Walter Whall Battiss

(1906 - 1982)

About

“Some look upon my art as a fun thing, but the fun is only the surface of something very much deeper...I’ll leave it to the future to discover that it’s much more than that.” Walter Battiss.

Battiss’ long career as an artist has been devoted to the study of man in his environment,initially in an African context with rock art, followed by his own developmental interpretation in his own, personal context. Born in Somerset East in the Cape Province 1906 to an English Methodist family, Battiss showed a great interest in archaeology and primitive art from an early age. He began his formal studies in art in 1929 at the Witwatersrand Technical College where he developed his painting and drawing skills, followed by taking a diploma in Teaching whilst working as a magistrate’s clerk.  Battiss received his Bachelors Degree from the University of Johannesburg in 1941 at the age of 35. 

Rejecting conformity in all of his artworks and in life, Battiss endeavoured to challenge every boundary he considered to exist within the South African art world and to redefine the set motions of the time. His multi-faceted approach covered many different scopes in subject imagery, all of which was quickly developed into a unique personal style unseen before in South African art. Battiss’ earlier works focus very strongly on the influence of rock art and bushman paintings, which are very evident in terms of his compositions and use of perspective and rendering of figure in relation to the background. His early works were flat planes and illustrated the African bushveld with bushman hunters stalking game, reflecting the earth colours of natural paints made and used by the Bushmen themselves. These tones used in Battiss’ earlier paintings gradually gave way to a contrastingly explosive and vivid spectrum of colour as he began to mentally form an alternative reality and formed a fantastical world of his own which he depicted through his artworks. What Battiss created was an ‘island of the imagination’ which reflected his philosophy of harmony and life practices that were embodied in the make-believe Fook Island.This utopian society had its own language and writing system, customs and practices as well as its own currency which Battiss actually had produced. The Fookswho lived on Fook Islandwere even issued with their own drivers’ licenses and their own passports which received official immigration stamps from Australia, Britain and Germany.

The creation of this fantastical country and the avoidance of all things current in South Africa was a form of rejecting an Apartheid society which Battiss could not relate to. As well as rejecting all art norms, Battiss further rejected the norms of his country’s politics and structure. In terms of art, his methods embraced the philosophies of the Conceptualist art movements of Europe and America, current in the 1960s and 70s, and also came into the Abstract genre of art making which was an area not successfully developed in a South African context.

Despite Battiss’ eccentricities, he was a loved character whose doctrines and philosophies of art and life were embraced by his many friends and also within artistic circles. He is regarded as the first South African artist to work totally within the abstract genre and his inspiration and outgoing innovation as an artist, especially in this field in South Africa, established him as one of the most prominent contemporary artists in his own time, with this view now being adamantly maintained. 

  • Chronology

    1906

    Born in Somerset-East, Cape Province

    1917

    The Battiss family moves to Koffiefontein, O.F.S

    First exposure to rock-engravings as a young boy, shown by William Fowler

    1920

    The Battiss family moves to Fauresmith, O.F.S

    1922

    Battiss sells his first water-colour painting to Dr. N.C. Havenga, later Minister of Finance

    1923

    Matric exam at Fauresmith High School

    Accepts a position in a bank

    1924

    Moves to the magistrate’s office in Rustenburg – meets and befriends Erich Mayer

    1925

    First articleThat Archiepublished inRustenburg Herald

    1927

    First Solo exhibition in Masonic Hall in Rustenburg (August)

    First formal art tuition at Johannesburg Art School (December)

    1929

    Transferred to Supreme Court, Johannesburg

    Attends art classes at Art School of Witwatersrand Technical College and enrolls for a number of subjects for a B.A. degree at the university of the Witwatersrand

    1930 - 1932

    Full-time study at Johannesburg Teachers’ Training College and University of the Witwatersrand, after which he obtains a Teacher’s Diploma

    1933

    Starts career as a teacher at Park School in Turffontein, Johannesburg on 17 January

    Sees rock-paintings for the first time on the Le Roux farm, Molopodraai, O.F.S (April)

    1936

    Seconded to Pretoria Boys’ High School as art teacher and starts serious study of rock art

