with a long past history but who is now almost completely unknown and overshadowed."

His legacy? As is evidence by the vast number of nudes he produced, he obviously loved the sensuality of the female form and believed that the Balinese woman was the essence of the Eastern Beauty.

Emilio’s genius was his ability to capture a subject or likeness with just a few bold strokes. This quest for the perfect line, that knew no fear or hesitation, he called "a line without regret." It is the painter’s equivalent of the photographer’s "decisive moment," first discovered by Cartier Bresson.

In 1994, at 89 years of age, Emilio visited Bali for the last time, forty-four years after his sudden departure on a ship to Manila. Massive changes — raucous discos, traffic jams, pollution, urban sprawl - had totally metamorphosed the island.

By this time works by his contemporaries — Le Mayeur, Hofker, Bonnet - who had lived in Bali during the 1930s were selling for astronomical sums of money. Even paintings by lesser artists, like Walter Spies, were fetching more than a million dollars.

Eager more for the recognition than the money, Emilio may have felt an acute injustice that his works in pencil, charcoal, watercolor, oil, bronze and marble were not included in this illustrious group.

Independently wealthy, he never had to sell his art to make a living and thus had no need to make compromises to reach a broader public. All his life he stuck to his own style, his own artistic philosophy.

We are all the richer for it. Sixty-nine of Emilio Ambron’s works are on permanent display at the Semarajaya Museum in Klungkung (open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., tel. 0366-21448, Rp5000 entrance), comprising the largest contribution any expat artist has ever made to the people of Bali.

Emilio Ambron: An Italian Artist in Bali by Bruce W. Carpenter, Archipelago Press, Singapore 2001, ISBN 981-4068-15-2.
Available for Rp395,000 at Periplus Bookshops in the Bali Galeria in Kuta, Warung Made in Seminyak, Ngurah Rai Airport, in Gramedia bookstores and in the Matahari in Kuta Square.

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