Hunt For Lempad Returns Art to Bali, by Sara Schonhardt

Bali, Indonesia - bringing together the work of one of Bali’s most accomplished artists was a job cut out for a detective. It took years of investigation that involved digging through archives at museums in Europe and the U.S. and tracking down private collections equally scattered.

“It’s just tracking step by step, following the pieces of the puzzle,” said Soemantri Widagdo, the chief curator at Ubud’s Puri Lukisan Museum, host to an extraordinary exhibition of art by I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, much of which has not been seen in his birthplace of Ubud on Bali for generations.

It showcases mostly pre-World War II drawings that made their way overseas in the hands of art collectors like Margaret Mead, an American cultural anthropologist, and Gregory Bateson, a British anthropologist and social scientist. In doing so, it tells the story of a man who reinvented himself late in life and helped to spread tales about Balinese culture far beyond the island’s beaches and rice paddies.

The artist known simply as Lempad was already well respected in Bali as a renaissance creator-–crossing into architecture, sculpture and cremation towers-–something known in Bali culture as an undagi. When he began sketching, he was already in his 60s, and most of his work was created for Westerners, not a local audience. 

Most of the collection at the museum comes from the archives of the American Museum of Natural History and the U.S. Library of Congress. A 424-page book of more than 560 drawings was also produced to coincide with the exhibition and launched at its opening in late September.

Lempad Gusti Nyoman

Mr. Widagdo says he hopes the book might draw out people who have undiscovered Lempad works in their possession. He estimates that there are more than 1,000 drawings in total.

It was an unexpected tip-off Mr. Widagdo received in 2011 that helped intensify his search, which took off with a call that a Lempad had been discovered in Austria.

From there, Mr. Widado followed the breadcrumbs to Leiden, Germany, and went one by one to the different museums in the city. In 2013, a researcher there told him he’d heard there were also some drawings in Sweden. Mr. Widagdo used that tip to track down a photograph of an exhibition in Sweden that showed displays of Lempad’s artwork.

He says he is particularly proud of that find because it required so many dots to be connected. In total, Mr. Widagdo’s search took more than six years of travel and digging.

Getting the drawings back to Bali was equally difficult, since most of the pieces are in fragile condition. “We were lucky enough to bring most of them that we wanted,” said Mr. Widagdo, referring to the 98 pieces that are part of the Ubud exhibition.

Mr. Widadgo, who is now retired, says he would like to do another exhibition that includes new drawings, but he realizes it could take another six or eight years of searching. The current exhibition will end this weekend, but he hopes it has gone some way toward reinvigorating Lempad’s work and making it accessible to young Indonesians.

“Lempad is a singular artist in Bali and I think he’s the most important artist in Bali,” said Mr. Widadgo. Because of his talent and connection to Ubud’s royal family in the early part of the 20th century, “he was able to distill all this knowledge of the culture. He could hear these legends that most people weren’t privileged [to hear]. To me, he’s a genius.”

Wall Street Journal, 20 Nov. 2014.