    1938

    Co-founder of New Group

    Travels to Europe for the first time where he visits the area in France where Van Gogh worked and meets AbbéBreuil

    1939

    Battiss’ first book on rock artThe Amazing Bushmanis published

    1940

    12 March: Marries artist Grace Anderson

    Moves to Giotto’s Hill, 20thStreet, Menlo Park, Pretoria

    Obtains B.A. (Fine Arts) at University of South Africa

    1942

    Actively supports war-effort

    1944

    Exhibits copies of rock art in Johannesburg

    1948

    PublishesThe Artists of the Rocks

    Visits the Namib Desert and hunts with the Bushmen

    Receives a bronze medal and diploma for art at the 14thInternational Olympiad exhibition: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

    Founding of magazineAuroraof the South African Arts Association, Northern Transvaal branch, with Battiss as first editor

    1949

    Founder International Art Club- South Africa

    Takes South African contribution to International Art Club exhibition in Turin

    Meets Picasso in Paris (April)

    First elected chairman South African Arts Association, Northern Transvaal branch

    1950

    Delivers a series of lectures at theLenteskool,Tzaneen, on South African art.

    Represents South Africa, along with other artists, for the first time, at the Venice Biennale (July)

    1951

    PublishesFragments of Africa

    Researches rock painting of the Limpopo Valley and Rhodesia

    1952

    Delivers a series of three lectures on South African Art at the University of London

    1953

    Founder of and elected first president of the South African Council of Artists

    Head, Art Centre, Pretoria

    1954

    2-19 July, Lourenco Marques: First solo exhibition outside South African boundaries

    September: Visits Europe- Represents the Union of South Africa at the First International Art Congress in Venice.

    Serves on the Executive Committee of the International Association of Plastic Arts, Unesco (1954- 1958).

    Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London

    1956

    June-July: Visits Europe- Exhibits at Imperial Institute, London – first Solo-exhibition in Europe.

    Is awarded Pro-Arte medal by University of Pretoria

    1958

    Returns to Pretoria Boys’ High School as art teacher

    1959

    Commences work on the murals for the Transvaal Provincial Administration building, Pretoria

    1stJuly: accepts position as professor in Fine Arts, Rhodes University

    1960

    Returns to Pretoria Boys’ High School (January)

    25 May: Elected fellow of the International Institute of Arts and Letters

    1961

    Visits Tanzania (July)

    Visits the Middle-East: Bagdad, Persia and Arabia

    1963

    Visits England and Europe (July)

    1964

    Receives Medal of Honour for painting from the Suid Afrikaanse Akademie vie Wetenskap en Kuns

    Visits Bajun-Islands on the East coast of Africa (July)

    Appointed professor of Fine Arts, University of South Africa (November)

    1965

    Elected Honorary Member of the Florence Academy by College of Professors, Florence (March)

    Visits the Hadramut, Southern Arabia (April)

    Visits Jordan (December)

    First edition ofDe Artepublished

    1966

    Visits Greece (December)

    1967

    Visits 16 Greek islands. Visits Daniel Spoeri (August)

    1968

    Visits Greek islands

    Nesospublished

    Closing of International Graphic exhibition, Johannesburg

    1969

    Visits Germany and other European countries on invitation by “Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst”

    Meets Josef Kroll and does serigraphy with him

    In London he works on serigraphy with Chris Betambeau

    National Film Board makes a film of four South African artists, amongst others Walter Battiss (November)

    1970

    Foundation of Africa Council for Art with Cecil Skotnes

    Completes wall panel for Standard Bank Building, Johannesburg

    1971

    Visits Spain and London

    15 October: Special issue ofDe Artepresented to Battiss

    Retires as professor at the University of South Africa

    1972

    Visits the Seychelles twice; also visits Europe

    1973

    D. Litt.et Phil (Honoris causa) is conferred on Battiss by the University of South Africa (May)

    Visits London

    1974

    Visits America

    1975

    Visits England, Turkey

    Death of Grace Battiss-Anderson (July)

