Walter Battiss, the man who lived five lives

10 July 2016 - 02:00 By Warren Siebrits

Curator Warren Siebrits shines a light on the unprecedented exhibition at Wits Art Museum. "Walter Battiss: I Invented Myself" brings together 700 wildly divergent works by the great SA artist

Walter Battiss.
Walter Battiss.
Image: Supplied

One of the works on show at the Wits Art Museum's Walter Battiss retrospective is by Pablo Picasso. It is a lithograph of a bull, presented by Picasso to his South African friend in Paris in the 1950s.

The two met in May 1949, when Battiss was 43 and Picasso was 68. On several visits to Picasso's studio, Battiss saw first-hand how the greatest artist in the world was able to paint and draw in three or four different styles in one day. This is crucial to understanding how Battiss was able to transform his own art from the 1950s onwards.

It was sexless, without lips, eyes or breasts, and had scissors for hands. He would take it out in public as a form of protest at the damaging effects of censorship on our society

In the 1970s, Battiss made a T-shirt bearing a portrait of himself with the slogan: "I Invented Myself." He did this time and again, from his beginnings as a landscape painter in the 1920s to the inventor of Fook Island in the 1970s, for which he is most fondly remembered.

More than 65 years after Picasso inscribed a lithograph for him, a collection of 700 works by Battiss can be seen by the public for the first time. The works have been patiently assembled over the past 35 years by Johannesburg collector and art patron Jack Ginsberg.

I met Ginsberg in 1989 at a book auction at Sotheby's in Rosebank, Joburg, which was my first job after military service. Two small Battiss watercolours got us talking and we have remained friends ever since. We have spent thousands of hours over the past 25 years discussing Battiss and his work and have learned a great deal from one another.

The journey of discovery has been rich and rewarding and I have been fortunate to have located many seminal works by Battiss which form part of the Jack Ginsberg Collection.

Battiss's inexhaustible curiosity is probably the thing I admire most about him as a human being and artist.

This can be seen in the wonderfully diverse collection of works. Although there is a fine cross-section of paintings, the main focus of the collection is devoted to works on paper, which include a breathtaking array of pen and ink drawings and watercolours.

These have always been dear to Ginsberg, who regards Battiss as the finest exponent of watercolour in South African art history, although he is probably best known to the South African public for his brightly coloured silkscreens, particularly those from his "Orgy" series, which were deemed pornographic by the authorities back in the 1970s, resulting in certain of his exhibitions being closed by police after complaints from the public.

Today they are some of the most sought-after prints at auctions. I think Battiss would have been proud and impressed if he could see how South African consciousness has shifted.

Although he was not one for mixing art and politics, Battiss saw art as a vehicle to create a better world through dialogue and debate. In 1971 he created a rag doll which he called "Miss South Africa of the Future". It was sexless, without lips, eyes or breasts, and had scissors for hands. He would take it out in public as a form of protest at the damaging effects of censorship on our society.

In the last decade of his life he created more art and visited more exotic islands than he had during the first six decades of his life

He forced people to take note, using an arsenal of wit, satire and humour to get his message across.

Battiss was not only raising awareness to damaging aspects of government policy; he became the father of conceptual and performance art practice in South Africa in the process. His sharpness, combined with his sublime sense of colour and composition, are the hallmarks of many of his great works, whether in the form of an oil painting, watercolour or print.

The older he became physically, the younger he became in spirit. In the last decade of his life he created more art and visited more exotic islands than he had during the first six decades of his life. He acquired more wisdom and became more expansive and more determined with age. His creative energy increased with his advancing years.

The discovery of 103 letters written to a friend, lover and confidant in London between 1963 and 1982 (the year Battiss died) revealed a great deal about his private life and creative process.

These letters confirm his bisexuality and gravitation towards homosexuality in his later years, which has been largely ignored by art historians. These revelations give his work a whole new reading and significance, particularly his work from the Fook Island period.

In one of the letters, written at the cusp of the creation of Fook Island in the late 1960s, Battiss writes: "I've had four lives already and am on my fifth."

As curator of the exhibition, this statement inspired me to arrange Battiss's career into five separate periods with the works hung for the first time in chronological order instead of the traditional thematic sequence. A new generation of South Africans will be able to see the man and his work in a new light.

Artist, teacher and visionary, Battiss did so much to evolve the notions of freedom and democracy in South Africa during the apartheid years. His life's work can now be viewed as one piece of sustained mental creation on the Wits University campus where he took his first art classes as a student in 1930.

"Walter Battiss: I Invented Myself" is at the Wits Art Museum in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, until October 9. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 10am-4pm. Entry is free.

"Another Curious Palimpsest", 80 works focusing on Battiss's interest in San rock art, is at the Origins Centre at Wits until September 30.