“My father was a waterfall and my mother was a butterfly” is an oft quoted phrase which Battiss first wrote in the preface to his book “Limpopo”. It refers to the strength of the waterfall of ideas tumbling out of the highly creative imagination; the butterfly was ever seeking new places and new possibilities for expression. “I found it easy for my father and the waterfall to be one and the same manifestation of paternal energy. My mother was small and flitted around, delicate yet supermobile, the abstraction of a butterfly.” Butterflies appear on innumerable occasions in the canvasses and sketches produced throughout Battiss’s long and varied career.
In 1944, Battiss became the first South African artist ever to represent rock art from a purely aesthetic point of view through his exhibition of copies of rock paintings. Four years later, in 1948, he ventured out to the Namib Desert where he lived among the Bushmen and became known as ‘the Bushman Painter’ in the 1950s.
Walter Battiss was born in Somerset East to an English Methodist family in 1906, and became one of South Africa’s first and most important abstract painters. He first became interested in archaeology and primitive art as a young boy after moving to Koffiefontein in 1917, and drew and painted since childhood. In 1919 the Battiss family settled in Fauresmith where he completed his education, matriculating in 1923. In 1924 he became a clerk in the Magistrates Court in Rustenburg.
His formal art studies started in 1929 at the Wits Tech Art School (drawing and painting), followed by the Johannesburg Training College (a Teacher’s Diploma) and etching lessons. Battiss continued his studies while working as a magistrate’s clerk, and finally obtained his Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts at UNISA at the age of 35.
Battiss was a founding member of the New Group and was unique in that he had not studied overseas. In 1938 he visited Europe for the first time, and in 1939 he published his first book, ‘The Amazing Bushman’. His interest in primitive rock art had a very profound impact on his ideas and he regarded San painting as an important art form. He was also influenced by Ndebele beadwork, pre-Islamic cultures and calligraphy.
He visited Greece in 1966-1968 and the Seychelles in 1972, which inspired his make-believe ‘Fook Island’, a dream wold for which he created a map, imaginary people, plants and animals. He even created a history.
“You will seek in vain on maps for the location of the island, for it eludes conventional cartography. It is not a place you arrive at, you are either there or not there.”
Fantasy and reality merged in Battiss’s vision, so this world produced concrete artifacts such as real stamps, real money and real passports.
Fook was serious philosophy taken seriously by the poets, artists, and writers who gathered around him at his Menlo Park, Pretoria, home. Abstract ideas, he believed, not only exist in the minds of their creators, but can also live on to become an essential part of reality.
In essence, Battiss was the loveable “King Ferd the Third”. The Fookian flag flew proudly in the garden when he, Rex Insular Fookis, was in residence.
Around him he gathered the results of his fertile imagination – like his own Fook language and attracted local and international adherents and Fook Island ‘citizens’ like Norman Catherine, Janet Suzman, Esmé Berman, Jani Allan and Linda Givon.
Battiss and Norman Catherine held the first ‘Fook Island’ exhibit in 1975.
From 1976 until his death, joyous images of abstract symbols, to more representational landscapes, emerged from his prolific brush and pen. Themes and subjects vary greatly in his work – as, at times, does the quality – but all found unity in his expression of joy of life.
Battiss published nine books, wrote many articles and founded the periodical De Arte. He taught Pretoria Boys’ High School students for 30 years at the Pretoria Art Centre, of which was the principle from 1953-58.
He also taught at Unisa where he became Professor of Fine Art in 1964 and retired in 1971.
Walter Battiss died in Port Shepstone on 20th August 1982, aged 76.
Contact the Walter Battiss Art Museum in Somerset East
042 243 1448 / 073 698 6539