Skip to Content

Arie Smit: Personal chronicle of a great artist

by June 13, 2016 General

The prominent artist behind the Young Artists art movement in Bali lived a rich life.

In April Arie Smit, A Painter’s Life in the Tropics, a biography of the legendary artist, was published by Pictures Publishers Art Books, in the Netherlands. The 280-page book by Lucienne Smit, 63, had been meant to celebrate Arie’s 100th birthday on April 15 this year, but sadly, he died a few days earlier on March 23.

Lucienne Smit, a fine arts master and graduate of St. Joost Academie in Breda, is Arie’s niece. She is the daughter of Arie’s younger brother, Bert Smit (1926-1998). As a fellow artist, she felt obliged to write about her uncle wholeheartedly, prompting her to make frequent visits to Bali to delve into Arie’s life on the Island of the Gods.

After compiling notes on Arie’s youth in Holland and documents that recorded his creative activity during the Dutch East Indies period, the book finally appeared with a broad coverage.

We were soldiers once:  Arie Smit in the uniform of the Dutch army, 1938. (Source: Arie Smit, A Painter’s Life in the Tropics)
Lucienne presents the life of Arie in chronological order through 15 chapters, each comprising 10 to 15 subtitles so that all events are depicted with accentuation and significance. Chapter 1, From Zaandam to Java 1916-1938, for instance, describes Arie’s military training under the title Military service ; KNIL Training to Departure for the Indies.

Chapter 6, Arie Becomes an Indonesian 1950-1955, details his meetings with artistic figures in Indonesia like Ries Mulder and Indonesian author Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana. Chapter 10, Visit to Holland 1971-1973, recounts his visits to Western Europe, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India and Thailand. An introduction by Dutch art historian Helena Spanjaard makes this book more complete.

Arie Smit’s personal chronicle was indeed full of turbulence and thrills. The days before he was born were even marked by a flood. On April 13, 1916, Waterlandse Zeedijk, a northern Dutch province, was flooded, submerging the house of his parents, Hendrikus Johannes Smit and Elizabeth Ahling in Zaandam. Amid the chaotic situation, Adrianus Wilhelmus “Arie” Smit was born on April 15.

Arie was the child of a wealthy entrepreneur in Zaandam. As a youth, he studied painting at the Rotterdam Art Academy. But his intense involvement in art was put on hold when he was deployed on military service. In 1938, he had to sail to the then Dutch East Indies to be assigned to Batavia, now Jakarta, and Bandung in West Java as a lithographer for the topographical service. Unexpectedly, life in the Indies appealed to him.

He enjoyed its gorgeous scenery, warm air and appetizing food, which was why he later delightedly kept the bill for his meal while dining at Nan Hian Restaurant, Kebondjatiweg, Bandung, on October 8, 1938. Arie’s choice from the menu was written on the bill: nasi goreng spesial (special fried rice) and two bananas.

Before he went further into the world of fine art, the war with Japan broke out. Holland surrendered on March 8, 1942. Arie and thousands of other soldiers serving in East Java were imprisoned in Malang. Later they were shipped to Singapore, Thailand and finally to Burma to undertake forced labor.

One day:
Arie Smit and his paintings, 1965. (Source: Arie Smit, A Painter’s Life in the Tropics)

This formerly desk-bound soldier engaged in hard labor to build the so-called Railway of Death over the River Kwai along with American, British and Australian comrades and tens of thousands of Asian slave laborers. It was a major event portrayed in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai directed by David Lean. Interestingly, Arie documented his letter of detention by Japanese troops.

After the war, an emaciated Arie returned to Batavia for another assignment to the topographical service’s reproduction division, located in Koningsplein (now the National Monument or Monas square). His three-year duty earned him promotion to the rank of sergeant.

In 1949 the Dutch left Indonesia. Those already employed could stay, and were even granted a bonus of 4,000 guilders. Arie, having worked as a layout man with publisher AC Nix in Bandung, finished his military service. It was his opportunity to declare himself a painter. In 1950 he became an Indonesian citizen.

His career as a professional painter began with his first solo exhibition in Plaju, South Sumatra, sponsored by BPM (Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschappij). He was invited to Bandung to teach graphic art at the Bandung Institute of Technology. In 1956 he went to Bali, which he considered his adopted homeland and where he freely moved around as a great artist.

In 1960 he began to teach poor children in Penestanan hamlet, Ubud district, to become painters. Arie formed a group called the Young Artists. His first students included Ketut Soki, Nyoman Gerebig, Made Sinteg, Nyoman Tjakra, Wayan Pugur, Nyoman Londo, Ketut Tagen, Gusti Ngurah KK, then aged 10 to 15.

As the youngsters were originally duck herders, Arie had to persuade them to join him and even pay compensation to their parents in order to hire people to take care of their ducks in their absence.

Arie’s effort was fruitful and the Young Artist painting style grew rapidly. When Mount Agung erupted in March 1963 and Bali had no tourists for almost a year, Young Artist paintings helped economically. Thousands of the works were exported to meet demand from foreign collectors and art dealers.

History records the Young Artists as the largest movement in Bali to date, with artists and craftspeople of all ages. Arie Smit was awarded the Wijaya Kusuma and Dharma Kusuma gold medals by the Bali government, followed by a medal from Sanggar Dewata, an organization observing visual artists’ creativity and contributions to Bali. Dozens of his works are displayed by Suteja Neka in a special pavilion at the Neka Museum, Ubud.

Arie Smit maintained his physical and mental health until he was nearly 100 years old. Lucienne reveals his lifestyle formula in her book by recounting that Arie was a painter who was always following the changing times. He always felt young and was capable of becoming immersed in the prevailing era.

Vibrant spirit: A painting by Arie Smit. (Photo by Agus Dermawan T.)

In 1978, in a letter to Lucienne on her 25th birthday, Arie wrote, “My last letter to you concerned pop music. Right now my favorites are Deep Purple and another band, Pink Floyd. I’m also crazy about Fleetwood Mac. I own the following Pink Floyd albums: Animals, Ummagumma, Obscured by Clouds and Wish You Were Here.”

Back then, people of his age commonly listened to Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland or Patti Page.

The book is adorned with hundreds of documentary photos, maps of Arie’s working places, various postcards, sketches, drawings and paintings he created dating back to the 1930s. There are also clippings featuring Arie as a modern art legend of Bali equal to Walter Spies, Le Mayeur and Rudolf Bonnet, and as popular as Antonio Blanco.

Sadly again, Arie Smit did not get the opportunity to read and enjoy his personal chronicle, which reads like a fairy tale.

Arie Smit, A Painter’s Life in the Tropics (280 pages)
Lucienne Smit
Pictures Publishers Art Books, Netherlands, 2016