Important South African and International Art

Live Auction, 4 June 2018

Session Three

Sold for

ZAR 1 024 200
Lot 313
  • Walter Battiss; People Who Live Under Tables

Lot Estimate
ZAR 1 000 000 - 1 500 000
Selling Price
Incl. Buyer's Premium & VAT
ZAR 1 024 200

About this Item

South African 1906-1982
People Who Live Under Tables
signed and dated 82; inscribed with the title on the reverse
oil on canvas
90,6 by 120,5cm excluding frame


The title Walter Battiss ascribed to the present lot, People Who Live Under Tables, a work done in the year of his death in 1982, seems rather enigmatic. On face value, not much happens under these tables, judging from the fact that these people – four figures and perhaps two aquamarine shadows of people – are confined to a small section at the bottom of the left-hand side of the picture plane. Many more people are at the table, not under it. Could this strange assembly of people be members of what Battiss called a good ten years before he painted the present lot, an imaginary ‘International Secret Society of Invisible People’, a slogan prominently displayed at the entrance to his studio at his home, Giotto’s Hill in Pretoria. These people could then be seen as constituting an alternative reality with which all free spirits might identify themselves.1

Looking at those around the table on the left, the number of people, thirteen in total, is significant, as that number could reference the Last Supper, Jesus together with his twelve disciples. No discernible hierarchical order makes it difficult to pinpoint which figure might be that of Jesus. One aquamarine figure, however, stands out amongst the rest. The focus of the painting is located in two figures standing at what appears to be an architect’s or a draughtsman’s table, judging from the square ruler in one of their hands, and the compass in the other’s. These two figures could well design their own alternative reality.

Above the two figures, to the top right-hand side, appears what might be another abstract figure, perhaps pointing a finger at the two with an outstretched arm. Invariably this would then invoke Michaelangelo’s famous depiction of the Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the listless body of Adam about to be animated by the spirit of God at the gentle touch of their fingertips. Battiss had always been fascinated by Michaelangelo: apart from the many books on the artist in his personal library, Michaelangelo was always present in the curriculum for his pupils when he was Art Master at Pretoria Boys High School during the three decades between the mid-1930s and the 60s, after which he became Professor of Art at Unisa.

Says Karin Skawran of the last Battiss paintings: ‘What set Walter Battiss apart as an innovative artist and a vibrant personality, was his ability, even in old age, to constantly renew himself and to see the world as new each day. His irrepressible curiosity in everything he encountered – human beings, the landscape, objects – continued to fascinate him and feed his imagination’. 2

Esmé Berman (1983). Art and Artists of South Africa, Cape Town: A.A. Balkema, page 60.
2 Karin Skawran (2005). Walter Battiss: Gentle Anarchist, Johannesburg: Standard Bank Gallery, page 17.


Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, A Retrospective Exhibition of the Works of Walter Whall Battiss (1906-1982), 20 October 2005-3 December 2005.


Karin Skawran (ed.) (2005). Walter Battiss: Gentle Anarchist, Johannesburg: Standard Bank Gallery. Illustrated in colour on page 162.

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