Battiss Analysis

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  • Some Paintings analysed
  • Bibliography

Some Paintings analysed by previous students

People Enjoying (1979) Watercolour on Paper

In his watercolour People Enjoying Battiss displays a synergy of his multiple interests, especially his fascination with Bushmen Rock art. His quirky personality and humour is reflected in both the title and the images he chooses to depict. The line and shapes of the images are drawn with the simplicity found in rock paintings and colours are similar to those found in rock art; ochres, browns, black, white, blue and green, as if using natural pigments.

There is no perspective or illusion of space, and the composition is much like the rock paintings where figures are piled on top of each other. The Focal Point is no particular area and your eye moves from object to object, reflecting a general overallness of composition, yet when you focus on the painting, the figures in the left top corner draws the eye and leads you down to the bottom left and up to the right hand corner.

 

The two figures in the top left are very similar to the Egyptian goddess of the sky, Nuit or how she is often traditionally depicted.

Then below that is what appears to be  a traditional rock painting that has over time lost parts of the original image as with many traditional rock art works where the pigments either fades away or parts chips off. In the bottom left hand corner is a figure that resembles an Egyptian priest with hands stretched out as if calling upon the gods. Perhaps beginning to enter his trance state, or calling upon the gods. A figure standing with his hands out stretched and palm open facing up often indicates a state transcendence. As if to enforce this, next to this image there is a spiralling sphere which many sources say is sign of power like an atom which has electron shells around, and that each new layer of the spiral represents an increase in spiritual power, or deeper levels of entering a trance. Spirals are found all over the world in rock art.

It is now believed that the geometrics found at Driekopseiland were a depiction of the entoptics created by the optic nerve in the initial stages of an altered state. The shaman experienced these varied abstract shapes via intense drumming and dancing, sometimes in conjunction with hallucinogens. Just rub your eyes hard to get a mild sense of this phenomenon.There are numerous spiral petroglyphs at Driekops Eiland. ( Battiss studied and wrote about the the petroglyphs from Driekops Eiland)

Drie Kops Eiland Petroglyphs

Walter Battiss described the rocks with petroglyps as ‘great whales lying in the mud’ of Driekops Eiland, their backs ‘decorated with innumerable designs.”

To right of the spiral is what appears to be a whale perhaps symbolic of Battiss’s description of the rock engravings at Drie Kops Eiland. Then further to the right is a collection of small white figures that can help aid the idea of a shaman beginning to escape to a trance state because as he starts to get further into his trance the surroundings would begin to loose form and appear further away. This may also be why the figures are so small compared to the shaman and have no detail other than outlines. Next to the group is a figure of a man in what could be the whale. Perhaps this image reflects the fable of Jonah and the whale, who was only released from the belly of the whale until he promised to deliver the message god asked him to bring to the people. This could be a reflection of the messages the artist/shaman brings to people from the spirit world. The tree behind the group of figures also seems to reinforce this as the tree in some theories on the Bushmen art represents a kind of axis through which the different spiritual realms can be entered through.

Then at the furthest right is what looks like the final stage of the trance, the anthropomorphic figures which are supposedly seen in the height of a trance state. (See How Art Made the World Part 2)

Image from Matopo Hills Zimbabwe. It shows two ethereal human figures juxtaposed with a tree. The figure holding the tree trunk where lower branches stem off is a therianthrope, The figure farthest from the tree in a crouching posture is more human in form and is clapping. These figures have grossly exaggerated ‘streamers’ underneath their armpits which represents entering into a trance.

In the top right hand corner is what appears to be a decorative depiction of a leather beaded apron, with a quirk – it has a modern heart attached. Both the title and figures as whole suggests that this painting isn’t a serious depiction of trance and spirituality though, rather it displays Battiss’s imaginative humour as reflected in his Fook island. This could also be a statement that spiritual beliefs should be enjoyed rather that treated with the heaviness found in many orthodox religions.

This Documentary of the San Trance Dance shows visually what happens during trance and how images are seen during the different stages of trance.

In People Enjoying Battiss achieves a synthesis between Western and Rock Art.In conclusion one can say that in general, Battiss’ simplified schematic representations echo those found in San Rock art and hieroglyphs. Battiss developed his own visual language using picture-writing, or pictographs. His abstracted designs are composed of calligraphic images which tell a story symbolically.

