Battiss in Johannesburg
Sean O’Toole

In 2008, the briefly insurgent artist collective Avant Card Guard released a hand-printed linocut offering a nonsense equation rendered in bold primary colours. “Walter Battiss = ker-razy white + dead x fat.” That word white is instructive. Walter Battiss is a key figure of white South African art history. In 1946, no doubt informed by his interest in Pablo Picasso and the prevailing fashion for quoting “the primitive”, Battiss described himself as “the first neo-primitive in South Africa”. It is a ridiculous and self-aggrandising claim, but as with all bluster contains a grain of truth.

Two dissimilar, and each in their own way engaging exhibitions in Johannesburg, engage with the mythic figure of Battiss, a big-hearted adventurer and nonsense-maker from an era known for extreme baloney, and worse. During his lifetime, Battiss impressed many with his creative doings and good-humoured bombast. The praise that swamped this ker-razy white artist ranged from procedural to enraptured, and sometimes even charted the plainly exaggerated. The first published mention of Battiss – a cultish artist, even now, more than three decades after his death in 1982 – set the tone.

 

Avant Car Guard Walter Battiss = ker-razy white + dead x fat (2008)

 

Battiss was 21 when he presented his debut exhibition in a Masonic lodge in Rustenburg. The show, held over two days, was comprised of watercolours and drawings of landscape scenes. The work demonstrated his abundant drafting skills, as well as his lack of conceptual flair, something Battiss would only remedy in increments. Somewhat like Robert Hodgins after him, who jobbed as a printmaker for the ker-razy regent of Fook Island, Battiss was a late-bloomer.

The Rustenburg Herald published a florid notice for Battiss’s debut show. The huff and puff of the report is leavened by its factual accuracy. One passage stands out: “a real artist has arisen in our very midst in the person of young Mr W.W. Battiss, known to many only as a very modest and obliging official in the Receiver of Revenue’s Offices”. The sentence highlights many of the tensions that characterised Battiss’s professional life.

For one, there is his incursion into the artistic mainstream from the periphery, something he would stubbornly stick with to the end, choosing to live and work in Pretoria. Then there is that thing about his modesty, a product of his stern Methodist upbringing and a counterbalance to his extravagant showmanship that typified his later years. Equally important is the reference to his non-artistic source of income, which, over the following decades, ranged from clerking and teaching to publishing, expeditioning and enacting the role of university don.

I should add culting to this list, but there is no such verb and being a cult leader is also not a professional vocation, just an unavoidable by-product of impressing others. The cult of Battiss is by no means new and was already entrenched during his senior years as chief nudist and ker-razy white artist. A few months before his death in 1982, journalist Jani Allan, writing in the Sunday Times, described Battiss as an “ineffable Professor whose genius has oft been compared to that of his friend, Pablo Picasso”. There is fact in the statement, but also hyperbole, which served its purpose for both artist and journalist.

Battiss both courted and disdained the industrial smoke of media attention. This ambiguity is evident in a work on display in the Wits Art Museum. In the blurb to a 1979 monograph, Walter Battiss by Walter Battiss, which was partly funded by the artist, Battiss is variously celebrated as a “paunchy painter-poet”, “wandering nude”, “philosopher” and “innovator supreme”. Note the seesaw movement between reverence and mild deprecation. The book, displayed in a vitrine on a ramp leading into WAM’s colour-rich central display hall, forms part of a huge trove of ephemera included on ‘Walter Battiss: I invented myself’.

While mum about his 1949 encounter with Picasso in Paris, the blurb cites Battiss as being “the first to document the aesthetics of black South African art,” as well as his involvement with the New Group, fussy academic credentials and medals. Battiss’s medals, which ranged from bronze to gold in colour, were again a source of exaggerated pause when, around 1981, the artist opened his Norman Eaton-designed home in the affluent Pretoria suburb of Menlo Park to members of the SABC for a “long stupid documentary,” as he put it in a letter to a lover in London.

