Native Balinese art began to evolve under the auspices of the Hindu-Buddhist traditions of the Majapahit Empire, which shaped almost every aspect of Balinese life, and which still underpins the culture of Bali today, despite the latter predominance of Islam everywhere else within the Indonesian archipelago.

The profusion of temples and shrines that characterise Bali’s cultural legacy are all a window into the long history of the architectural, artistic and sculptural skill of the island’s artisans, dedicated to the depictions of their richly developed spiritual iconography.

The traditional centre of classical Balinese craftsmanship was centred around the village of Kamasan in eastern Bali, until a revolution in style occurred during the 1930’s, when European artists began to arrive in Bali seeking their own inspiration and bringing with them the new mediums, techniques and styles of the modernist movement.

Where Balinese art forms had hitherto been wrought in the service of visually interpreting Hindu mythological scenes, the artists of Europe, who had themselves not long been liberated from the centuries old strictures of Christian art by other east Asian art forms, influenced Balinese artists to diversify into depicting scenes from nature and everyday life.

The most widespread developments were particularly evident in painting, the traditional forms of which were previously largely two dimensional profiles, with the sequential mythical storytelling aspects typically creating crowded vistas.

Painting for its own sake began to take hold, particularly around the Ubud area, and new themes, colours, perspective and shading began to permeate local art which soon produced some very fine works of beautifully rendered scenes of local life, which became much sought after.

Despite the obvious foreign influence on the liberation of Balinese art into the world of free expression, these artists did not simply imitate modern European styles, but created a unique hybrid sense of stylisation, at once recognisably and distinctly Balinese in character.

Indeed, many themes and features from Bali’s long Hindu culture, reinterpreted for the modern age, have since re-entered the visual language of Balinese art, to great and unusual effect.

In woodcarving too, an art form in which the Balinese have always had profound skills, the modernist influence began to alter the subject matter and forms became less traditionally proportional, adopting the modernist expressionism of elongated human and animal forms and utilising the natural twists in wood to produce evocative experimental ideas.

The village of Mas has become the main centre for woodcarving in Bali, and specialises in the very finest creations, and the best artists will spend considerable time seeking out particularly unusual pieces of wood from which to produce their masterworks, many of which are truly and breathtakingly extraordinary in both their vision and skill.

Nowadays, the creative breadth of scope and technique available to the astonishingly unique skills of Balinese artists has led to a richly deserved flourishing of their work on the international art market, and many of Bali’s artists produce superbly crafted and outstandingly beautiful original work, worthy of any collector. 

For the most discerning collectors, there are some very fine up-market galleries all over Bali, which feature the works of the most prized of contemporary Balinese artists, whose stunningly inspirational and brilliant work can rightly command very high prices.

In the 1960’s the global explosion of mass tourism would see many tourists flock to Bali, and the increasing demand for Balinese art led to the highly successful thriving art industry that visitors will encounter there today.

Inevitably, because of this insatiable acquisition, many of the works commonly found in the tourist gift shops are nowadays quickly produced, and often thematically similar, which is reflected in their relatively low price, but even among these, you will still find some very worthy fine paintings and carvings.

On a note of caution, however, visitors employing the use of local guides and drivers to take them to see art should be aware that there are some unscrupulous souls who operate ‘kickback’ arrangements of as much as 50% with many of the commercial tourist outlets to take visitors to their shops and help persuade them to buy art goods, by implying they are getting a real bargain.

Visitors should never buy an artwork they don’t truly want and should only pay for a desired item what they think it is worth. Bartering is a normal practice in Bali which requires some practice, but if you know how to play, you will get to the right price in the end.