The conventional European artistic viewpoint that Battiss inherited from his teachers was reconditioned by his growing empathy with the influence of rock art, and he began to devise pictorial forms that would identify his modern vision with the vision of the earlier rock-artists. Fishermen Drawing Nets shows one of his earlier imaginative compositions based on the motifs from South African rock-paintings.  His deliberate pictorial references to so-called ‘Bushman’ art led to Battiss being dubbed ‘the Bushman painter’. But while he was looking back towards the prehistoric past, Battiss was simultaneously influenced and stimulated by developments in Modern European paintings. Fisherman drawing Nets, is a sophisticated adaptation of his’Bushman’ conceptions in terms of contemporary methods, colouring and composition.

Walter Battiss, Fisherman Drawing Nets (1955)

In Fishermen Drawing Nets, the colours and textures of the paintings draw upon Expressionism with their thick applications of impasto paint, bold dramatic colours, dark outlines, loose expressive brushwork and distorted perspective. There is a shallow almost two dimensional feeling to the painting, yet it still feels as if it has some depth. There is no aerial perspective as all the colours both in the background and foreground are of the same hue and intensity, with no fading or blurring as you will find in traditional western art.

The Composition is also in Fauvist and Impressionist style that has unusual angles. The diagonal lines are emphasized both in the shapes and the lines of the boats and fishing nets, giving a feeling of busy activity. The shapes of the boats and fisherman are also reduced to geometrical shapes which shows the influence of the Cubists. For me, the eye is drawn to the warm colours of the yellow and red fishing nets with white  fishes in the nets, that stands out against the darker cooler blues and blacks.

Battiss also used the simplified and stylized forms found Rock Art. The figures have lost their individuality and are reduced to a series of flat, black “cut-outs”. It appears that in this painting Battiss is not interested in the emotional content of his subjects rather like the Cubists it is the forms and decorative elements of his subject that interest him. 

As with Irma Stern, his vision of Black Africans is exotic and idealistic .You do not see the hardship or the suffering of the fishermen doing hard work, but rather see the patterns and colours. Battiss experienced Bushman art as a European-African and he presents viewers with what he perceived as its foreignness.  In my opinion his works reflects the search for identity as a white South African within Africa, as an attempt to find and preserve what he saw as his own unique ‘native’ identity.

Symbols of Life is an abstracted work, by Battiss symbolically telling the story of a river and the varied life that it sustains and a new way of life unfolding around it.  It was developed from a series of works he did in the 1960s based on Arab writings. It represents the ideas of Battiss rather than a realistic description of figures and the subject.

The areas on either side of the river are filled with decorative motifs that cover the whole surface with shapes. The motifs reflects plants, trees, creatures and people.

The decorative composition is held together by the focus point of the river. The river that flows horizontally through the painting, reflects the concept of the river being the centre of life, and lifeblood of the people and land. The organic graphic shape of the river, broken up into geometric facets with thick gold outline, and filled in with flat black colour, stands out from among what appears to be like a sea of pictographs. The river also is the focal point because it is the only area of solid colour in the middle of the pale background colour, patterned with the repetitive terracotta-sienna coloured motifs.

Walter Battiss, Symbols of Life (1967)

The images draw heavily from stylized Rock art found in South Africa. It also shows Battiss use of pictographs that he developed to tell a story symbolically much like  Egyptian hieroglyphics.

From The African Rock Art Archive – KwaZulu-Natal – Mpendle

It tells the story of the historic times when life was centred around the river, but it also reflects the San’s Spiritual  Cosmos where water is a magical power; divine and invigorating.

The San cosmos with two intersecting axes and ‘conceptual sets’ show overlap between realms

Symbols of Life is 2 dimensional with no illusion of depth,or distance, or modulation of the objects to give them form or an illusion of mass and volume. The colours are flat with only one tonal value and are without mark making or texture. The general overallness of composition combined with the repeated shapes makes Symbols of Life feel  like an African fabric print.

In this art work you can clearly see the influence of the Middle Eastern decorative art and Bushmen Rock Art on Battiss work, but he did not copy rock art, he was inspired by it.  Battiss took the symbols and decorative simplification and made it his own. He tells a story from the intellectual perspective of an European African living in Africa. He does not try to show the social-realism of the Bushmen but rather use their symbols and their style of painting in his work to find his own identity as a white South African.

Keywords for Battiss:

Stylization, pictographs, hieroglyphs, rockart, idealized, identity, abstact, non-conformist, gentle anarchist, anthropomorphic

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