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Picasso and Battiss Converse at Strauss Auction

  3 March 2016     Archived

Strauss & Co’s 14 March auction offers art lovers insights into the art and ideas shared by Picasso and Battiss when they met in Paris in the 40s.

The two met in Picasso's Paris studio in 1949. The previous year had been a game-changer for Battiss, according to Senior Art Specialist, Emma Bedford. In 1948 he had visited rock art sites in Namibia for the first time and hunted with the Heikum bushmen from Namutoni in the Etosha region. He was already familiar with many of the major painted shelters and petroglyph sites that he had previously visited in southern Africa, including those in Zimbabwe, the Eastern Cape and the Drakensberg area. His research culminated in the publication in 1948 of The artists of the rocks, which was to become a classis of rock art literature.

When a copy was presented to Picasso he studied the images thoughtfully, before enquiring, "Tell me now Battiss, am I as good as your Bushman artists?" as Murray Schoonraad recounts in his contribution to the 1985 Battiss monograph.

It is clear that both artists shared a love of art from the African continent and that Battiss' passion for rock art had gained a new fan in one of the 20th century's greatest artists. Like Picasso, his engagement with an ancient art form of Africa was the catalyst in Battiss's own move away from naturalism towards figurative abstraction. The insights he gained from rock art enabled him to approach his canvas as the bushmen had seen the rock face and treat it as an overall surface across which to arrange elements without being constrained by the one-point perspective of European art.

Red Rock (R600 000 - 900 000) painted at this critical time in 1949 is a seminal work in the liberation from such conventional norms, says Bedford. Not only was the artist enabled to forge a path away from naturalism towards developing his own unique vision but this painting may be viewed as a key work in South African art, setting a new bench mark in art history. Eliminating light and shade in favour of bold colours applied flatly in clearly delineated areas, Battiss reveals his delight both in his subject and in his newfound approach to painting.

Walter Battiss first encountered rock art when, in his early teens, he was introduced to the engraved petroglyphs near Koffiefontein where his family was living. It was in 1933 that he first saw rock paintings now dated from the early years of colonisation back several thousand years in time. He was captivated by this art form which was to play such a significant role in the development of his own art. Later that year he accidentally kicked up a stone which so entranced him that he traced its source to a river of beautiful water-washed stones including implements that would have been used by prehistoric artists. This profound experience led him to conclude, as Schoonraad has documented, "It was my foot which spurred me onto this and I decided that pre-historic art in South Africa belonged to us, the artists. Fate had sent it to me to go into action as an artist and not as an archaeologist".

Schoonraad recounts how, on a rock art excursion to the Barkly East district, Terence McCaw recalls Battiss sitting in a cave and exclaiming "This belongs to us. This is our beginning. This is where we move from!" With great enthusiasm, Battiss continued his intensive research into southern African rock art, documenting numerous local sites as well as visiting several prehistoric rock art sites in the south of France after consulting with the acknowledged authority, Abbé Breuil in Paris. His first book on the subject, The amazing Bushman, was published in 1939. Over the next few years he sought various ways to incorporate the style and content of what he was seeing on the rock faces into his paintings, linocuts, woodcuts and wood engravings.


Walter Battiss
Red Rock
signed and dated May ‘49
oil on canvas
63 by 98,5cm
R600 000–900 000

Strauss & Co's upcoming auction on Monday 14 March at the Vineyard Hotel in Cape Town offers many exceptional works by major South African artists from JH Pierneef, Hugo Naudé, Walter Battiss, Gerard Sekoto, Gregoire Boonzaier and Erik Laubscher to Robert Hodgins, William Kentridge, Sue Williamson, Athi-Patra Ruga and Ian Grose. Amongst these, Birds and Boats (R700 000 - 900 000) by Maggie Laubser is one of the most charming paintings by this much-loved artist to appear at auction in recent years.

Media contact:
Bina Genovese, 021 683 6560/083 680 9944

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