“Ja, all these medals,” quips Battiss in flat syllables into the camera, “what do I do with them?” Indeed, what does an artist do with praise? William Kentridge – like Battiss – has also been lauded during his lifetime and called a “genius”. It is not a word that sits comfortably. “It is a bit like opening your front door and finding a wet rhinoceros on the doorstep,” Kentridge told me in 2005. “It is very nice but what do you do with it. Um, ja.”

Battiss’s response to the pageantry of artistic success was, in the main, to flash an impish smile. While fond of enumerating his professional accomplishments, which were numerous and hard earned, he would also cheekily mock them. Battiss was, however, awkward in espousing full-blown irony. Despite his extensive travels, many of which are diligently mapped by the WAM show’s guest curator, Warren Siebrits, despite too his seasoned engagement with media, both as an accomplished critic and object of scrutiny, Battiss struggled to be fully cosmopolitan. His urbanity was of a tempered sort.

“I think my problem is that I – in South Africa – have lived amongst the mountains,” Battiss told Dan Swart. The interview appears in a posthumous 1985 book edited by Karin Skawran and Michael Macnamara. “I have lived in certain situations of nature and I know I can’t communicate this to people of in cities.” It is a testament to Battiss’s career that he never stopped trying to enumerate the pleasures and consolations of nature. But this interest, which was declared in his earliest exhibition, and stuck with him like a birthmark pretty much to the end of his career, set him apart from his global contemporaries.

Take Andy Warhol, who like Battiss came to prominence as a graphic artist. “Warhol says he hates nature, he hates going out to nature, he is threatened by nature, and it is very uncomfortable and all that,” Battiss told Swart. “But I was sitting this morning and thinking, ‘I wish I could just take a tent in the car, and camp out anywhere now, and get back to nature.’ As one once could.” This is Battiss being melancholy. He is an old man speaking. He is surveying his personal biography, and hankering after the time of his artistic apprenticeship.

In the SABC documentary, on view at his eponymous museum in Somerset East as well as the WAM exhibition, Battiss pegs his artistic beginnings to an early age. Siebrits recapitulates some of this history in an essay clarifying his chronological organisation of 700-odd Battiss works gifted by collector Jack M. Ginsberg to WAM. Battiss was maybe two and learning to write. After producing a B he drew a candle.

“Battiss’s response to the pageantry of artistic success was, in the main, to flash an impish smile”

Around 1917, having relocated with his family to the flat, upper reaches of the Karoo, Battiss was shown his first rock carvings (petroglyphs) by amateur enthusiast William Fowler. In the fragile and ephemeral motifs, symbols and signs carved onto rocks by South Africa’s earliest artists, many still visible in the veld where they were originally made, Battiss encountered a fully formed imaginative cosmos. This, in brief, is his origin myth.

In 1933, around the time he moved from Rustenburg to Johannesburg, to teach high school art in a working class suburb, Battiss saw his first rock painting. This adult encounter would direct his activities for the next two decades and unfold into a major theme in his art. It is this period that forms the basis of ‘The Origins of Walter Battiss: Another Curious Palimpsest’, at the Origins Centre. Modest in scale and focus, the exhibition perfectly compliments the large and somewhat unwieldy WAM show. It even plugs a few gaps.

The WAM show, while composed out of a single collection, is synoptic. Organised into five biographical periods, it addresses the full arc of Battiss’s shape-shifting career. It begins with his naturalist landscape studies and ends with his Fook Island work, a fictional whimsy birthed in the early 1970s as a way of addressing Battiss’s disdain for the dematerialising practices of first-generation Euro-American conceptual artists as much as a means of negotiating the censorial world of late-apartheid South Africa. More than half the works from Ginsberg’s collection focus on this late period.

 

W.W. Battiss, “Rock Painting saved from destruction” Pretoria News, 27 January, 1941.