    1976

    Visits America, Fiji, Samoa, Hawaiian Islands, Australia

    1977

    Walter Battissby Murray Schoonraad in the C. Struik series is published

    1978

    Visits Tahiti

    1979

    Visits America

    1980

    Comprehensive exhibition shown in the Public Art Museums of Pretoria, Johannesburg, Pietermaritzburg, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Kimberley

    Visits Greece

    Designed 4 stamps for the Botswana postal service

    1981

    Battiss Museum opened in his birth-place

    1982

    Spent 3 weeks in Kassel, West Germany visiting the Documenta Exhibition (July/August)

    Died in Port Shepstone on 20 August 1982 from a sudden heart attack

  • Studies

    1927

    Briefly at Johannesburg Art School, under Professor A Wintermoore

    1928

    Part-time at the Witwatersrand Technical College under Professor F.W. Armstrong

    1930 - 1932

    Full-time at the Johannesburg Teachers Training College and the University of the Witwatersrand where he was awarded a Teachers Education Diploma

    1940

    Gained a BA (Fine Art) through the University of South Afric

  • Exhibitions

    1927

    (August) First solo exhibition, Masonic Hall, Rustenburg- the first of over 80 solo exhibitions held across South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia and the United Kingdom.

    1928

    (June) Solo exhibition, Masonic Hall, Rustenburg

    1929

    (March) Group exhibition with John Lawson, Lezard Art Gallery Johannesburg- first of many group exhibitions in South Africa, Austria, Italy, South America, the Netherlands, West Germany, Greece and Zimbabwe.

    (September) Solo exhibition, Herbert Evans & Company Gallery, Johannesburg

    1937

    Solo exhibition, Bloemfontein

    1938

    (November) New Group exhibition, Pretoria

    1940

    (March) Solo exhibition, Rutowitz Building, Pretoria

    (March) Solo exhibition, Port Elizabeth

    1942

    First joint exhibition with his wife, Grace Battiss, exhibiting together again in 1945

    1943

    (June) Solo exhibition, Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg

    (September) Solo exhibition, University of Pretoria, Pretoria

    1944

    (January) Solo exhibition, Argus Gallery, Cape Town

    (October) Solo exhibition, Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg

    1945

    (August) Solo exhibition, Schweickerdt Gallery, Pretoria

    (October) Solo exhibition, Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg

    1946

    (August) Solo exhibition, Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg

    (October) Solo exhibition, Christi’s, Pretoria

    1947

    (October) Solo exhibition, Argus Gallery, Cape Town

    1948

    (June) Solo exhibition, Schweickerdt Gallery, Cape Town

    (July) Fourteenth International Olympiad Exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

    (October) Tate Gallery, London

    1949

    (October) Solo exhibition, Constantia Gallery, Johannesburg

    1950

    (April) First Exhibition of the Art Club of South Africa, I.D. Booksellers’ Gallery, Cape Town

    (April) Nine South African Painters, Thos.Agnew & Sons, London

    (August) International Exhibition, Austrian Art Club, Salzburg

    (November) Solo exhibition, Gallery Vincent, Pretoria

    Twenty-fifth Biennale, Venice

    1951

    (October) Solo exhibition, Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg

    (November) Solo exhibition, Gallery Vincent, Pretoria

    1952

    Twenty-sixth Biennale, Venice

    1953

    (August) Solo exhibition, Cultura Gallery, Pretoria

    (September) Solo exhibition, Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg

    (October) Solo exhibition, Van Schaik Gallery, South African Association of Arts, Pretoria

    1954

    (March) Solo exhibition, T.S. Taylor Gallery, Pietermaritzburg

    (July) Solo exhibition, Lourenço Marques

    (September) Solo exhibition, Galerie Nicol, Pretoria

    Twenty-seventh Biennale, Venice

    1955

    (April) Solo exhibition, Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg

    (July) Solo exhibition, South African Association of Arts Gallery, Cape Town

    (October) Solo exhibition, Libri Building, Pretoria

    1956

    (May) Solo exhibition, Lidchi Gallery, Johannesburg

    (June) International Colour Woodcut Exhibition, Victoria and Albert, London

    (June) Solo exhibition, D. S. Vorster Gallery, Pretoria

    (August) Solo exhibition, Imperial Institute, London

    First Quadrennial Exhibition of Southern Africa, South African Association of Art Gallery, Pretoria and Cape Town

