Battiss Background

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  • Short Biography
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A search for true identity is when a person or an artist is looking for his/her cultural ‘roots’ through visual art forms. – Walter Battiss researched South African rock art and probably discovered his own cultural ‘roots’ through this. – 2010 Feb/March Exam Paper

Born in 1906 in Somerset East, he spent most of his childhood in the rural Orange Free State, where he explored the local Bushmen Rock Art and developed an interest in archaeology. He wrote two books on Bushmen Art. Unlike most South African artists of the time, he did not study overseas. Battiss only attained a formal degree in Fine Arts at the age of 32.

Walter Battiss (1902–1982)

Battiss went on to study further in the field of South African Bushman and rock art, and in 1948 went on an expedition to the Namib Desert, living amongst traditional bushman for some time. In the 1950’s Battis made acquaintance with Picasso and Gino Severini, and was invited to lecture on South African art at the University of London the same year. After travelling through Europe in the 1960’s, Battis visited the Seychelles in 1972, and shortly afterwards, the legendary Fook Island was created.

Further travelling to Zanzibar, Fiji, Hawaii, Madagascar, the Comoros and Samoa, created more inspiration of the imaginary kingdom of Fook, and Battis went on to produce a map, imaginary characters, plants, animals and a history. For a more official presence, Battis also created stamps, a currency, passports, a unique language, and driver’s licences.  Fookianisms also included art happenings, art objects,poetry, linguistics, bureaucracy and erotica in reaction to the censorship under Apartheid.  He described Fook as an “island which exists inside everyone” (Ref)

He was a  professor and head of the Fine Arts department at Unisa for several years. Walter Battiss retired from his position as Professor of Fine Arts at UNISA in 1971, 1982 Walter Battiss was struck down by a sudden heart attack and passed away. He was 76 years old.

Battiss, Figures and Buck

The San Rock Art  had a major influence on his work throughout his life. The figures and forms in many of his works were often simplified and abstracted as in the Rock Paintings. Battiss was interested in the formal aspects of rock art, such as the economy of line, the decorative simplification and the accurate understanding of form without shadows or colour modelling  Inspired by the formal devices that characterize  San painting, he also framed and cropped his images in such a way as to imply a continuous unframed space behind them. He stacked figures vertically and horizontally, altered scale relationships, and created palimpsests, through a sgraffito-like  of drawing into wet paint revealing the colour beneath.

The influence of Ndebele bead work, with its geometric shapes and strong colour, can also be seen in some of his work.

Ndebele bead work

Marabaraba

Horseman Palimpsest

The linear calligraphic detail and hieroglyphic forms in his work were also inspired by Middle Eastern decorative art. On his travels Battiss studied the calligraphy of Arabic scripts. Battiss developed his own visual language using picture-writing, or pictographs, which tell a story symbolically. Though colour is always important in his work, the technique os application is incidental to the impact of the symbolic shapes. Battiss did not confine himself to orthodox procedures. He explored the possibilities of every medium he used and kept abreast of technical experiments and innovations that influenced the character of modern art.

Five People in a Cave

In the 1960s Battiss produced a series of paintings with such titles as Message in an Unknown LanguageRock Artists and Palimpsest, which included text in a kind of hieroglyphic script. Battiss was well known for his coded alphabets and wrote letters using his own characters, in some case providing the reader with the key. They were not meaningless decorative simulations of Arabic script; they were coded messages that no one without the key to the code could interpret. Battiss thus graphically depicted the problems of interpretation encountered when archaeologists had to interpret San paintings.

For him there was no wretchedness in the inability to decipher the one-to-one relationship of visual sign to verbal meaning; the compositions retained their extraordinary visual primacy and would lose none of this with the discovery of the code that might interpret their literal meaning. (Ref)

Commenting on this aesthetic visual understanding without knowing the literal meaning and how art helps us to see the world around us in a new way, Battiss said;

Nature is made by the artist and nature does not exist until the artist creates it in his own way. It is possible that the artist, in defining reality around him. makes a new kind of reality that generations after him will understand.

Walter Battiss, some of his pictographs in background

  • Figures and Rocks

    Figures and Rocks

  • Cezanne – Joy of Life

    Cezanne – Joy of Life

Some of his works also show an influence by European art movements and artists . In for example Figures and Rocks you can see the influence of Post Impressionistic style of Cezanne with its fragmented colour planes. The theme of nude figures in a natural setting was explored by several Post Impressionist artists such as Mattisse’s “The joy of Living”. Battiss used distorted perspective, loose brush stroke, bright colours and idealistic themes of the Fauvists in several of his works.Some of his oil Paintings also shows an Expressionistic influence with thick applications of impasto paint, bold dramatic colours and dark outlines. As with Stern, his vision of Black Africans is exotic and idealized, rather than showing the hard realities.

Here’s a great analysis of Boy’s Swimming Pool by By Darryl Houghton, former pupil of Battiss. (For the whole article click on image)

At first glance, Boys swimming pool appears to portray a group of archetypal figures in the style of a san rock painting – swimming and sunning themselves under an African sky. However, a closer look at the work reveals two bicycles, discarded clothing and even a pair of boots. This suggests that this is no timeless Arcadian scene, but that the silhouette-like figures are, in fact, boys from some Karoo dorp who have cycled out into the country to swim naked in a river pool.

In the foreground a group of boys disport themselves in the water, where they are joined by a laughing dog, tongue lolling (a typically Battissian touch of humour). At the centre of the composition, three boys stand poised on a rock and prepare to dive into the water, while others lie on the warm, golden brown rocks, soaking up the sun. It is a scene full of lively activity set in an ancient landscape of rocks and distant flat-topped hills.

The paint has largely been applied with a palette knife and the resulting scumbled texture seems to approximate the the rough layering of rock strata. There is little tonal contrast in thsi work and it is as if the blazing sun has drained the chromatic glow from the colours. The water is represented as a slab of dark cerulean blue with no modulation, around which the rest of the composition is grouped. The somewhat somber palette of earth greens and, ochres and reddish browns is enlivened by flashes of orange that complement the blue of the water. The figures have lost their individuality and are reduced to a series of flat, yellow “cut-outs” emphatically outlined in black. It is as though they have become an integral part of their natural surroundings.

Battiss, like the painter Paul Gauguin, often sought to portray humankind living in a Utopian state of harmony with nature and with each other. In this particular work it is as if the trappings of “civilization”, in the form of the bicycles and clothing, have been discarded and the boys have returned to a state of grace and are at one with water, earth and sky.

Coco de Mer, Seychelles

‘Battiss was one of only a handful of South African artists who kept abreast with international art developments during a long period of cultural isolation in South Africa during the apartheid years. Although distrustful of most conceptual art practise fashionable at this time, Battiss was a great admirer of Pop Art, especially the works of Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and Robert Rauschenberg. His first hand knowledge and experience of Pop Art in turn became an important catalyst and influence on his own printmaking, especially the prints produced in the last decade of his life.'(Ref)

Beautiful People

Coco de Mer, Seychelles, and Liza Minelli from the 1970’s shows references to the Pop Art of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg,  The Overallness “especially found in the work of Jasper Johns”, can also be seen in some of his works. The Overallness (also called “undifferentiated” by some artists) of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionist is a radical departure from the traditional western art concept of reality in a frame. With overallness there is no focal point around which a composition of an art work is structured; it is more like wall paper with repetitive patterns. There is also an element of ambiguity – which forms are solids and which forms are voids?

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