In the DVD documentary visitors to the Walter Battiss Art Museum can watch, Battiss describes being three, and being given the alphabet to copy by his mother in the candlelight. He wrote A, B, and then became “fed up with it” and drew a beautiful little candle. After this he drew incessantly, filled sketch books; and this was his path for the rest of his life.
He was a master of oil painting; is still considered to be the best watercolour artist South Africa has ever had; pioneered silkscreen printing in the country; was the best abstract artist of his day; and drew with a mastery few can copy. Examples of all these techniques are in the Museum. The five examples of drawing with white gouache on black paper are worthy of an exhibition on their own.
His fascination with Rock Art, particularly Bushman cave paintings influenced a lot of his work. We have a prime example of this, an oil painting – Father and Son in the Rocks, dated 1949. The colours, and the lack of perspective mirror what he saw on the cave walls. The painting was sent to the Venice Biennale in 1950, and caused a scandal. After public reaction it was discussed in Parliament, because people did not think it should be sent overseas to represent South African Art. “He is an unworthy Springbok!”
He was constantly exploring, trying new ideas, for his entire life. At the end of the documentary, made shortly before his death, he is asked if he has a masterpiece – “Yes! Do you want to see the masterpiece? Come tomorrow and I’ll show you the masterpiece!” What do you want to do? “I just want to paint, and paint, and paint – that’s what I’m living for.”
These words sum up his character, and his attitude to his art. People leave the Museum saying that they are inspired by him, and some young people give their opinion that he is “Cool”. Not bad forty years after his death, he would have loved it.