Title Unknown* by Walter Battiss (1906 - 1982)
Title Unknown*, Unknown, oil on canvas, 800 x 600 mm

Walter Battiss (1906 - 1982)


About the artwork

There is little doubt that the composition of this work was influenced by the 'Bushman' rock art. In his work the meticulously rendered calligraphic figures symbolize the archetype of man. The figures in his work become pixelated specks in broad bands of graduated colour which read from afar, as reference to Op art and the Pattern and Decoration works of the late 1960’s and 1970’s.


About Battiss’s art 

Walter Battiss is one of South Africa’s most renowned artist. He is known as an accomplished print-maker and watercolourist. A versatile and inventive artists, Battiss was the first South African artist to exhibit abstract painting, which evolved out of his fascination with African art, more specifically rock art. First to bring the aesthetic value of the Bushman art to the public’s attention, Battiss published various books on the subject for example The Amazing Bushman (1939) The Artists of the Rock (1948), Bushman Art (1950) and Fragments of Africa (1951).


Battiss’s background

Walter Battiss was born in Somerset East in 1906. His interest in archaeology and rock art began after his family moved to Koffiefontein in 1917, and it remained one of his main influences throughout his life. After receiving his teaching diploma in 1933 he began to work at the Park School in Turffontein, Johannesburg. In 1936 he was appointed Art Master at Pretoria Boys School. He worked there for the next 30 years – with sporadic interruptions – and began to seriously study of rock art. Battiss was a founding member of The New Group.  While exhibiting a collection of South African art with the International Art Club in Turin, Italy in 1949, Walter Battiss had his first meeting with Pablo Picasso and Gino Severini.

The 1950s and 60s brought with it many accolades for Walter Battiss, starting in 1952 when he was invited to lecture on South African art at the University of London. In the following year he was appointed Professor of Fine Arts at UNISA. He was elected an Honorary Member of the Academy of Florence in 1965, and in the same year he founded the art periodical, De Arte, published by UNISA.


In 1973 he was awarded an Honorary D. Litt. et Phil. from UNISA. Additionally, 1973 saw the germination of the ‘Fook Island’ concept. The concept crystallized in 1974 and 1975 during Battiss’ travels to America, the Middle East and Europe. Walter Battiss and Norman Catherine held the first Fook Island exhibit in 1975. 


Throughout his lifetime, Walter Battiss displayed an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, his travels and research extending in all directions. He wrote and published ten books, as well as numerous articles in both local and international publications, and participated in countless solo and group exhibitions. He died in 1982 at the age of 76.





Berman, E. 1970. Art and Artists of South Africa: An Illustrated biographical Dictionary and Historical Survey of Painters, Sculptors and Graphic Artists Since 1875. Cape Town: A. A. Balkema.  


Graham’s fine art gallery. Important South African Paintings by Artists from 1867 Onwards: 20th August – 20th September 2004. A catalogue. (Vol 1) Johannesburg, South Africa. 


Smuts, H.2009. Imag(in)ing the Imagination: Internal Landscapes, Battiss in F. Freschi (Ed.),  Imaging and Imagining: South African Art C. 1896 – 2008 (pp. 226). Johannesburg: Graham’s Fine Art Gallery.


Stevenson, M. & Rosholt, A. 2003. Moving in time & space, shifts between abstraction & representation in post-war South African art. Cape Town, South Africa.