Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Carrying on the Tradition

QUESTION: I recently purchased a small wooden sculpture of a crane. It looks to be carved from an exotic wood, but I’m not sure what kind. It has a sleek, streamlined appearance, much like sculptures from the Art Deco Period of the 1920s and 1930s. Can you tell me anything about my sculpture—when and where it was made and perhaps who made it?

ANSWER: It looks to me as if you have a piece of Balinese wood carving. Your crane has the style and shows the fine workmanship of pieces from that part of Indonesia. Dating it is more of a challenge because much of the contemporary wood carving of Bali was heavily influenced by the style of Art Deco. And even more recent pieces have that look.

Wood carving, dating back 3,000 years, is the most popular medium for artistic expression in Indonesia, and the diversity of Indonesia's wood carvings is remarkable.

In the times of Bali's old feudal kingdoms, woodcarving served as temple decoration. Wood was also utilized in such everyday household features as carved beams, columns, doors for houses, and implements like musical instruments, tool handles, and bottle-stoppers. Carvers painted these carvings in bright colors, lacquer, or gold leaf and seldom left the wood raw.

There are two main types of Balinese woodcarving. The first is traditional carving in bas-relief tableaux and plaques, used mainly for decorating temple doors, walls and columns, plus small statues of deities and mythical heroes, designed for use in public buildings. The second type is contemporary woodcarving, featuring highly stylized human or animal figures, often grotesque, almost psychotic—expressing the Balinese fear of the supernatural and a strong, sensual feeling for nature.

One of Bali’s most noted wood carvers was Ida Bagus Nyana, who worked in the village of Mas. His son, Ida Bagus Tilem, carries on the tradition today.

Ida Bagus Njana created abstract sculptures of human beings and surrealistic knotty "natural" sculptures out of gnarly tree trunks. He used small incisions on the surface to indicate contours while the wavy grain of the wood contributing to the motion of the figure. He was also the original creator of the fat statues of toads, elephants, and sleeping women now on sale all over Bali.

Nyana allowed his son, Tilem, to develop his skills, unhindered, while teaching the boy to be patient. Gradually, Tilem developed his talent, carving tiny birds, animals, and traditional figures, despite battered hands from his first few attempts with his father’s razor-sharp chisels. He was able to sell his carvings to tourists and pay for his schooling.

Tilem decided to leave school and set up a studio at his home in Mas in 1958, where he sold his own work to help his family. He furnished wood and tools to local boys who couldn't afford them. Eventually, he had over 100 apprentices and 100 carvers working with him. He was chosen to represent Indonesia at the New York Worlds Fair in 1964 and has had numerous overseas exhibitions.

During the 1930s and 1940s Balinese wood carving underwent a transformation when the main art center shifted to Ubud and its surrounding villages. The 1930s brought an influx of tourists, and a dramatic change in the perspective of Balinese wood sculptors. Shops, street corners, hotel lobbies, marketplaces, the airport, and harbors suddenly blossomed with objets d'art   produced to sell. In contrast to the traditional polychrome, mythological religious carvings, more realistic statues of peasants toiling, nude girls bathing and deer grazing appeared, themes that found a very ready market among the tourists. All in natural polished woods.

Most Balinese wood carvers favor teak wood, though it has become increasingly expensive. Teak is one of the best woods because it is easily carved and is less susceptible to warping, splitting, insects and rot. Carvers will occasionally use mahogany and ebony, both of which are also very expensive. Besides the more exotic woods, carvers use jackfruit, a cheap, common wood, though it tends to warp and split, as well as tamarind, hibiscus, frangipani, and kayu jepun, and sawo, a beautiful dark red wood.

The texture of the grain determines the nature of the piece to be carved. Dark ebony, particularly pieces with striped grain, are best suited for vertical shapes or faces. Rarer are pieces made of unpolished ebony (sanded and brushed only) where you can make out the grain in the wood. The blackest ebony might be used to depict a subject of great dignity. Satinwood, a light striped, beige-colored wood native to Bali, may inspire pieces of a softer theme. The grain often follows a skin pattern or veins in the arms of the statue.

The sounds of gentle hammering, sanding, and spontaneous chatter of the woodcarvers fill the lanes in villages like Mas. They sit cross-legged on the floor surrounded by piles of freshly carved wood chips and rough, uncut blocks as chickens peck their way around the tools. The sweet aroma of clove cigarettes and coffee hangs over the warm, humid air.

Carvers work with simple tools—a hand-held knife or a chisel struck with a hammer or mallet. The art of the wood carver depends on knowledge of specific woods, skill in fashioning the material, and talent in design.
Traditionally, they smoothed their pieces with pumice and gave them a high polish by rubbing them with bamboo. Traditionally, they treated and stained their carvings with oils to achieve a pleasing subtle gloss, but now Balinese artisans find that neutral or black shoe polish produces much the same result with half the effort.
In the main woodcarving centers, high-quality carvings sell for as much as US$3,500 apiece. Contemporary carvings in natural woods begin selling for around $25 and go as high as $500 online.

But regardless of how commercial the subject matter, all carvings share certain characteristics and techniques uniquely Balinese. Even the copyists work strictly within the self-imposed rules of an established style.

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