Walter Battiss review

The Walter Battiss that lives in South Africa’s collective memory is an enchanting character. He was someone who supposedly proffered love and freedom, and art for fun – what ironically gives him the title of “anarchist” in his retrospective exhibition Gentle Anarchist.

A comprehensive retrospective, Gentle Anarchist included more than 160 oils, watercolours, screenprints, woodcuts, lithographs, sketches and tapestries, as well as a significant section of ephemera, including photos, letters and diaries, and artefacts from the fabled Fook Island activities. The work was not ranged chronologically, but rather by medium, making it difficult to trace any artistic phases. This curatorial strategy fairly reflected Battiss, an artist known for haphazardly jumping between media and styles and much of the work is undated.

The diaphanous quality of his watercolours redeems the medium. With a shimmering dreamlike quality, the landscapes, portraits and travel records are still vibrantly coloured and full of depth. The tapestries attempt to give mass to this watercolour dream. The oil paintings vary between lascivious impasto thickness, weaving strands of colour into a single stroke, and measured, smooth concrete abstract squiggles in earth tones. The screenprints are crisp, playing the negative space off the candy colours. And, not to forget, his intricate, absorbing ink drawings.

Battiss is always true to his medium, be it in the strong painterly feel of his oils, the diluted quality of the watercolours, or the hard edge of the graphic. In this he evokes a mysticism that offsets the plasticity of his medium. Even when depicting a naturalistic scene, it is the abstract nature of the medium that comes to the fore – a swimming pool in impasto oil alongside a desert in watercolour.

Some of his works do seem like studies in a style, such as the wildlife and still life pieces rendered in the heavy-handed vein of the time. Battiss has been called derivative and not entirely original. Technique-wise, however, one has to marvel at his precision, and volume-wise, at the prolific output. Ultimately, though, it is when he is seemingly playing or doodling that the fun hits you like a Fanta advert.

His visual language insists on being both abstract and witty. A tendency towards caricature and cartoon encapsulates much of his work, as for example his eight legged pets, naked bodies without torsos and then without legs, feathers cradling baby birds, multi-limbed eyes, many coloured naked bodies with rainbow coloured genitals, a flock of birds that is a tree, and even a particularly pert letter writer. However, even in his trademark squiggles, the abstraction is always humanized with a soft animism. His joyous personality creaks out of every image. A voracious sexual appetite is also evident in his large output of erotica.

Although the exhibition tried to cordon this off as a distinct section, his sexual imagination slips into far more than just the obvious ones. His images are not tempered, with great orgies crammed into the landscape of paper, but they remain naïve rather than dirty, explicating the 1970s ideal of free love without a drop of cynicism. Look to Are You a Bird Lover? as an example. It depicts lots of naked women and beaked bird heads. Battiss’s pen drawings do present an element of voyeurism and kink as one has to zone in closely to read the details.

It is interesting that Battiss apparently only discovered erotica late in his life, possibly by this time it was no longer hampered by a youthful bashfulness. Often he plays with these images distractedly, as though not related to sex at all, claiming at the time they were all about the beauty.

Underscoring the art, the large section of ephemera is significant in viewing an artist such as Battiss, whose eccentric personality precedes him. Battiss the myth lives in my own imagination from second-hand urban legends told by scholars at Pretoria Boys’ High about Battiss’s teaching stint there. In one of the first lessons, so the legend goes, he brought a branch into class and told the students they had to fill it with birds. The next day they made ketties (catapults) and shot the birds out of the tree. There were more such stories, lively counterpoints to the dry lessons on Battiss taught by my matric art history teacher. To recognise Battiss by the crazed but direct look in his eyes, even from age four, in the photos and delve into the artefacts from Fook Island, revived the fun around the mystery.

Clearly, Battiss worked from within Fook Island, a distinct but mirrored other world of which Adorno once spoke – that it makes great art. According to Norman Catherine, quoted in the well documented, lush catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Battiss created Fook Island “because he wanted everybody, children as well as people his own age, to enjoy the freedom to create art, especially at a time in South Africa when there was serious censorship”.

The Standard Bank Gallery was packed during my Wednesday mid-morning visit. A teacher was conducting a group of high-school students through the exhibition. Elsewhere, a couple had trailed off and were necking in the side gallery. A youth orchestra, tuning instruments in the upper gallery, added to the cacophony. Between the mothers drifting in to hear their performance, a handful of serious gallery goers picked their way through the splay of tog bags to view the artworks one-by-one. Was this the art-for-all that Battiss wanted out of Fook Island?

After a year of blockbuster retrospectives, including Dumile Feni, William Kentridge and David Goldblatt’s, exhibitions that generally seemed to repackage familiar artists and images that are often in the public eye, the Battiss retrospective felt truly worthy of the name. Battiss exhibitions are scarce and it seems that he has been living only in our imagination for the last few years. To remember him here was like taking a trip in a time capsule to another generation of art, a space that seemed oddly unfamiliar. Intriguing but isolated, as though Battiss had been, unfortunately, relegated to heritage.

Art South Africa, 1 March 2006

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