In the middle of this month, Dutch-born artist Arie Smit turns ninety-nine. He is among Indonesia's most senior and longest-living artists, ranking second perhaps only to I Gusti Nyoman Lempad. Although he has not been painting in the last few years, his paintings are still quite highly sought after by art collectors in the region. Arie’s paintings have been characterized as "Poems of Color". Many of his paintings of Bali are indeed celebrations, in color, of the artist's joy of life. He is the Indonesian painter about whom the most number of books that have been written. They include Garret Kam's Poetic Realism: The Art of Arie Smit (Neka Museum and Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 1990), Agus Dermawan T.'s Puisi Warna Arie Smit (Yayasan Seni Rupa AIA, 1993), Suteja Neka and Sudarmadji's Arie Smit (Koes Artbooks, 1995), and Putu Wirata's Arie Smit Memburu Cahaya Bali (Museum Neka, 1996). In 2002 my own account of the artist and his work, Vibrant Arie Smit (Hexart Publishing), was published. Painter Rudolf G. Usman also published a number of small books about the artist.
Born in Zandaam, The Netherlands, in 1916, in the middle of the first World War, it was his dream and life long goal to gain complete freedom by becoming an artist. "Since I was young, I have always been interested in the visual arts, from illustrations to paintings. However, I did not want to admit my wishes to become a painter to family or friends," he said. Ironically, the young Arie Smit arrived in Indonesia in 1938 on military contract, and was assigned to the Topographical Service. Following the Japanese occupation in 1942, as a prisoner of war, he was taken into forced labor camps in Singapore, Thailand, and Burma.
Yet, after the Dutch finally acknowledged Indonesia's sovereignity in 1949, Arie Smit chose to remain in the new republic and became an Indonesian citizen as early as 1951. "I got my first job as a draftperson handling layout with A.C. Nix publishers in Bandung. There I worked as a graphics instructor at the Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB). I lead a group of foreigners (Kunstkring/"Art Circle" Bandung) to paint at my house, and henceforth became known as a painter," he said. Although Arie Smit did not come to Indonesia with any intention to become an artist, secretly he was awaiting a "shock". That shock came when he became a civilian in Bandung and saw the splendour of Pasundan. He maintained good working relationships with the instructors and students at ITB, and at the time of the Asia-Africa Conference in 1955, he had already held three solo exhibitions, at the Kolff in Jakarta, the BPM in Plaju, Palembang, and in Bandung.
Yet he only decided to become a full time painter in 1956, when he came to Bali upon painter Rudolf Bonnet and art connoisseur and dealer James Pandy's invitation. Although the trip to Bali was supposed to be a relatively brief visit, the painter decided to stay on the island, apparently for good, as he has remained there for almost half a century now. “Living in Bali, I developed an understanding about rural life, especially community-life and the culture of Bali offered a deep source of inspiration,” he explained. Once in Bali he clearly gradually abandoned the careful and delicate delineation of lines in his earlier works, rendering expressively and no longer focusing on representational depiction. Arie’s began to be more expressionistic,devoting more attention to his use of light and color.
From his very first year in Bali, Arie had already started to embark on a new stylistic journey. In the 1960s, Bali became a tourist island. Arie was influential in developing the art of the Young Artists of Penestanan, colorful and naïve reflections of rural peasant life in Bali. The art of the Young Artists was mostly bought by expatriates and visiting foreigners who loved them. Each room of Bali’s very first five-star hotel, The Bali Beach Hotel in Sanur, was decorated with a Young Arttist painting. Famous visitors to Bali, such as the famous science visionary Buckminster Fuller and renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead made collections of their work. For Arie, in retrospect, developing the works of the Young Artists (in the 1960s) was an experiment in children's art, using their own environment as themes and using pure color as he did himself. Arie himself could not stay still. While remaining on the island of Bali, he moved from one place to another: Ubud, Campuhan, Sanur, Tanjung Bungkak near Denpasar, Singaraja, and even Lovina Beach.
