3rd Mar, 2019 12:00

Historic, Modern & Contemporary Art

Lot 13
Lot 13 - Walter Whall Battiss (South Africa 1906-1982)


Walter Whall Battiss (South Africa 1906-1982)

oil on canvas

Signature details: signed

Sold for R455,200
Estimated at R400,000 - R600,000


oil on canvas

Signature details: signed


56 x 63.5 cm


“An artist delights in life”,[i] Walter Battiss once said. For him there was no separation between life and art, and in his own work he often conveyed a sense of excitement and a real joy for the pleasures that life could offer. Battiss was a subjective observer and he was primarlily concerned with the various ways of uniquely capturing and interpreting a particular place and his impression thereof. “The yellow rock-shelter, the red earth, the green sky, the red cloud, the black water – these pull me”,[ii] he often explained.Battiss captivated many with his conceptual creativity – he was an artist ahead of his time, but it was his peculiar sense of humour that brought a certain playfulness to his work. Sun Bathers and Surfers are two delightful paintings that immediately suggest the artist’s enjoyment in their subjects, as well as in the expressive and experimental art of painting. The sheer pleasure Battiss had in handling the material is clear in both works, as they both display the artist’s idiosyncratic use of impasto, colour and form.

The two paintings are not dated. However, stylistically they both fit within the large body of work Battiss produced during the 1970s, which saw the artist often referencing the notion of the island - or island life - as a primary theme to celebrate life, the body and sensuality in his work. The influence of islands on Battiss’ creative thinking started when he travelled extensively through the Greek Islands during the late 1960s. Afterwards he visited the Seychelles twice in 1972. He was enchanted by the unspoilt nature and particularly by the simple and leisurely life on the island. After a lengthy tour through the Pacific Islands in 1976, Battiss frequently revisited many distant places such as Fiji, Samoa, the Hawaiian Islands, and also Tonga and Niue. Between 1978 and 1979, he also travelled to Tahiti and the remote Marquesas Islands.Sun Bathers instantly dazzles the eye with its radiant, warm colours. The surface is rendered in various layers of thick paint, mostly with a palette knife. Here, Battiss toys with abstraction, keeping the background simple and in two flat colour planes, merely to create a horizon for this beach setting. Off centre in the foreground on separate patches of varying colours, the linear sgraffito drawings of four nude female figures, skittishly in various reclining poses, completes the scene of seaside frolics under a hot yellow and orange sun.

In Surfers, Battiss captured in a remarkably quick, immediate and direct manner the very essence of this vibrant scene. This work is a wonderful example of Battiss’ ability to control a multiplicity of detail to keep the viewer engaged. He kept colours fresh. Gradients of tropical blues and cool greens add dimension and volume to the background, making the sky and sea indistinguishable. At first glance there appears to be a lot of detail in the foreground, but a closer look shows that this is only suggested through the artist’s confident and lively brushwork and incised drawings on layers of thick paint. It is a charming view; a seagull on a lamp post attentively watches over the group of surfers about to catch some waves. For Battiss, it is yet another trope to convey pleasure, fun and a lust for life.

Marelize van Zyl


[i] Scully. L. 1963. Walter Battiss. University of Pretoria: Unpublished thesis. P. 18.

[ii] Ibid. P. 3.

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Auction: Historic, Modern & Contemporary Art, 3rd Mar, 2019

Aspire Art Auctions set a new bar for the market in its Autumn 19 Auction in Cape Town, with a South African auction record for its cover lot.

An early work, by international star Marlene Dumas, Love Lost (1973/4) achieved R7 283 200, more than doubling its pre-sale estimate of R3 000 000. Further successful sales included a range of paintings by Alexis Preller from across his career, and new world records for work by Jane Alexander, Simphiwe Ndzube, and Moshekwa Langa. These results further establish Aspire’s growing reputation as the discerning auction house for handling contemporary South African art.  

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