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.
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.
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.
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.
In the 1960s Battiss produced a series of paintings with such titles as Message in an Unknown Language, Rock 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.
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.
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.
‘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)
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?
Aim and Characteristics of Art
Walter Battiss is said to have in both his life and in his work rejected conformity and challenged every kind of boundary – creative, academic, political, cultural, spiritual. He is also called a ‘gentle anarchist.” Battiss said,: “In conforming I am wasting a hell of a lot of time…this ritual of conforming often gives people a certain security…And I like living in insecurity.
Battiss was a founding member of The New Group, an association of professional artists whose aim was to develop fresh ideas about art and to explore new directions, This aim can also be seen in the many different subject matter, techniques and styles his work covered. His work and explorations in different mediums and subjects can also be seen as explorations into his identity as a person with European based education living within an African country. Or his work can be seen as a synthesis of the two.
His long career as an artist has been devoted to the study of man in his environment; first in the context of Africa and rock art, then later, in the interpretation of this concept in its broadest sense.
Some Paintings analysed by previous students
In his watercolour People Enjoying Battiss displays a synergy of his multiple interests, especially his fascination with Bushmen Rock art. His quirky personality and humour is reflected in both the title and the images he chooses to depict. The line and shapes of the images are drawn with the simplicity found in rock paintings and colours are similar to those found in rock art; ochres, browns, black, white, blue and green, as if using natural pigments.
There is no perspective or illusion of space, and the composition is much like the rock paintings where figures are piled on top of each other. The Focal Point is no particular area and your eye moves from object to object, reflecting a general overallness of composition, yet when you focus on the painting, the figures in the left top corner draws the eye and leads you down to the bottom left and up to the right hand corner.
The two figures in the top left are very similar to the Egyptian goddess of the sky, Nuit or how she is often traditionally depicted.
Then below that is what appears to be a traditional rock painting that has over time lost parts of the original image as with many traditional rock art works where the pigments either fades away or parts chips off. In the bottom left hand corner is a figure that resembles an Egyptian priest with hands stretched out as if calling upon the gods. Perhaps beginning to enter his trance state, or calling upon the gods. A figure standing with his hands out stretched and palm open facing up often indicates a state transcendence. As if to enforce this, next to this image there is a spiralling sphere which many sources say is sign of power like an atom which has electron shells around, and that each new layer of the spiral represents an increase in spiritual power, or deeper levels of entering a trance. Spirals are found all over the world in rock art.
It is now believed that the geometrics found at Driekopseiland were a depiction of the entoptics created by the optic nerve in the initial stages of an altered state. The shaman experienced these varied abstract shapes via intense drumming and dancing, sometimes in conjunction with hallucinogens. Just rub your eyes hard to get a mild sense of this phenomenon.There are numerous spiral petroglyphs at Driekops Eiland. ( Battiss studied and wrote about the the petroglyphs from Driekops Eiland)
This Documentary of the San Trance Dance shows visually what happens during trance and how images are seen during the different stages of trance.
Walter Battiss described the rocks with petroglyps as ‘great whales lying in the mud’ of Driekops Eiland, their backs ‘decorated with innumerable designs.”
To right of the spiral is what appears to be a whale perhaps symbolic of Battiss’s description of the rock engravings at Drie Kops Eiland. Then further to the right is a collection of small white figures that can help aid the idea of a shaman beginning to escape to a trance state because as he starts to get further into his trance the surroundings would begin to loose form and appear further away. This may also be why the figures are so small compared to the shaman and have no detail other than outlines. Next to the group is a figure of a man in what could be the whale. Perhaps this image reflects the fable of Jonah and the whale, who was only released from the belly of the whale until he promised to deliver the message god asked him to bring to the people. This could be a reflection of the messages the artist/shaman brings to people from the spirit world. The tree behind the group of figures also seems to reinforce this as the tree in some theories on the Bushmen art represents a kind of axis through which the different spiritual realms can be entered through.
Then at the furthest right is what looks like the final stage of the trance, the anthropomorphic figures which are supposedly seen in the height of a trance state. (See How Art Made the World Part 2)
In the top right hand corner is what appears to be a decorative depiction of a leather beaded apron, with a quirk – it has a modern heart attached. Both the title and figures as whole suggests that this painting isn’t a serious depiction of trance and spirituality though, rather it displays Battiss’s imaginative humour as reflected in his Fook island. This could also be a statement that spiritual beliefs should be enjoyed rather that treated with the heaviness found in many orthodox religions.
In People Enjoying Battiss achieves a synthesis between Western and Rock Art.In conclusion one can say that in general, Battiss’ simpliﬁed schematic representations echo those found in San Rock art and hieroglyphs. Battiss developed his own visual language using picture-writing, or pictographs. His abstracted designs are composed of calligraphic images which tell a story symbolically.
