Balinese art and literature guide

Traditional Balinese painting

Prior to the 1920s, Balinese art was virtually unknown to the outside world and its sole purpose was to decorate royal palaces and temples. These were adorned with colourful scenes from epic Hindu classic fables such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The finest example of this can be seen at Kerta Gosa, a royal pavilion located in the town of Klungkung.

The arrival of influential artists such as the German Walter Spies and Rudolph Bonnet from Holland after the First World War helped to expand the horizons of local artists and the village of Ubud soon emerged as a vibrant centre of Indonesian art. Even today Ubud is home to dozens of working expat artists and regularly hosts exhibitions from major names in the international art world.

Over the years artistic styles have evolved from whimsical rural landscapes and still life made famous in the nearby village of Pengosekan, to the avant garde ‘Young Artists’ scene of the 1960s.  Each of Ubud’s artistic villages are renowned for a particular style of painting.

These include Kamasan, famous for classical Hindu art, Batuan, the expressionistic works of Penestanan and the expat artistic haven of Campuhan. Some of the most evocative and certainly the oldest examples of Balinese art can be seen on ancient rock carvings found at nearby Yeh Pulu, Goa Gajah and the royal burial grounds of Gunung Kawi.

All styles can be viewed in Ubud’s major art museums. The best introduction to Balinese art can be experienced at the Neka Museum ( which displays works from the 17th century right up to the present day. It is the most comprehensive collection of art on the island with several pavilions devoted each to local and expat art, photography and sculpture.

You could easily spend a whole week doing nothing but browsing art in Ubud. There are literally hundreds of commercial galleries run by practising local artists. Other prominent art venues worth a browse include the Seniwati Gallery which promotes the work of female artists and the weird and wonderful kitsch of Symon’s Studio, located in the village of Campuhan.

There are lots of impressive works of art in situ at Ubud’s former royal palace and at local temples and even some of the most basic guesthouses are adorned with original and exuberant artwork. To really immerse yourself in the art scene here, you can take one day or residential courses in art appreciation at many cultural centres and workshops or learn the basics of painting, wood carving, calligraphy, batik textiles and much more.

Ubud has also been home to countless writers and poets over the years although its literature heritage is not as well documented. There have been numerous fictional accounts of life in Bali and a host of cultural and natural history books but little written from a Balinese perspective. The most famous modern exponent is Putu Sukanta, a respected writer and journalist.

The last decade has seen a vibrant writer’s scene develop in Ubud thanks to the world famous Ubud Writer’s and Reader’s Festival which is held each October. It is Southeast Asia’s foremost literature event and attracts high calibre writers, poets and media personalities. It features a week long series of lectures, storytelling, drama performances and international media events.