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Bali in the 1930s

Arthur Fleischmann was a multi-talented artist who enjoyed unparalleled success in his day. He was the only member of a group illustrious Westerners living and working in Bali during the 1930s who left his tracks in all five continents. A new book, one of Periplus Bookstore’s top 10 best-selling titles, brings notice to this accomplished and underappreciated sculptor and photographer in a grand and eloquent style.

Although trained as a doctor following studies in Prague and Budapest, his energies and considerable talent drew him towards the world of art, beginning his career as an apprentice sculptor. In 1921 he was awarded a scholarship to continue his studies in Vienna and in the early 1930s he executed several major commissions. Over the next several years Fleishmann held exhibitions in the U.S. and South Africa from where he decided to continue his journey on to the Dutch East Indies where he spent one of the most artistically productive periods of his life on Bali from 1937 to 1939.

The text was written by Paul de Bont who was born in 1948 in Denpasar, his father an employee of what later was to become the Royal Shell Oil Company. De Bont had developed an avid interest in Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès and his wife Pollok, a legendary legong dancer, and in the course of his research learned that Joy Fleischmann possessed numerous photographs taken by her late husband.

In the early 1990s de Bont took up correpondance, which eventually led to visits to Mrs. Fleishmann’s flat in London. Realizing the full significance of the uncompleted Fleishmann manuscript, de Bont was determined that the artist’s legacy could not simply be left unattended. Something had to be done to reveal this hidden treasure.

At the time much attention was being paid to Western expat artists who had lived in Bali during its Golden Age and prices for their works were skyrocketing. Picture Publication in the Netherlands was one of the first art publishing houses to publish high quality, beautifully designed monographs of these Western artists, bringing out titles on Le Mayeur, Hofker, Bonnet, and in 2007 this current volume.

The thickest portion, entitled simply “The Photographs,” is the true raison d’être of why the book was published. It contains an amazing selection of 115 of the approximately 2000 black and white photographs - Fleishmann’s total photographic output during his time on Bali. Taken with a 35 mm Dolina camera, the photos were enlarged in a makeshift darkroom with the aid of daylight and an old pinhole wooden box camera ingeniously braced in the opening of a blacked-out window.

When Fleishmann fled the rapidly advancing onslaught of the Japanese army in 1939, taking the last KLM flight to Australia, he carried all the large prints he made in his studio in Denpasar as well as the 35 mm negatives. It is from this priceless collection that all the photos in Bali in the 1930s have been drawn. Fleishmann became active in the Merioola artist group of Sydney, took Australian citizenship, and in 1949 moved to London where he lived the last 40 years of his life until his death in 1990 at the age of 93.

The photos reflect Fleishmann’s deep humanity and loving empathy for his subjects who obviously show great trust and fondness in him. Peasants, princes, children are at ease and totally themselves. In their clarity, definition and detail the quality of the reproductions is outstanding. The images are powerfully presented with an average of one large picture per 34 cm X 26 cm page, some even taking up two whole pages.

Since most of the pictures are full-page bleeds, not allowing space for captions, the photographs are reproduced in miniature in an appendix in the rear of the book accompanied by extensive notes. These are in themselves astute anthropological observations that not only give the images meaning and context but inform about agricultural and childrearing practices, religious and cockfighting rituals, social rankings, personal hygiene, kris-making, music and dance forms.

No subject was too humble or prosaic for Fleishmann’s lens. His subjects hailed from all castes and ages, comprising an evocative eye-level tableau of Bali as living theater: ceremonies attended by priests, mothers holding babies, children playing and sleeping, women, children and farmers pounding rice, herding animals, bathing in rivers, tilling soil, selling food, walking along country roads - a study of the life of an outer island peasant economy of the 1930s.

One print of a line of shiny ‘30s motorcars is so clear and real that you can almost hear their engines purring. This photo was taken at the very dawn of Bali’s age of tourism when the faraway island was relatively unknown to Western travelers. After the disastrous puputan (mass suicides) of the early 1900s, Dutch colonial authorities tried to minimize contact by Westerners, maintaining Bali as a sort of exotic cultural preserve only accessible to a well-connected coterie of the rich and famous. These sleek expensive touring cars parked under the shade of an immense waringan tree were in the vanguard of the very first visitors to the island.

During Fleishmann’s long and eventful life, this versatile artist produced a highly diverse body of work using many different techniques and art forms. One feels confident that Bali in the 1930s is the book that Fleishmann himself would have ultimately published, capturing not only the contents but also the spirit of Fleishmann’s invaluable manuscript. It a poignant eulogy of the island that transports us back in time to a way of life that has vanished forever.

Bali in 1930’s: Bali through a Sculptor’s Eyes by Arthur Fleischmann, edited by Frans Jansen, text by Paul de Bont and Dominique Fleishmann, Picture Publications Netherlands 2007, ISBN 9789073187573, hardcover, 248 pages, annotated bibliographical references, dimensions 8.9 x 6.1 x 1.5 inches (27 cm X 34 cm).

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