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Rock Art and its lasting influence on JH Pierneef and Walter Battiss

  24 October 2012     Archived

Studies of San rock art has had a profound and lasting effect on many South Africas artists not the least of which were JH Pierneef and Walter Battiss.

Around 1915 Pierneef became actively interested in rock art. He travelled frequently to the Free State where the repositories of rock art were plentiful. Using his studies he adapted the flat stylised planes of adjacent colour with little or no shading and applied this to his landscapes. This paired down simplicity took tangible form in the stylistic shift in his subsequent work.

In By Fouriesburg, O.V.S. (pre-sale estimate R300 000 – 400 000) these influences are readily discernible. The identifiable Sentinel Rock of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park dominates the composition. Executed during the rainy season, the grasses flanking the slopes of the rocky outcrop are described in a lively lime offsetting the cool blues and lavenders of the shaded slopes and background mountains. Similarly, the large flattened planes of the road are laid down in various hues of clay red which complement the greens of the surrounding grasses. It is this deceptively simple straightforwardness of Pierneef’s work that makes the viewer truly appreciate the subtle complexities and true mastery of his style.

Walter Battiss’ interest in rock art began in 1917 when the Battiss family moved from Somerset East to Koffiefontein. The young Battiss’ imagination was fired during excursions into the surrounding countryside where he came across the many rock-painting sites dotted around the area. This amateur enthusiasm persisted after he moved to Johannesburg and proved pivotal in his decision to change career paths.

These early discoveries saw Battiss develop a unique pictorial language of calligraphic forms describing figures and foliage that he engaged in his paintings. He side-stepped the traditional approach to perspective in his paintings by negating the requisite creation of a three-dimensional space within the constraints of a two-dimensional medium. This seminal work by Battiss titled African Figures (pre-sale estimate R700 000 – 1 000 000) is a visual embrace of the formal and abstract idiom of European art combined with traditional rock art. The vignettes of women at various pursuits are united overall by their inclusion in the composition - each figure busies herself with daily tasks such as basket weaving or grinding corn. These every day undertakings equate the spiritual essence of the same rock surface Battiss studied in the caves.

Both of these fine examples are due to come under the hammer on 12 November 2012 at Strauss & Company’s auction to be held at the Johannesburg Country Club, Woodmead.

2012 Press Archive

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