    1957

    (May) Solo exhibition, Lidchi Gallery, Johannesburg

    (October) Solo exhibition, D.S. Vorster Gallery, Pretoria

    Biennale Exhibition, São Paulo

    1958

    (April) Solo exhibition, T. S. Taylor Gallery, Pietermaritzburg

    (August) Solo exhibition, National Museum, Bloemfontein

    Acht Hedendaagsche Schilders uit Zuid-Afrika, Arnhem Gemeentemuseum, Groningen, Den Haag, Keulen, Bremen and Hamburg

    (November) Solo exhibition, Lidchi Gallery, Johannesburg

    Twenty-ninth Biennale, Venice

    1959

    (September) Solo exhibition, Lidchi Gallery, Johannesburg

    Royal Society of Arts, London

    1960

    (July) Solo exhibition, Lidchi Gallery, Durban

    (November) Solo exhibition, Lawrence Alder Gallery, Johannesburg

    Quadrennial Festival Exhibition of South African Art, Cape Town and other centres

    1961

    (May) Solo exhibition, Egon Guenther Gallery, Johannesburg

    (September) Solo exhibition, South African Association of Arts Gallery, Pretoria

    Biennale, São Paulo

    1962

    (April) Solo exhibition, Lidchi Gallery, Johannesburg

    (December) Solo exhibition, Gallery Vermeer, Pretoria

    1963

    Biennale, São Paulo

    1964

    (August) Solo exhibition, Adler Fielding Gallery, Johannesburg

    (September) Solo exhibition, South African Association of Arts Gallery, Pretoria

    1965

    (June) Solo exhibition, Tatham Gallery, Pietermaritzburg

    (September) Solo exhibition, Gallery 101, Johannesburg

    (September) Solo exhibition, Walter Schwitter Gallery, Pretoria

    (November) Eighth Biennale,São Paulo

    1966

    (March) Solo exhibition, Windhoek Art Gallery, Windhoek

    (March) Solo exhibition, Walsh Marais Gallery, Durban

    (November) Solo exhibition, South African Association of Arts Gallery, Pretoria

    1967

    (November) Solo exhibition, South African Association of Arts, Pretoria

    1969

    (February) Solo exhibition, Walsh Marais Gallery, Durban

    1970

    (September) Solo exhibition, Gallery Brevan, Cape Town

    (October) Solo exhibition, Gallery 101, Johannesburg

    (November) Galleria della Steccata Mostra Internazionale della Xilografia Contemporanea, Parma

    1972

    (February) Solo exhibition, Walsh Marais Gallery, Durban

    (May) Palazzo Strozzi Terza Biennale Internazionale della grafica d’arte, Florence

    (October) Solo exhibition, South African Association of Arts Gallery, Pretoria

    1973

    (March) Solo exhibition, Walsh Marais Gallery, Durban

    (March) Solo exhibition, Gallery 21, Johannesburg

    (November) Solo exhibition, Pietermaritzburg

    1974

    (November) Solo exhibition, Elizabeth Gallery, Johannesburg

    Contemporary South African Art exhibition, Athens, Greece

    1975

    (May) Solo exhibition, Somerset East

    (September) Fook Island Exhibition, Goodman Gallery, Sandton

    (November) Solo exhibition, Elizabeth Gallery, Johannesburg

    South African Art exhibition, National Gallery of Rhodesia, Salisbury

    1976

    (February) Solo exhibition, van Wouw House, University of Pretoria, Pretoria

    (March) Solo exhibition, Gallery 82, Bloemfontein

    (July) solo exhibition, Elizabeth Gallery, Johannesburg

    (November) Solo exhibition, Elizabeth Gallery, Johannesburg

    1977

    (February) solo exhibition, Hoffer Art Gallery, Pretoria

    (May) Solo exhibition, South African Association of Arts, University of Potchefstroom

