Travel

Above Ubud’s thronging streets there’s an eerie quiet within a Spanish artist’s rococo fantasy filled with nudes and Michael Jackson. By Patrick Lau.

Blanco Renaissance Museum, Ubud, Bali

The Blanco Renaissance Museum, Ubud, Bali.
Credit: Age Fotostock / Alamy

The first thing that strikes me is the solitude.

Even here in Ubud – miles from the clutter of Kuta, the din of Denpasar – there’s an ever-present tension to Bali. Although it’s known as a centre of art and culture rather than a party town, the air is thick with humidity and the hum of commerce. Footpaths are nearly non-existent, and during the high seasons and the international writers’ festival the city becomes a massive ruck of backpackers, families and conference attendees. Walking through the midday crush on Jalan Raya Ubud, the main strip, feels like conga dancing in a sweat lodge.

My host, Nyoman, has recommended I escape the heat by visiting the Blanco Renaissance Museum. Stepping through the archway to the gardens, I’m immediately grateful for his suggestion. The museum, the converted residence of the artist Antonio Blanco, sits on a hillside overlooking the valley below Campuhan Ridge on the outskirts of Ubud’s town centre. Surrounded by foliage and boasting a waterfall, the garden paths leading up are cool and quiet. Despite the artist’s purported fame, the museum seems curiously ill-attended. In three hours, I come across only a handful of other visitors.

The entrance is an English country garden gone troppo. A jumble of misshapen pavers stretches across a close-cut lawn, crowding a fountain at the centre. Parasols and yellow frangipani litter the shrubbery. An assortment of dozy parrots and cockatoos interrogate one another with coos, and I’m pretty sure I spot a peacock escaping into the undergrowth.

The villa itself is a rococo leviathan, complete with cherubs and copper crenellations. It wouldn’t look out of place in a central European capital, if it weren’t for the two dragon balustrades snaking down the flanks of the entrance steps. Overlooking it all is an enormous deva – easily three storeys tall – whose legs I have to pass through. It’s the sort of saint-or-devil figure that is perched everywhere across Ubud’s Hindu architecture, magnified to absurdity.

I’m reminded of Gaudí, the architect whose seashell facades and Gothic spires dominate Barcelonan postcards. The comparison, I later find out, is apt. Don Antonio Blanco identified as a Catalan. His art and character seem to have been influenced by those Surrealist contemporaries Dalí and Miró. Fond of a beret and a painter’s smock, Blanco was happy to play the part of the eccentric artist.

A long lick of red paint points the way up the stairs to the entrance. In the silence and stillness, I think of the story of the crocodile with a bird in its mouth. I get a sense that the museum is a lolling monster with an open mouth and a treasure in its belly, ready to digest the unwary art lover. After a final ramble around the gardens I head in.

Inside, the walls blare with brilliant blue, red and yellow. Columns painted in veiny pastels break up the enormous entrance hall. The rooms bustle with gilt fixtures, gilt cornices, gilt plinths and filigree everything. If you can imagine Versailles redone in primary colours, or a wedding cake decorated by Kath and Kim, you’re getting close to the degree of ostentation. Subtle it ain’t.

But even that cannot distract from the artist’s obvious regard for the Balinese tradition of going topless. The nude odalisque is hardly a unique subject, but Blanco elevated it to a mania. Everywhere I turn, images of eroticised Balinese women dance, lounge and smirk at me from canvas. I feel like a furtive voyeur, creeping through a harem. The quality is not inspiring, and the guestbooks confirm I’m not alone in my unease in the uniformity of their subject – one visitor has likened the experience to browsing a second-hand collection of pornography.

There are a few still lifes, portraits and pastorals, but the obvious fascination with the topless female form dominates. Later, Nyoman will tell me in whispers: “Balinese women used to carry things above their head. Heavy things. It made their chests very strong. When Europeans first came here, they’d never seen anything like it before.”

I’m more impressed by the artworks’ frames. Each painting is presented with mounts and frames made of flotsam, found materials, metalwork or purpose-built timber. Some resemble intricate Swiss watches, some have Hindu motifs, but each is uniquely designed to complement its paintings.

The Blanco museum doesn’t fit my preconception of an art gallery – I’m used to sterile white walls that let the artworks speak for themselves – sober atmospheres, as modest and impersonal as a butler. Here, the paintings leak into the frames, the frames stretch into the building, the building sprawls out into its environment. It’s as though Blanco was not trying to portray an image or an idea, but to distil Bali into his pictures, filtered through his existence.

But in some of his work I also see the combined excesses of Gauguin and Baz Luhrmann – more orientalism than objet d’art; more kitsch than cultural exchange. It’s possibly a fine line to tread, especially in Bali where day-to-day life is dominated by the presence and demands of outsiders: Jakartans escaping the capital for a weekend; other Indonesian workers flown in to build hotels or fry noodles; Australians and Japanese and nouveau-riche Chinese looking to eat, pray, love the day away and party through the night.

Tourism is turning up the volume on everything. As Bali’s tourism industry increasingly dominates the economy and culture of the island, it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish between the authentic and the commercial fantasy. Every attention-seeking square inch of territory seems in search of a more profitable existence.

I may not love Blanco’s Bali – his island of milk and honey – but he was explicitly true to a personal vision of a tourist trap. For Blanco, an outsider who made Bali his home, a place is a subjective experience, to be owned and re-imagined and re-articulated. There’s an honesty to that, at least, though he was perhaps a touch thematically monomaniacal for my liking.

Happily, towards the end of the gallery tour, the paintings from Blanco’s later life and work become more experimental. Fragments of poetry and sculpture wrestle across canvases, eventually, and unexpectedly, revealing an obsession with Michael Jackson. The artworks swirl into a complex mess of meaning, like a lad’s magazine written in a foreign language. Eventually all that’s left are collages of breasts, phalluses and the King of Pop.

It strikes me as fitting that Jackson would resonate with Blanco’s performative lifestyle. But by this point I’ve more than had my fill. I decline the offer to have my picture taken with the cockatoo, gulp down a complimentary tea at the eerily empty restaurant, and head off down the hill.

When I arrive back at Nyoman’s home, he’s busy in the courtyard with his latest project – a three-metre tall statue made of styrofoam and papier mâché. A demonic face is slowly forming among the struts and wires. In broken Bahasa I ask him about it.

“This is for Nyepi,” he tells me, “the new year. Everybody who lives in this street makes these statues.”

Itu seni? Is it art?”

He pauses for a moment. “Could be. We burn them – it’s traditional.”

As I ponder this, something else occurs to him. “We have to stay inside on Nyepi. We have to relax. You can go outside, but everything will be closed.”

It makes sense. Nyepi means quiet.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 11, 2017 as "Bali corn". Subscribe here.

Patrick Lau
is a Sydney-based arts and culture writer.

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