Walter Whall Battiss
Oil on Canvas
19.5 x 32.2cm
Signed: "Battiss" (Upper/Right)
Exhibited: “Imaging and Imagining: South African Art c.1896 – 2008”.16 July – 16 September 2009. Graham’s Fine Art Gallery, Johannesburg.
Illustrated: Graham’s Fine Art Gallery. 2009. Imaging and Imagining: South African Art c.1896 – 2008. Graham’s Fine Art Gallery, Johannesburg. p. 128 & 129
In 1972 the American art critic John Berger (Coetzee, 1985: 75) argued that, in the visual arts of male dominated Western society, “the depiction of (a woman’s) nakedness is not a function of her sexuality, but of the sexuality of those who have access to the picture”.
On 22 January 1972, Battiss was quoted by the Pretoria Newsarguing that “Art very definitely exposes the guilt of the onlooker…I actually think it is one of the duties of the dedicated artist to face society and reveal [its] guilt” (Skawran, 2005: 15). He was speaking as the ‘gentle anarchist’, a description coined by his colleague Neville Dubow, also a respected professor of Fine Arts at the time. Battiss the anarchist’s chosen area of confrontation was in the matter of censorship. As Dubow (1985: 95) comments, “[Battiss’] objections to the censorship bill were concerned with prurient attitudes towards nudity in the arts. His tactic was to shame by focusing on absurdity”. He made a floppy fabric doll, which he named ‘Miss South Africa of the Future’ and carried her around with him publicly. The media noticed and quoted Battiss again: “She has no ears, no eyes, no mouth and no breasts and her fingers are turning into pairs of scissors. She doesn’t think anymore since the Publications Control Board does all the thinking for her” (Sunday Times, 25.4.1971, in Dubow, 1985: 94).
In this small oil painting a pink nude, framed in brilliant Pop art colours, hangs above the heads of a group of admiring people as lightly as an idea in a cartoon speech bubble. Unlike the flat undefined body of the nude, the onlookers display distinctly male or female characteristics. The nude’s languid pose is echoed in the central onlooker, who is leaning back evocatively.
“Battiss’ naughty attitude toward banned material had its counterpart in his state of genuine innocence with regard to the nude”, continues Dubow (1985: 94). In his travel journalLimpopoBattiss captioned a photograph of a young man, with graphic shadows rippling down his back: “Boy’s back. An idea incomplete in clothing and requiring nudity to give it meaning” (Battiss, 1965: 85). Later in life Battiss made a great many erotic drawings and serigraphs in brilliant colour. These were a joyous expression of the delight he took in sexuality purely as an expression of life. As he put it in the Pretoria Newsreport (Skawran, 2005: 15), “to advance we must rid ourselves of lots of complexes that make life full of shame. For me one is mature and civilised when one is resilient even to pornography”.
by Helene Smuts