16th Nov, 2023 18:00

20th Century & Contemporary Art

  Lot 41
Lot 41 - Walter Battiss (South Africa 1906-1982)


Walter Battiss (South Africa 1906-1982)
Sun Dance

oil on canvas

Signature details: signed mid-bottom area
Literature: Welz, S. (1996). 'Art At Auction in South Africa. The Art Market Review 1969 to 1996'. Saxonwold: Art Link (PTY)LTD, illustrated on p. 143.


oil on canvas

Signature details: signed mid-bottom area
Literature: Welz, S. (1996). 'Art At Auction in South Africa. The Art Market Review 1969 to 1996'. Saxonwold: Art Link (PTY)LTD, illustrated on p. 143.


61.5 x 76.5 cm; framed size: 66 x 80.5 x 4 cm


Private Collection, Cape Town.

Graham Fine Art Gallery, Johannesburg.

Stephan Welz & Co in Association with Sotheby’s, Johannesburg, 4 November 1991.


Symbolically rich and complex, whimsical, imaginative and vivid, Sun Dance is a masterful blend of Walter Battiss’ conceptual intent, unique iconography and experimental artistic techniques.

Battiss was deeply influenced and inspired by San rock art which he studied and recorded intensively over three decades. He became aware of the underlying spiritual significance in these ancient paintings and found a form in which to express his own inner and artistic vision, by borrowing and assimilating stylistic elements and content.

Battiss often referenced the rituals and ceremonies performed by the San of Southern Africa, and here perhaps also references the sacred Sun Dance of the Plains Indians of North America. The latter captivated Battiss during his 1977 sojourn in America which included an inspirational pilgrimage to the Rainbow Family Festival in Santa Fé, New Mexico. Of these experiences, he wrote: There were many beautiful people, some spiritually beautiful beyond words……..The Denver Art Museum was a great experience for me to see Red Indian watercolour drawings and tempera paintings by the best artists……. They love dances and rituals and smoking peyote to get visions. This is part of their religion….”[1]

However, in Sun Dance, Battiss creates a unique visual world filled with his own mythology of symbols and signs, which hold personal and universal meanings, truths and connections. He believed that abstract ideas not only exist in the minds of creators but can also become a part of reality.

Resembling the painted depictions of dance rituals in caves and rock shelters, the dynamic composition is loosely, yet sensitively rendered, evoking a sense of vitality and energy in the work. The brushwork, sgraffito marks and bold colours seem spontaneous, yet Battiss skilfully controlled the flow and process of painting – making the work classically intellectual, minimal and precise. Of his technique, art historian Karin Skawran notes: [In] his application of paint, Battiss was clearly guided both by intuition and intellect. The physical pleasure in this creative act, of physically transforming vibrant colours and textures into animated images of primordial force, reflects a rare harmony between body and mind.[2]

The painting might be seen to represent a historical chronicle of humankind (looking at the progression of the stylised figures into more descriptive figurative forms) or the cyclical nature of life (reading the composition from left to right), renewal and transformation (the figures on the right-hand side falling onto a large moth-like creature), or the cosmic significance of the sun (its image rendered in hot coloured sgraffito at the top).

Traditionally, the Trance Dance is a healing dance for individuals or a community as a whole.

The Sun Dance is a ceremony to awaken the earth, renew the community, give thanks to the sun and petition favours from the Great Spirit. Battiss’ use of abstract planes and simple graphic forms symbolises the universal understanding and significance of these themes in transcending specific cultural boundaries.

Sun Dance is a remarkable work that showcases Battiss’ artistic prowess, solidifying his position as one of South Africa’s most celebrated avant-garde modernists.

Marelize Van Zyl

[1] Siebrits, W. (2016). Walter Battiss: I Invented Myself. Johannesburg: The Ampersand Foundation, p.p. 181, 184.

[2] Skwaran, K, & Macnamara, M. (1985). Walter Battiss. Craighill: A.D. Donker (PTY) LTD. p.16.


The artist is represented in numerous local and international collections, notably, Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town; Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg; Javett Art Centre, Pretoria; Durban Art Gallert, Durban; William Humphreys Gallery, Kimberley; University of the Witwatersrand Art Museum, Johannesburg; and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, Gqeberha.

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