In 1906 Walter Whall Battiss was born in Somerset East, a Karoo town in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. After receiving his teaching diploma in 1933, Battiss started working at the Park School in Turffontein, Johannesburg. In 1936 he was appointed art master at Pretoria Boys School, where he would work for most of the next 30 years. Battiss became a founding member of the New Group; and the only member who had not studied in Europe. In 1938 he visited Europe for the first time and met Abbé Henri Breuil. He married Grace Anderson, a renowned art-educationalist, in 1940. It was at this stage that Battiss’ previously realistic style of painting began to take on a hieratic, symbolist character. While exhibiting a collection of South African art with the International Art Club in Italy in 1949, Battiss had his first meeting with Pablo Picasso and the futurist Gino Severini. Both these artists made strong impressions on him, and the influence of their work can be seen in his art. 1955 welcomed the appearance of calligraphic forms in Battiss’ work, as well as the introduction of animal and human abstractions. The influence of Ndebele bead work in his art also became clear at this time, and he began to experiment with coloured woodcuts. In 1962 Battiss began exhibiting numerous canvases using palette-knife colour mixing with graffito delineation of forms. As a result of his growing interest in Pre-Islamic culture, he took several trips from Central Africa to the Middle East. Between the years of 1966 and 1968, Battiss made several trips to Greece; and thus began the influence of islands on his creative thinking. It was during this time that he published a hand-printed book of texts and serigraphs titled ‘Nesos’. By 1969 he was working on serigraphy with Chris Betambeau in London, and in 1970 he organised the first South African exhibition of serigraphs. When Battiss retired from his position as Professor of Fine Arts at UNISA in 1971, a special issue of ‘De Arte’ was published in his honour. In 1975 his wife, Grace, passed away. In 1980 Battiss designed four stamps for the Botswana postal service. The Walter Battiss museum opened in Somerset East the following year, and remains open today. On 20 August 1982, Battiss was struck down by a sudden heart attack and passed away. He was 76 years old.
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