    1978

    (February) Solo exhibition, Hoffer Art Gallery, Pretoria

    (May) Solo exhibition, National Museum and Art Gallery, Gaberone, Botswana

    1978 - 1979

    South African graphic art touring West Germany

    Art from South Africa touring America

    1979

    (March) Tahiti Plus exhibition, Goodman Gallery, Sandton

    (May) Solo exhibition, Jack Heath Gallery, Pietermaritzburg

    (June) Solo exhibition, Neil Sack Gallery, Durban

    'Watercolours from South Africa', Nuremburg, Germany

    South African Printmakers, South African National Art Gallery Cape Town

    1980

    (September) Marquesas Plus exhibition, Goodman Gallery, Sandton

    Prestige Exhibition – Pretoria, Johannesburg, Pietermaritzburg, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, Kimberley

    1982

    (1-20 March) Solo exhibition, Rand Afrikaans University Gallery

    (3-24 April) Solo exhibition, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg

    Participated in an exhibition of South African Art, National Gallery in Gaborone, Botswana

    2005 - 2006

    Retrospective exhibition “Gentle Anarchist”, Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg

    2009 - 2010

    ncluded in the major survey show “Dada South”, South African National Gallery, Cape Tow

  • Collections

    Galleries & Museums - International

    • Albertina Graphische Sammlung, Vienna, Austria
    • Musées Royaux des Beaux – Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium
    • National Museum and Art Gallery, Gaberone, Botswana
    • Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England
    • Permanent International Woodcut Exhibition, Jugoslavia
    • Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, United States of America
    • Pelmama Art Collection, Haenggi Foundation, Basel, Switzerland

    Galleries & Museums - South Africa

    • South African National Gallery, Cape Town
    • Durban Art Gallery, Durban
    • Ann Bryant Gallery, East London
    • Hester Rupert Art Museum, Graaff-Reinet
    • Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg
    • William Humphreys Gallery, Kimberley
    • Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, Port Elizabeth
    • Pretoria Art Museum, Pretoria
    • Sandton Art Collection, Sandton
    • Oliewenhuis Art Museum, Bloemfontein
    • Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg
    • Walter Battiss Art Gallery, Somerset East

    Corporate Collections - South Africa

    • Rembrandt Group
    • Sanlam Art Collection, Bellville, Cape Town
    • Schlesinger Organisation, Johannesburg
    • ABSA Group: Corporate Art Collection, Johannesburg
    • Standard Bank Corporate Collection, Johannesburg
    • Sasol Art Collection, Johannesburg
    • South African Reserve Bank Art Collection, Johannesburg
    • C. J. Petrow Corporate Collection, Johannesburg
    • Sandton Civic Gallery, Johannesburg

    Universities - South Africa

    • Teachers Training College, Bloemfontein
    • University of Kwa-Zulu Natal Art Collection, Pietermaritzburg
    • Johannes Stegmann Art Gallery, University of the Free State, Bloemfontain
    • North-West University, Potchefstroom Campus Art Collection, Potchefstroom
    • University of Pretoria Art Collection, Pretoria
    • University of South Africa, Pretoria
    • University of the Witwatersrand Art Galleries, Johannesburg
    • University of Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg
    • Pretoria Boys High School Art Collection, Pretoria
    • Sasol Art Museum, University of Stellenbosch
  • Commissions

    Public Commissions

    1953

    Culemborg Hotel, Pretoria

    1955

    City Hall, Pretoria

    1961

    Laxavia Airways, Johannesburg

    1962

    Transvaal Provincial Administration Building, Pretoria

    1968

    President Hotel, Johannesburg

    1968

    H.F. Verwoerd Building, Provincial Administration of Orange Free State, Bloemfontein

    1970

    Standard Bank Building, Johannesburg

  • Awards

    1948

    Received a Bronze Medal and Diploma in the Olympiad Art Competition, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

    1956

    Awarded the Pro Arte Medal by the University of Pretoria

    1964

    Awarded Medal of Honour for Painting by the South African Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns

    1965

    Elected as an Honorary Member of the Academy of Florence

    1973

    Awarded an Honorary D.Litt et Phil. from Unisa

Artwork

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