Essay

Finding and losing Eden

IN THE LATE 1960s, the peripatetic and mercurial Australian artist Donald Friend found something of the happiness he had long been seeking. By then in his fifties, he had been preoccupied since adolescence by often unrealisable ideas about beauty and the exotic, haunted for more than a decade by ageing and the prospect of death, and many times disappointed in love. It happened almost accidentally, at a time when – once again – he had decided to escape Australia. He had resided previously in Africa, the Torres Strait, Europe and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and now, for nearly twelve years, would live like a lord in Bali while regularly undertaking various excursions elsewhere, before the island became the popular tourist destination it is today.

Friend became an international celebrity artist, relishing the role of charmed outsider in an exotic Asian culture. He collected Balinese artefacts, jewels and antiquities, some of which he shipped to Australia, and generally indulged himself as thoroughly as he knew how. At the same time, he became – somewhat haphazardly – a champion of Balinese culture as he understood it. Balinese iconography populated his paintings, and he wrote manuscripts and books about Balinese life and culture, including The Cosmic Turtle, drawing on his fascination with the island's ritual life and history. He adopted Balinese modes of dress; the Balinese love of elaboration and decoration infiltrated his aesthetic judgements.

Traditional Balinese culture of the 1960s had assimilated the influences of Dutch colonial rule after 1906 – when many Balinese royal and religious figures engaged in a disastrous puputan, or an acceptance of death before dis-honour, against a technologically superior opponent – and had also adapted to the subsequent passing of Balinese sovereignty to the Republic of Indonesia in 1949. Nevertheless, traditional culture remained a potent force on the island. Animist religious traditions mixed with beliefs and practices derived from an imported Hinduism, and to a lesser extent Buddhism, enlivened everyday existence in an immediate, sometimes dramatic way. Magic, sorcery and the spirit world remained powerfully present in the life of most Balinese.

Not long before Friend arrived on the island, tens of thousands had been killed as a result of Balinese political infighting and by soldiers loyal to Indonesian General Suharto, following an attempted coup in 1965. Suharto justified the carnage largely on the basis that the victims were suspected communists or communist sympathisers. Following these events, which were part of widespread unrest within Indonesian territories – and in line with policies that Suharto would soon employ as Indonesian President, encouraging Westerners to invest in Indonesia – Bali was ripe for modernisation. Despite his romantic disposition, Friend participated actively in the commercialisation of Balinese life and its increased economic reliance on tourism – so much so that by the time he left the island he was aware it was no longer the country he had loved. If this was partly because Friend always grew tired of the places in which he lived, he was also profoundly ambivalent about the process of change itself. It was characteristic of him that he became one of the agents of change, enjoying fame, money and the company of Australian and European expatriates while simultaneously desiring a simple and uncomplicated existence, away from the disruption of unwanted visitors. His extensive and eloquent diaries repeatedly reveal that he knew his life was a play of contrary impulses and pleasures. Like Walt Whitman, he would have been pleased to say: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself."

 

AN IMPULSE LED to Friend's discovery of Bali. In 1966 he had decided to return to Europe, where he planned to meet the artist Mitty Lee-Brown, with whom he had previously collaborated, and her husband Bill Gordon. But, as he noted in his diary on October 28, 1966, he was initially unsure where he should travel first: "I can't bring my mind to make even the necessary decision as to which countries of the world I'll spend a month or two in so as to delay my arrival in Greece until spring. Fiji? Samoa? Trinidad? Marrakesh? – or go the other way, Mauritius, Ethiopia, Alexandria."

Typically, these were all "exotic" destinations for an Australian, alive in his imagination with the possibilities of adventure and sexual fulfilment. A diary entry reveals him speculating about whether "one's personal view of geography [is] entirely coloured by sexual fantasies". He concludes by supposing that it is. As it turned out, Friend departed for Djakarta from Sydney in late December, soon commenting that the Indonesian capital was not trustworthy: "In a few moments of Djakarta, one sensed something infinitely illogical and somehow violent overlaid with a languorous and heavy sweetness." Friend would never overcome his aversion to this city; however, shortly afterwards when he arrived in Bali, he was captivated: "It was a delight to sit in amongst the beautiful warm brown people with their heavenly warm sweet smoky smell."

