“I invented myself” is how Walter Battiss described his open-minded approach to life which, in the then staid and conservative South Africa, shocked many people. Much like his contemporaries Pablo Picasso and futurist Gino Severini whom he met whilst exhibiting a collection of South African art with the International Art Club in Italy in 1949 and who strongly influenced his work, his joie de vivre, appreciation of beauty and sensual treatment of the human form earned him recognition across the world.
WHO WAS WALTER BATTISS?
Walter Whall Battiss (6 January 1906 – 20 August 1982) was a South African artist, considered to be the foremost South African abstract painter and known as the creator of the quirky “Fook Island” concept. Battiss was born into an English Methodist family in the Karoo town of Somerset East. He first became interested in archaeology and tribal art as a young boy after moving to Koffiefontein in 1917.
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 Witwatersrand Technical College where he studied drawing and painting, and then attended the Johannesburg Training College where he received his 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 University of South Africa at the age of 35.
Battiss was a founding member of the New Group, a loose friendship of recognized contemporary European and American artists. He was unique among them in that he was not only from what was regarded then as ‘the colonies’ but had not studied in either Europe or North America. In fact he visited Europe for the first time only in 1938.
In 1949 he befriended Picasso who would have an influence on his already quirky style. He visited Greece in 1966-1968 and the Seychelles in 1972, which inspired his make-believe Fook Island.
WALTER BATTISS – THE TEACHER, THE SCHOLAR, THE WRITER
As a teacher, Walter Battiss is best remembered as having taught art at Pretoria Boys High School from 1936 for most of the next 30 years and at the Pretoria Art Centre, where he was the principal from 1953–58. He also taught at UNISA where he became Professor of Fine Art in 1964 and retired in 1971. In 1973 he was awarded a D.Litt et Phil. (honoris causa) from UNISA.
As a scholar, Walter Battiss’s long career as an artist was 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. His versatility and influence as an innovator and the incentive he provided for many aspiring artists secured him a special place among leading South African artists.
As a writer Battiss published nine books, wrote many articles and founded the periodical De Arte. His first book The Amazing Bushman cemented his interest in rock art which had a very profound impact on his ideas and he regarded San painting as an important art form. He was also influenced by African cultural Ndebele beadwork and generally by pre-Islamic cultures and calligraphy.
“MY FATHER WAS A WATERFALL AND MY MOTHER WAS A BUTTERFLY”
That is how Battiss described his parents 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” Battiss was quoted as saying. “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.
Another area that influenced Battiss’ work was his interest in archaeology at a young age after the family had moved to Koffiefontein – where an engineer instilled in him an interest in ancient art and which would later manifest itself as a major part of his own iconographical repertoire.
FROM ROCK DRAWINGS TO FANTASTICAL FOOK ISLAND
“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.”
Between 1966 and 1968 Battiss visited Greece, followed by a number of islands including Zanzibar, the Seychelles, Madagascar, Fiji, Hawaii, Samoa and the Comores which inspired the utopian and make-believe ‘Fook Island’, a dream world for which he created a map, imaginary people, plants and animals as well as a set of postage stamps, currency, passports and driver’s licences. He even created a full history for the mythical island complete with a Fookian language with a full alphabet as well. In Battiss’s words, “It is something that does not exist. I thought that I would take an island – the island that is inside all of us. I would turn this island into a real thing … I would give it a name”.
Fook was a result of his fertile imagination as well as his opposition to the Conceptualist Art movement of the 1960s and 70s, in Europe and America. The movement espoused that the construction of art was confined to the ‘moment’ in which it was created. He believed to the contrary that all art exists in the now and this he argued to represent with Fook Island, which was always in the now and always an essential part of reality.
Fook Island was the imaginary world Battiss created – his “Island of the Imagination”. Fook was a serious philosophy, to be 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 could 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.
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’ LEGACY IN SOMERSET EAST
In an official ceremony held in front of the white-gabled house in Paulet Street, Somerset East in 1981, Walter Whall Battiss bequeathed a large collection of his own art works to “the people of Somerset East and South Africa.” This was the largest Battiss collection in South Africa before the Jack Ginsberg collection was given to Wits Art Museum, in June 2016, to be exhibited for three months and then to form the nucleus for a definitive Battiss collection which would be available for study and research.
The two storied house with its long shaded verandah was built as an English officers’ mess in the early days of Somerset, and was hired by the Battiss family, who ran it as the Battiss private Hotel between 1914 and 1917, when the recession which followed the First World War forced them to close, and move to Koffiefontein.
It lies under the benign gaze of the Boschberg Mountain, and is a familiar landmark in this small Karoo town. It still functions as an art museum housing the large collection of Battiss’ work, as well as family items, books, letters, and some of Prof. Battiss’ clothing and personal items. The Museum was fully restored when serious deterioration of the building was identified in 1999, and it reopened in 2004.
At the opening of the Walter Battiss Art Museum in October 1981, Battiss, at 75, still looked every bit as much the “strong man” as the artist. His large frame, neatly dressed in pin-striped shirt and suit, contrasted with his long white hair and goatee.
Walter Battiss was working at a winter retreat at Leisure Bay on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast when he was struck down by a heart attack. He died in Port Shepstone on 20th August 1982, aged 76.
In November 2006, the centenary of his birth, and the 25 year anniversary of the opening of the Walter Battiss Art Museum were celebrated, with poetry, song, and readings in Fook by his old friend Walter Saunders at a suitably decorated Gallery. The gentle spirit of Walter Battiss would have enjoyed the occasion, attended by family, friends, and art lovers.
The Walter Battiss Art Museum now houses the Blue Crane Tourism office. Museum hours 8.30 until 13.00 and 13.00 until 17.00 weekdays. Visits can be arranged between 10.00 and 12.00 on Saturdays and Public holidays, by previous arrangement.
WALTER BATTISS ART GALLERY (042) 243-1448 073-698-6539
SOMERSET EAST MUSEUM (042) 243-2079