The Anthony Forge Collection of Balinese Paintings (early 19th century – 1970s)
Top marks for the incidental collection
The Australian Museum holds one of the world’s most significant collections of Balinese paintings. This is one of the few anthropology collections that allow the Museum to claim high international status. This collection of 160 paintings is arguably the best documented, mainly because Professor Anthony Forge, who assembled the collection, comprehensively studied the painting tradition in Bali in the 1970s. Collecting paintings was not intended, but it grew organically during his fieldwork as a useful means of engaging with the artists-informants and as a vivid illustration of this evolving tradition. So the collection was simply a minor part of an extensive anthropological study, documenting and attempting to understand the tradition of Balinese ‘visual narratives’. As his intention was to document stylistic and iconographic change over time, Forge purchased a considerable variety of paintings. Some of the early 19th century paintings were obtained from community temples, while the newest, produced in the 1970s, were purchased or commissioned directly from artists.
Balinese paintings reflect a unique practice of story-telling in a codified context of the Balinese brand of Hindu mythology. This permeates every aspect of life, spiritual, ideological, social and political, defining distinctive Balinese culture. Curiously, this codified system allows ample room for recombining narratives and symbols to comment on current social and political issues and even to challenge established norms. In this way Balinese culture is evolving and adapting to new situations, without relinquishing its distinct identity.
Paintings are the visual reflection of these complex narratives and the meaning is derived from stories and the contexts in which they are told. Paintings don’t conform neatly to the western concept of art. They are primarily functional, to be used in private and public shrines, as well as more secular contexts. Moreover, in his seminal research, Anthony Forge shifted attention from upper casts to the commoners (Sudra). This radically expanded our understanding of paintings and Balinese culture.
Dr Stan Florek , Database Manager