Part of Bali's attraction was also his introduction to Mitty Lee-Brown's "obliging and amiable" friend Wija Wawo-Runtu who, Friend observed, owned "the most enchanting house and garden with beach bungalows which he lets". Given the extensive building activity and property development that Friend would enter into in Bali, it is as if, on arrival, he immediately intuited his own future there. He would undertake many of these activities in collaboration with Wawo-Runtu, whom he continued to trust for years, just as he had lived and worked closely with Bevis Bawa in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the late 1950s. Much as with Bawa, however – but perhaps for more cogent reasons – his friendship with Wawo-Runtu waned over time and ended in Friend's disillusionment.

Friend had been longing for a country that had "hot and cold running water, proper lavatories, handsome boys, edible food, fine landscapes, magnificent art, an agreeable climate, and yet had not been over-run by the vast predatory ignorant, ugly, vulgar multitudinous horde of tourists". In Bali, he suddenly found a country with many of these attributes – apart from its primitive plumbing and what he perceived to be its relatively unsophisticated, "rococo" contemporary art scene. He wrote later that the "island itself for years had been a favourite part of my imagination's geography ... the Bali of my erratic imagination was a pleasing source of fantasies beyond the scope of proper map-maker's longitudes and latitudes."

Once again, Friend was entranced by the prospect of leaving behind his Australian responsibilities and of finding "some little fragment of [this world's] best miracle that will fire me anew with better and more marvellous hints of what dreams we have of such things that were before Eden was forbidden us". He remained infatuated with the prospect of living among dark-skinned people with an elaborate culture, following patterns of existence that largely derived from a pre-technological age. Earlier, in Africa, the Torres Strait and Ceylon, Friend had found places that had partly conformed to his fantasy of a charged, sensuous paradise, riotous with colourful life and the possibility of undiminished sexual satisfaction. Bali, even more than these locations, seemed to offer a reflection of his complex, self-serving imagination: "The narrow track cut through these parallel stripes of verdure in a long descent beside irrigation streams. Children splashed. Peasants sang at their work: the happiest countryside I've ever seen. Birds skimmed through the radiant air singing like mad. It was wonderful. It was like being young again."

Such a hyperbolic passage has the hallmarks of a narcissistic and wish-fulfilling dream (even though this evocation of paradise is soon undercut by Friend's description of the "hushed, crablike slow-motion" and "hideous quiet faces" of a leper colony). In such a state of mind, charmed by the extravagance of his own vision, Friend was marvellously capable of seeing what he wanted to see – of populating his fantasies with the ordinary people he met and drew and the landscapes he saw and painted.

 

FRIEND DID NOT settle in Bali immediately. Instead, after two months at the Tandjung Sari Hotel at Sanur, he flew to Bombay to meet Lee-Brown and Gordon. They travelled briefly in India, then in Isphahan, Shiraz and Istanbul. He met the artist Justin O'Brien in Athens, journeying with him in Greece, where they were joined by fellow artist Brian Dunlop. However, a restless Friend soon decided that he was "homesick for Bali". He returned there, via Rome, in July 1967, buying land at Batujimbar on Sanur Beach where he began to build a house. In December, he returned to Sydney to finalise his domestic affairs and was asked by the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board to buy a collection of Balinese art for Australia.

By March 1968, he was back on the island, moving into his new house in May. He immediately retained a number of "houseboys" of varying ages. During his stay in Bali, the number of these boys and his other servants and gardeners, including some women, expanded to such an extent – during some periods there were perhaps twenty or more people – that he had difficulty managing them. Typically they were from poor families in nearby villages, and the modest wages paid by Friend represented a significant income in Bali, especially as he regularly gave many of them gifts. While sometimes authoritarian, he expressed a paternal affection and tolerance towards them (his occasional comments about his female servants tended to be dismissive and misogynistic). He encouraged them to learn to play the gamelan, and in this way created an orchestra with which he entertained guests. Nevertheless, homesick boys often deserted his household to return to their villages, and he dismissed those who made mischief or who refused to work as he wished. He also engaged in sexual relationships with several of them. As he had throughout his life, he saw such relationships as a natural expression of personal intimacy and he also continued to link his erotic experiences directly to his work as an artist. It is no surprise that the Balinese soon began to refer to him, somewhat ambiguously, as Tuan Raksasa (Lord Demon) – a phrase which recognised his role as guardian for his household, his European colouring, and his enjoyment of sensual indulgence.

