The Origins of Walter Battiss

The Origins of Walter Battiss: “Another Curious Palimpsest”

New Walter Battiss Exhibition Presents his Rock Art Works on Public Display for the First Time

Running from 9 June to 30 September 2016

Origins Centre Museum, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), together with the Rock Art Research Institute (RARI), Wits University, are pleased to present a major new exhibition devoted to the early development of one of South Africa’s great artistic innovators. The Origins of Walter Battiss: “Another Curious Palimpsest,” features more than 80 works on public display for the first time and focusses on Battiss’s interest in San rock art, showing how this experience shaped him as an artist. The show includes his watercolour copies of rock art on cellophane, the final versions he made on paper as well as his pencil sketches and original fieldwork notebooks, as well as original rock art pieces he removed. The exhibition explores Battiss as a rock art copyist, as a collector, and as an artist, and reveals how and why this important collection has been conserved.

Walter Whall Battiss is recognized as one of South Africa’s great artistic innovators. Born in 1906 in the Karoo town of Somerset East, his artistic talent manifested at a young age when he used drawing to express himself. Battiss’s forays into the surrounding landscape soon led him to discover what to him, appeared to be mysterious depictions of nature that used colour and form in ways as yet unseen in modern art. In his mind, Battiss’s self-taught organic style coalesced with the rock art he was introduced to, by friends and family. His work attracted the attention of many South African painters as well as foreign artists, who saw Battiss as the first South African artist to infuse a South African aesthetic with modernist concerns. This acclaim has made him a significant name in the canon of the country’s art, and his work has become highly sought after in both local and international art markets. As interest in early modernist painters in Africa heightens, Battiss features at the forefront of many collectors’ and galleries’ lists.

In 2008 RARI, Wits University, received an important donation of Battiss materials from Giles Battiss. Subsequently, RARI received a grant from the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Art Conservation Project, to facilitate the important work of stabilizing and housing this collection in a manner compliant with international conservation standards.

Thanks to this generous grant, fragile works from the collection have been carefully restored and are now able to be appreciated by a broad audience. A section of the exhibition is dedicated to showcasing the complex ‘behind-the-scenes’ process of art conservation and features several large photographic prints as well as examples of original tools and materials used by current specialists to conserve these fragile works.

“As art conservation consumes greater portions of tightened museum budgets, the need for private funding becomes ever more critical,” said Richard Gush, country executive for Merrill Lynch, South Africa. “We are proud to have used our global Art Conservation Project to enable the restoration of this group of sketches, copies and tracings by the renowned rock art collector and artist, Walter Battiss. His fragile paper works provide a unique insight into a particularly beautiful and precious aspect of the South African landscape. The conservation effort and resulting exhibition allow us to celebrate our country’s rich heritage, providing a real sense of connection between past, present and future generations, who will be able to appreciate these precious cultural documents for years to come.”

Walter Battiss and rock art

Walter Battiss first became interested in archaeology and rock art as a young boy after moving to Koffiefontein, a small town in rural South Africa, in 1917. Said Battiss: “William Fowler [a family friend] led me by the hand to the ancient stones and only very much later did I realise how my creative subconscious had been affected by this revelation of early art.” Particularly during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, Battiss spent a great deal of time making copies and also removing original panels of rock art from various sites across southern Africa.

His interest in rock art came mostly from the San’s use of colour to denote movement and life while flattening the form on the rock surface. He often remarked on the great skill that would have been needed to paint such fine detail by the use of natural earth tones to create such life-like creatures. In his redrawing of the rock art his own artistic eye can be seen as he plays with vivid blues and greens where there would have been ochres. In the process of redrawing he is already altering the colour in the first step of a process that finished with his own painted work. Some of the sites he visited are well-known to current researchers and have since been re-visited.

Battiss only began his formal art education in 1929 but by this time he had already begun to explore his style as an aesthetic that aligns characteristics of San with Modernist art. He was heavily influenced by Cezanne’s use of vivid abstract unnatural colour. Battiss’s landscapes transformed into a dreamlike abstraction of forms saturated in deep contrasting colours. His work from the 1930s–1960s was most directly influenced by rock art. It is clear that the acid-coloured forms enmeshed in hyper-abstracted colour field backgrounds are taken from the rock art he so loved to document. Examples of Battiss’s ‘finished’ artwork from this period will be on display.

This aspect of the exhibition will link with the concurrent exhibition at the Wits Art Museum, which will also display large numbers of Battiss’s artworks. The two exhibitions will overlap during July and August 2016 to allow visitors a broader immersive experience.

Exhibition support

This exhibition was organized by the Rock Art Research Institute and the Origins Centre. We gratefully acknowledge a major grant from the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Art Conservation Project, and support from Polyslit Converters PTY Ltd, Dean and Associates Conservation Services and Sanlam.

Battiss correct dateWatch this video on conservation of exhibition pieces.