‘Spellbinding’ is an apt word to sum up the effects created by Russian-born German artist Walter Spies in his phantasmagoric, darkly glowing landscapes and figure paintings, particularly those that he fashioned when living in Java and Bali between 1923 and 1941. Tropical luxuriance has other superlative renderers in art – Gauguin, ‘Le Douanier’ Rousseau, Donald Friend – but none of their works has the eerie, mesmeric intensity of Spies’s. He deserves a full retrospective exhibition at that temple of early twentieth-century German art, the Neue Galerie, in New York (the last show of his work was in Holland back in 1980), but for the moment we can feast our eyes on the sumptuous illustrations in John Stowell’s biographical study of the artist – the first study in English of such substance, and a long-evolving project by an Australian scholar based at the University of Newcastle.
Walter Spies, Brown Boys and Rice Queens
Walter Spies: A Life in Art
by John Stowell
Afterhours Books, US$269 hb, 328 pp, 9786029658804
Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spellbinding Performance in the Asias
by Eng-Beng Lim
New York University Press (Footprint), $36.95 pb, 233 pp, 9780814759400
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Ian Britain is an honorary senior research fellow in the School of Historical Studies at the University of Melbourne. He is writing a biography of Donald Friend, as a complement to his edition of The Donald Friend Diaries: Chronicles and Confessions of an Australian Artist (2010).
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