Ida Bagus Tilem (Tilem) was born in 1936. His early life was not different from that of any other young Brahmin: he was poor in the midst of a world of dance and holy books. While his father, already a well known carver, spent his days carving alone in his own pavilion, his grand-father was preparing himself to become a high priest. Not allowed to play with his father’s instruments, Tilem learned by seeing him carving. All the more so as, now and then, a Westerner would show up, inquiring about his father’s works. The youth understood there was value in it.
From 1942 to 1945, Tilem could not go to school. It was the days of the Japanese occupation. What did he do? When not looking for food, he sharpened his eyes and techniques, turning pieces of wood into small animals. Then, at 10, upon the defeat of Japan, he could at last go to school in Mas. When back from school he would carve. In 1946, the Dutch were back –for a couple of years– and photos started circulating in the Western press of a young genius next to the great master. It was Tilem, barely 12. Soon, the young genius was peddling his father’s carving to the shops of Sanur and Denpasar. In 1949, he could buy his first bicycle.
In 1952, he went to study to junior high school in Denpasar, entrusted to a family of Denpasar Brahmins. But his father was soon unable to pay his school and living expenses. Rather than giving up, he took to carving after his school hours. Better he would hang about Denpasar hotels, looking for tourists he could invite to talk and thus improve his English; or he would go to Sanur to sell his father’s works. Later, when cruise ships anchored in Padang Bay, he went there biking all the way. So well and so often that he soon owned a Vespa. By then in senior high school, he did not only finance his own schooling, but also his whole family’s life expenses in Mas, where he went back every week-end.
In1958, his senior high school degree in his pocket, he had to make a decision. Should he go to university, look for a job as a clerk in a bank, or the like. He chose instead to go back to his village. He would become a carver like his father. And he would transform his father’s Brahmin’s house into an art shop. Tourists would thus come both to visit a typical Balinese house and its master artists.
By then, Balinese carving has evolved. To the simplicity of the elongated or squat style had succeeded an excessive working of wood. Balinese carving was becoming baroque and repetitive. Tilem dared to revolutionize it. He transformed the carver’s relation to wood. Instead of fully reshaping wood to create a character, or using its twisted shapes to simply enrich form, he allowed its natural deformations to guide his expression. He saw in each piece of deformed log or branch the medium of expression of human feelings. This brought about important changes. Instead of being narrative and depicting myths or scenes of daily life, like his predecessors and his father had done before, his works took an ‘abstract’ turn: he was now carving ‘Motherhood’, a ‘Thinking Man’ and other themes that involved a ‘psychological’ approach. In doing so, he was opening a new, more individualized phase in Balinese carving modernity. Nyana had initiated this modernity. His son Tilem brought it to full fruition.
Ida Bagus Tilem, however, was not only an artist, but also a teacher. He trained in his workshops dozens of young sculptors from the area around Mas. He taught them how to select wood for its expressive power, and how to establish the same kind of dialogue between wood and carver that he displayed in his own works. He gained a huge influence. The Tilem style has now become the prominent style in Balinese woodcarving. For this reason works of some of his best students are exhibited in this museum.