Book Reviews

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Sacred Painting in Bali:

Tradition in Transition

Thomas L. Cooper

2005. 192 pp., 96 col. pl., 2 maps, bibliography, index, 29 x 21 cm., hardcover.

ISBN-10: 974-524-034-6 $45.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-034-6

Book review by Rebekah Moore

(Journal of Folklore Research, Indiana University)

Thomas L. Cooper’s Sacred Painting in Bali, a recent publication by Orchid Press, is a testament to the publisher’s commitment to investigating art, culture, and religion in Asia. This exquisitely designed hardcover book features ninety-six beautiful color photographs of Balinese traditional artwork contextualized by the author through an account of the history and development of Balinese painting. The author’s ethnographic research grounds the book in empirical evidence on the development of regional painting styles in the last century. Cooper provides an introduction to Balinese cosmology and iconography that allows the novice reader to join the scholar versed in Balinese religion and arts in an analysis of the paintings.
   Cooper’s stated contribution to scholarship is to fill a gap in research on sacred painting in Bali, which was previously limited in scope to pre-World War II paintings, mostly from the village of Kamasan (an important center for Balinese painting), and which typically has not distinguished regional styles. He also illuminates the disregard of art exhibit curators for traditional Balinese painting: Balinese court and commercial art usually assumes priority in museum installations.
   In the first chapter, Cooper outlines his definition of traditional painting in Bali based on the Balinese concept of adat, or tradition. Sacred paintings are synonymous with “traditional” paintings in Bali, and certain characteristics distinguish a sacred from a commercial painting. The subject is derived from traditional narrative, legends, fables, and the Hindu epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana, and conveys a communal vision of niskala, the unseen world. These paintings are functionally religious in home or temple and regarded as sacred—the paintings themselves are believed to possess spiritual authority. Finally, conventions of style are closely related to those of the highly sacred Indonesian shadow theatre. The subtitle of the book, “Tradition in Transition,” refers to Cooper’s well-founded argument that tradition does not exclude innovation. Much of his analysis of the paintings supports this case. In addition, Cooper considers sacred painting an important folk art which, like aesthetic forms such as Balinese dance, shadow theatre, and gamelan, is a vibrant, living tradition. Cooper treats painting as one of many “performative media” in Bali.
   Following a review of literature on sacred painting in Chapter Two, Cooper provides an overview of Balinese traditional painting prior to World War II. He traces the genealogy of painting styles by geographic region and outlines stylistic developments, with a focus on the nineteenth century, the period of the Klungkung court’s powerful dominance in Bali, and on non-Balinese influences. He also describes painting execution in this chapter, and expands the discussion of Balinese painting beyond the important Kamasan School.
   The fourth chapter concerns sacred painting since World War II. Cooper introduces other centers for sacred painting and contrasts the development of these painting centers with those dominated by commercial painting. Dutch colonialism and, interestingly, ethnographic research in Bali profoundly influenced the expansion of commercial painting during this period. Important centers for sacred painting since World War II include Batuan, Kamasan, Kerambitan in the Tabanan district, and Nagasepaha in North Bali. In this chapter Cooper explores regional styles and individual innovations in sacred painting, thereby supporting his claim of sacred painting as a dynamic tradition.
   The fifth chapter explores the lives and works of a handful of artists with whom Cooper conversed during his visits. Their unique styles, characterized by varying degrees of innovation, are easily identified in the photographs of the paintings included. Cooper incorporates a questionnaire into his field methodology in order to uncover the personal aesthetics of these master artists and discovers, to his surprise, that several artists praise some obvious deviations from traditional conventions. Following a review of additional paintings in Chapter Six, Cooper concludes the book by considering options for encouraging the survival of sacred painting as a living tradition. The author clearly demonstrates his agenda here: to promote a tradition he believes is suffering from waning patronage.
   The photographs are generally quite well executed and appear to reflect the color and detail of the original paintings. They are an immensely valuable addition to the text. Cooper took all of the photographs and includes a disclaimer regarding their quality—he reminds his reader that access to ideal lighting and camera positioning was limited. In addition, some paintings were behind glass, resulting in a visible glare in the photograph. A few are slightly out of focus, and in some cases the resolution in a digital format was quite low, resulting in a grainy quality when these photographs were enlarged for publication. Contextual information on religious narratives and shadow theater aesthetics is provided throughout the book in three forms: endnotes, comments in the body of the text, and picture captions. One might suggest, in the interest of consistency, that this pertinent information be limited to one of these three modes. Moreover, some basic knowledge of Balinese cosmology is useful, but this publication’s scope permits only minimal attention to Balinese Hinduism and the great Hindu epics. The detailed endnotes include useful suggestions for resources for additional information on Balinese culture and art, and a glossary of Balinese and Indonesian terms is quite thorough and accurate and is an essential reference for a reader with no knowledge of these languages.
   A scholar of folklore, anthropology, or art history will find Cooper’s publication an excellent report on Balinese sacred painting. The folklorist and other scholars interested in aesthetic expression will value the book’s contribution to the treatment of visual art as performative and interconnected in Bali to theatre and myth, music and dance. The anthropologist or cultural studies scholar will approve of Cooper’s consideration of the social, political, religious, and economic influences on stylistic developments and patronage. The art historian will appreciate his attention to the historical development of these painting styles and his careful analysis of painting motifs that determine regional styles, adherence to tradition, and local and individual innovations. The book will also appeal to a non-academic audience interested in the visual arts of Southeast Asia.

[Review posted on on November 28, 2006]

[Read a review from American Anthropologist] [Read a review from Anthropos] [Read a review from the Asian Folklore Studies, Nanzan University, Nagoya] [Read a review from the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies] [More Orchid Press Reviews]