Once settled in his house, and inspired by his new surroundings, he began work on the manuscript that would be published in 1972 as Donald Friend in Bali – the first of various illustrated books and manuscripts he produced on the island. These projects saw him extend the skills he had honed for nearly 40 years in his illustrated diaries and occasional publishing ventures into a self-conscious and highly sophisticated artistic practice – not unlike that of a medieval scribe and calligrapher, but with the licence to do as he wanted. Amanda Beresford has commented that working on illustrated manuscripts "allowed Donald Friend greater freedom than did his painting to explore ideas of diverse kinds requiring verbal as well as visual expression". An important part of his originality was to combine words and images in a series of shifting and suggestive relationships, where both elements depended on and were enhanced by the other – or, as he wrote: "One must take into account not only the shape of the area of writing but also consider the intellectual impact of the words that are written ..." Friend could make such a success of this enterprise because, as well as possessing rare skills as a draughtsman, he was highly literate. And his diaries remained important to the process; in them, he often rehearsed preoccupations that later received more formal expression.

He transferred much of his restless creativity into these projects, again demonstrating his extraordinary, protean versatility. On the other hand, and with a significant number of notable exceptions, his Balinese paintings tended towards an eviscerated superficiality. This was partly because he was prolific, producing many works to satisfy the demands of often short-term commercial imperatives, and it was also because there were times when he seemed to lose his way. He summarised this problem as early as 1969: "I am probably at the peak of my powers as a painter, and at the lowest ebb of my inventive faculty. Success and Reputation bring me, instead of jubilation, hosts of interruptions, mental fatigue and lots of money." Nevertheless, and irrespective of his numerous other achievements in Bali, his illustrated manuscripts – only some of which were published – confirm his place as one of Australia's significant twentieth-century artists.

 

THE NEARLY TWENTY-THREE-YEAR period from December 1966 – when Friend left Australia for Indonesia en route to India – until his death in 1989 has become coloured by folklore. Friend was highly charming when he chose to be, and difficult, even curmudgeonly, at other times. His period in Bali accentuated these qualities, as he entertained numerous invited and uninvited visitors over more than a decade – most of whom took back to Australia, and other countries, stories about his luxurious living conditions, the beauty of his surroundings and his extraordinary way of life. As his celebrity status grew, he attracted to Bali other artists and writers – not to mention the wealthy who were in search of a congenial location for their holidays. The visits of Mick Jagger and the Duke and Duchess of Bedford, for example, added to the glittering aura of his reputation.

Yet, even before arriving in Bali, Friend had noted in his diaries how great the dichotomy was between the phenomenon of fame and the lives of the famous (although typically, in Friend's formulation, "fairytales" and reality remained blurred), and his public reputation disguised many private preoccupations, including significant difficulties and dissatisfactions: "Fame has not much connection with what you truly are: even less with what you think you are. Fame exists from the moment that many ignorant people realise you exist ... Some of us live as legends because the best way we know to tell the truth is to invent fairytales."

As Friend's years in Bali lengthened, he frequently confessed to feelings of loneliness and disaffection – issues that had troubled him throughout his life but which were now compounded by increasing age and ill-health. In adopting the island as his home, Friend had wanted the stimulus of new ideas and a fresh encounter with ancient mythologies, as if the life of humanity at large – to be discovered and understood in its particular manifestations in different countries of the world – would always be more stimulating to him than his Australian heritage. But it was as if he lost his Balinese paradise almost as soon as he found it, producing art for profit and distracted by numerous other concerns. It is no surprise that he concluded in 1979: "I have no more faith in the place." Bali had been his final attempt to make real his dream of Eden and, like all such dreams, in the face of reality it could not be sustained. 

© Copyright 2006 Griffith University & the author.

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