Walter Battiss’s much-loved orgy scenes from the 1970s flowed naturally from his intrepid research into the “magical schemata”1 of indigenous rock art. Compositionally, his graphically reduced prints and drawings of fondling and fornicating figures presented in depthless space hark back to the formal invention of rock art. Battiss was an acute observer of this earlier art. “The rock painters were not seduced by colour, were never tempted to abandon form for colour,” he wrote in 1945. “Form is timeless security – the suggestion of the eternal not the ephemeral. Colour fades, form remains.”2 Battiss’s mature practice also synthesised various innovations and themes drawn from European modernist painting. The jouissance of Matisse’s gambolling figures in The Dance (1909) are unavoidable and implicit reference in relation to this lot. Battiss’s formal innovations were matched by an energetic technique. His archive includes many sgraffito compositions depicting figures etched with casual confidence into his thick paint surfaces. Although chromatically restrained, this work bears many of the hallmarks of this powerful figural archive. This archive frequently drew from Battiss’s wide-eyed observations and doings as a life-long traveller for inspiration. In his later years Battiss famously embraced the free-spirited mores of the sexual revolution, painting nude with fellow artists and even participating in a sexual orgy in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
1. Esmé Berman (1970) Art and Artists of South Africa, Cape Town: AA Balkema. Page 39.
2. Walter Battiss (1945) Wall text (WBC/08/010, 1945) at exhibition The Origins of Walter Battiss: 'Another Curious Palimpsest', Origins Centre, Johannesburg, 2016.