Critics’ Picks

Walter Battiss, 5am Waking Dream, 1976, watercolor and gouache on paper, 14 x 20".


Walter Battiss

Wits Art Museum
Corner of Bertha and Jorrison Streets University of Witwatersrand
July 6–October 9

In 1979, three years before his death at age seventy-six, Walter Battiss published a monograph in which he is described as a “paunchy painter-poet,” “international artist,” “traveller,” and “philosopher.” It is easy to miss this volume, which is part of a display of more than seven hundred of his drawings, paintings, prints, books, and related ephemera, all drawn from the Jack M. Ginsberg Collection. Ginsberg is well-known in South Africa for his support of artists’ books, and his collection evidences his bias toward works on paper more generally, notably Battiss’s vivid and abstractly figurative prints and notational watercolors. Curated by Warren Siebrits, “I Invented Myself” chronologically charts Battiss’s passage from virtuoso naturalist to late-blooming member of the avant-garde. Along the way it details his periods as mimetic recorder of rock art, Post-Impressionist conjurer of Gauguin-like island wildernesses, and Pop printmaker.

Like Picasso, whom he met in 1949, Battiss was not wed to any particular style, technique, or media. Siebrits is aware of this. Drawing on letters written by Battiss to set designer Dacre Punt, a former student who became a secret lover and lifelong confidant, Siebrits burrowed into the artist’s submerged private life to “trace the artistic intentions in many of his major works.” Battiss didn’t produce a major work, not on evidence of this show; his genius existed in the abundance of his output, from his early books popularizing the art of South Africa’s first people to his florid paintings that willfully spurned this earlier art’s elevation of form over color. The final section is the show’s largest, and the most compelling. Devoted to his “Fook Island,” a protean cosmology informed by the artist’s island yearnings and aversion to censorship, it showcases the imaginative plenitude of an impish libertarian––some prefer “gentle anarchist”––operating in the age of high apartheid.