 

Siebrits’s catalogue essay reproduces the show’s chronological trajectory and helps in making sense of Battiss’s naked perfomative cavorting, island yearnings and unabashed colourist tendencies. Both as a curator and dealer, Siebrits often couches his position from the personal – his own as much as that of the artist he is focussing on. His WAM show honours this strategy. A trove of 103 previously unpublished letters written by Battiss to Dacre Punt, a former student who became a secret lover and life-long confidante, informs the show’s chronological organisation. Siebrits extensively quotes from these letters in his essay. The letters are by turns insightful and banal – much like the Facebook posts of contemporary artists. But social media operates on a different plane to a private letter. One senses this distinction acutely in a 1971 letter to Punt. “Politics is the only cultural topic here,” writes Battiss. No news there. But then the raw stuff of life: “I miss your beautiful prick very much & will have to imagine your delicious arse and its perfection.” Sedition folded into (an at the time illicit) seduction: Battiss condensed.

The Origins Centre exhibition also leans on Battiss’s strengths as a writer. A number of his field notebooks are displayed. These notebooks present a very different Battiss. Here we encounter an earnest young man whose personal sexuality is in abeyance. The task at hand for this self-appointed bureaucrat of the rocks was the accurate description and cataloguing of engravings and paintings, nothing more. The writing that Battiss produced during this period – his late 20s into his 40s – is no less pungent. It is also helpful in making sense of the vast mosaic of screeprints that bombard the senses in WAM’s central exhibition space.

“The rock painters were not seduced by colour, were never tempted to abandon form for colour, and they are thus unconsciously in the same field with Cezanne who was a re-FORMIST,” wrote Battiss in a notebook from 1945. He added, “in the contemplation one is led back to the serenity and dignity of statement made with the machinery of form rather than colour. Form is timeless security – the suggestion of the eternal not the ephemeral. Colour fades, form remains.” It is impossible to not love this Battiss, a ker-razy young man who hiked and cycled into mountains and kloofs to find poetry etched and painted on stone. It is impossible to not recognise how he diligently rehearsed these insights in his own work, and just as often flouted them in his colour-drunk paintings and prints.

Standout works in the Origins Centre show include his tracings of Dürer-like rhinos from the 1940s, also his transcription of a cave painting depicting a whale. His undated oil painting, Three Bathing Pools, an aerial landscape composed entirely of tiny human figures and owned by artist Karel Nel, is a tour de force in formal restraint and abstracted thinking. Over at WAM, I was most compelled by two delicate watercolours of “very ordinary stones”. The works are ravishing in their simplicity, and in their own way informed by Battiss’s droll sense of humour. Ditto his Jean Arp-influenced suite of monochromatic silhouette paintings. Models of formal temperance, these minimalist black works, which interpret the rich cosmology of the veld where he served his apprenticeship, wrap the exterior of a coy little room wallpapered with Battiss’s pervy orgy silkscreens. The many black-and-white photos of Battiss cavorting in the nude have their own fascination. Whatever your take on these – ahem – performance stills, there is no denying this ker-razy, fat white man was free as a bird, in body as much as spirit.

I have chosen to read the two shows as reconciled. They also operate in opposition. Where WAM’s version of Battiss offers a fleet-footed revolutionary moffie who countered a nonsense political regime with creative nonsense, the Origins Centre offers a somewhat dour, at least visually, recapitulation of Battiss as amateur anthropologist of otherness. Battiss was all these things and more, including unconvincing painter in oil and remarkable printmaker whose works on paper still fizz.

One word summarises Battiss: maker. “Art is a virus, which, having taken hold, is difficult to get out of the system,” remarked Battiss during an opening speech in Durban in 1969. His life’s work is proof of the tenacity of this virus that got hold of him young. Whatever one thinks of individual works, Battiss’s limitless pleasure in making, doing and seeing is clear. That is the truth of his work. This truth will, of course, for a while to come, be tethered to the public image of Battiss as a ker-razy white uncle with a fondness for losing his underpants. So be it. But the colour of human excess fades. When the stifling cult of Battiss fades, his forms and figures will remain. This is his bequest.

 

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