The conventional European artistic viewpoint that Battiss inherited from his teachers was reconditioned by his growing empathy with the influence of rock art, and he began to devise pictorial forms that would identify his modern vision with the vision of the earlier rock-artists. Fishermen Drawing Nets shows one of his earlier imaginative compositions based on the motifs from South African rock-paintings. His deliberate pictorial references to so-called ‘Bushman’ art led to Battiss being dubbed ‘the Bushman painter’. But while he was looking back towards the prehistoric past, Battiss was simultaneously influenced and stimulated by developments in Modern European paintings. Fisherman drawing Nets, is a sophisticated adaptation of his’Bushman’ conceptions in terms of contemporary methods, colouring and composition.
In Fishermen Drawing Nets, the colours and textures of the paintings draw upon Expressionism with their thick applications of impasto paint, bold dramatic colours, dark outlines, loose expressive brushwork and distorted perspective. There is a shallow almost two dimensional feeling to the painting, yet it still feels as if it has some depth. There is no aerial perspective as all the colours both in the background and foreground are of the same hue and intensity, with no fading or blurring as you will find in traditional western art.
The Composition is also in Fauvist and Impressionist style that has unusual angles. The diagonal lines are emphasized both in the shapes and the lines of the boats and fishing nets, giving a feeling of busy activity. The shapes of the boats and fisherman are also reduced to geometrical shapes which shows the influence of the Cubists. For me, the eye is drawn to the warm colours of the yellow and red fishing nets with white fishes in the nets, that stands out against the darker cooler blues and blacks.
Battiss also used the simplified and stylized forms found Rock Art. The figures have lost their individuality and are reduced to a series of flat, black “cut-outs”. It appears that in this painting Battiss is not interested in the emotional content of his subjects rather like the Cubists it is the forms and decorative elements of his subject that interest him.
As with Irma Stern, his vision of Black Africans is exotic and idealistic .You do not see the hardship or the suffering of the fishermen doing hard work, but rather see the patterns and colours. Battiss experienced Bushman art as a European-African and he presents viewers with what he perceived as its foreignness. In my opinion his works reflects the search for identity as a white South African within Africa, as an attempt to find and preserve what he saw as his own unique ‘native’ identity.
Symbols of Life is an abstracted work, by Battiss symbolically telling the story of a river and the varied life that it sustains and a new way of life unfolding around it. It was developed from a series of works he did in the 1960s based on Arab writings. It represents the ideas of Battiss rather than a realistic description of figures and the subject.
It tells the story of the historic times when life was centred around the river, but it also reflects the San’s Spiritual Cosmos where water is a magical power; divine and invigorating.
The images draws heavily from stylized Rock art found in South Africa. It also shows Battiss use of pictographs that he developed to tell a story symbolically much like Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The areas on either side of the river are filled with decorative motifs that cover the whole surface with shapes. The motifs reflects plants, trees, creatures and people.
The decorative composition is held together by the focus point of the river. The river that flows horizontally through the painting, reflects the concept of the river being the centre of life, and lifeblood of the people and land. The organic graphic shape of the river, broken up into geometric facets with thick gold outline, and filled in with flat black colour, stands out from among what appears to be like a sea of pictographs. The river also is the focal point because it is the only area of solid colour in the middle of the pale background colour, patterned with the repetitive terracotta-sienna coloured motifs.
Symbols of Life is 2 dimensional with no illusion of depth,or distance, or modulation of the objects to give them form or an illusion of mass and volume. The colours are flat with only one tonal value and are without mark making or texture. The general overallness of composition combined with the repeated shapes makes Symbols of Life feel like an African fabric print.
In this art work you can clearly see the influence of the Middle Eastern decorative art and Bushmen Rock Art on Battiss work, but he did not copy rock art, he was inspired by it. Battiss took the symbols and decorative simplification and made it his own. He tells a story from the intellectual perspective of an European African living in Africa. He does not try to show the social-realism of the Bushmen but rather use their symbols and their style of painting in his work to find his own identity as a white South African.
Keywords for Battiss: Stylization, pictographs, hieroglyphs, rockart, idealized, identity, abstact, non-conformist, gentle anarchist, anthropomorphic
Aesthetics and Rock Art – By Thomas Heyd, John Clegg
African Rock Art Digital Archive
L.H. Greonewald, Bushman Imagery and Its Impact –http://uir.unisa.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10500/2646/dissertation_groenewalt%20l.pdf?sequence=1
Siyakha Mguni – Formlings in Rock Art
Retrospective Exhibition with pics of Battiss’ work
Standard Banks Arts – 2005 Exchibition
Walter Battiss And The Legend of Fook Island
Gentle Anarchist – Walter Battiss
Walter Battiss Museum in Somerset East