Metaphysical Figures

Walter Whall Battiss

Oil on Canvas
33 x 43cm
Signed: "Battiss" (Lower/Left)
Dated: 1969


Battiss often painted a la prima,using the palette knife to create a thick black ground upon which successive layers of wet colour give form, here to four hieratic metaphysical figures.  In fact, ribbon-like smears of pure colour are applied so thickly that they literally take on three dimensional form, as seen in the legs of the figure on the extreme left.  Between the flat painting surface and a black infinity beyond, saturated colours contrast to create several layers of space.

Perhaps the varied tactile surfaces Battiss achieved though his highly unusual handling of oil paint had something to do with his close scrutiny of the southern African rock face for many years. He researched and documented rock art extensively at a time when most South Africans relegated it to an irrelevant ethnographic past.  But Battiss felt that his African ancestors were speaking to him in a codified language which could help him, as a contemporary African artist, articulate his own: “I had conversed with the ancient men of Africa who spoke to me though their picture writing on the walls of their crumbling rock shelters,” he stated (Berman, 1993:15).        

Around the heads of the four metaphysical figures touches of yellow resemble bees buzzing. Battiss’s mid 20thcentury analysis of rock art has long since been scrutinised by contemporary archaeologists and found wanting.  The shamanistic theory of Bushman rock art proposed by David Lewis-Williams holds that the ancient painters were healers or shamans themselves, who painted their trance-dance induced journeys to the spirit world beyond the rock face once they had returned to consciousness. “The art focuses on passing from one level of consciousness to another and thus from one level of consciousness to another”, writes Lewis-Williams (Lewis-Williams, 2004:97). . In their paintings, this theory further suggests, images of bees buzzing might be metaphors of spiritual potency. “…Kalahari Bushmen still like to dance when the bees are swarming, because they believe that they can harness their potency…” writes Lewis-Williams (1989:64).

It is quite extraordinary to consider that the authentically African visual language Battiss strove to find resonates still with ideas and knowledge that has emerged long after the end of his life. 

by Helene Smuts


Bibliography:         Berman, E.1993.Painting in South Africa. Cape Town: Southern Books

                                Lewis-Williams, J. D. 1989.Images of Power: Understanding Bushman Rock Art. Johannesburg: Southern Book Publishers

                                Lewis-Williams, J. D, Pearce, D. G. 2004.San Spirituality: Roots, Expression and Social Consequences. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers

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