Wherever he went, Arie always took his sketchbooks with him. He used sketches to record his observations of scenery and landscapes. He would note the nuance, colors, details, and other elements in the scenes that he picks out in the sketchbooks. As a landscape painter who has to deal with the multitude of forms visible in vast natural environments, Arie brings forth what he calls “the selective eye.” With such selective vision, the painter has the freedom to pick and choose from elements in the landscape that he considers significant enough to incorporate in his paintings. Since the 1970s, Arie Smit painted using mosaics of color that are brushed onto the canvas in rapid strokes. “With two opposites, namely the stillness of the subject and the movement of the brush strokes, one creates tension. With stillness alone, one falls asleep. With too much movement, one gets irritated. With tension, one gets full attention,” Arie says about the interplay of elements in his paintings. “My colors do not clash, they blend. Lines do not divide but unite,” he further asserts. While the architectural elements remain static, the surrounding nuance is built up of dynamic brush strokes. Arie works in a time-consuming process of layering color upon color but never completely covering the underlying pigments, resulting in lively and interesting variations which he calls ‘broken colors’. The artist’s spontaneous brush strokes, applied to outline or highlight the shapes and forms in his paintings in this period, often elicit a vibrant effect. “The brush strokes move and move. They create the life of the painting,” he affirms. The outlines of the forms of architecture, as well as the effects of the wind’s motion on the vegetation around the temple, all animate the nuance of the painting. Arie Smit’s works reflected his vibrant activities, constantly moving around the island and not being able to remain still at one place.
When he came on a return visit to Ubud in 1987, where he met his old acquaintance Suteja Neka, who introduced him to Jusuf Wanandi, who was a director at the prominent Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta and an avid art collector. Under the auspices of this prominent figure in Indonesian politics, a selection of Museum Neka’s collection, including Arie Smit’s paintings, was exhibited at the East West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1988. Since then, Wanandi became more an more interested in Arie’s paintings and started to amass a sound collection of the artist’s works. Arie finally decided to move back to Ubud in 1989, after living in Singaraja for four years, when Suteja Neka offered Arie Smit to stay at his Villa Sanggingan Bungalows, situated not far from the Neka Museum in Sanggingan. Arie accepted this kind offer.
Starting in 1990 he settled in at his new home, after having moved at least thirty times throughout the thirty-four years of his time in Bali. He was at last somewhere for good. “Now I am static – I am an old tree!” he later joked about his advancing years. While it seemed that he was going to retire, the artist continued to be productive and creative for over another decade. Until juat a few years ago, even after an eye cataract operation, he still painted in his studio, using his memories of the scenes that he has accumulated throughout almost half a century of his life on the Island of Bali.
Sadly, however in the last few years Arie has chosen to stop painting, spending his days quietly lying in bed. Although his memory still remains sharp as a razor, and physically he remains quite strong, it seems that his failing eyesight is the reason that he is no longer interested in searching for light and colors. He seems to be desparately waiting for his ultimate freedom, which perhaps is a kind of moksha, which he will attain when his time comes.
On his birthday, perhaps I should pay him a visit and tell him about someone who seems to be directly is opposite. in 2006, the Denpasar Distrct court sentenced Myuran Sukumaran to execution, by firing squad. In the years awaiting his execution, he took up painting at the Kerobokan prison, and has become a wonderful painter. He has been delivering art workshops in the prison, teaching art to his fellow inmates, in his attempt to turn his life around. “Please give me a second chance at life, I am trying to be a better person,” he said in November last year, as reported by the Jakarta Post. Unfortunately, his plea for clemency was rejected by the President of Indonesia Joko Widodo end of last year, and he is due to be executed soon. The lawyer representing him has begun to make an appeal against the Administrative Court's decision to deny them a chance to challenge the Indonesian president's refusal to consider granting them clemency. The court’s decision will be made in early April. If that attempt fails, it might just happen that Myuran will be executed in the middle of April, right on Arie’s birthday. Such is life, I guess, while some people are doing all they can to get another chance in live, even though it might be all spent in prison, some others can’t wait for their plugs to be pulled. In any case, Happy 99th birthday, Pak Arie. I hope I can get you searching for the light and colors again.