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Battiss, Rock Art and Picasso

In 1938 a young Walter Battiss made his first trip to Europe; having seen his first Rock Art in 1933, and beginning to study it intensively. He had begun teaching at Pretoria Boys’ High in 1936. On this trip he visited the areas where van Gogh lived and worked, and met Abbé Breuil, the noted French Rock Art expert.

In 1939, he published his first book on Rock Art, The Amazing Bushman.

The Artists of the Rocks was published in 1948, and in 1949 he took a copy of this book to Pablo Picasso’s dealer, Henri Kahnweiler, and asked him to give it to Picasso. Picasso then asked to meet Battiss, who was taken to his house. A friendship sprang up, and Battiss began to visit Picasso weekly.

Picasso was highly esteemed as an artist by Battiss, and this is evident in the records at Pretoria Boys’ High, where he featured as an essential subject for the boys lucky enough to be taught art by Battiss.

In an interview Battiss gave to Jill Johnson, printed in South Africa Speaks, in 1981, he described Picasso as friendly, and said that Picasso accepted him as one of the family. Battiss saw how tender and quiet Picasso could be, with his family in the background.

He showed Battiss how he worked; how he moved a cut out of a bird around a nearly finished painting, to decide where it would be most effective before he finished the painting. He was a very fast worker, and most prolific, as Battiss was to become. He influenced Battiss to paint in two or three styles in one day. This was Battiss’ natural way of working as well; but before his association with Picasso, Battiss feared that his own way of jumping from one style to another meant that his art did not have a distinct personality. Picasso helped him to clarify his own attitude to art.

Like Picasso, Battiss only began to “play” with his art after he had developed great technical skills.

Picasso gave Battiss a lithograph of a bull; and asked if Battiss considered him to be a good as a cave painter – Battiss assured him he was. This graphic is now in the Jack Ginsburg collection of Battiss’ art, housed in the Wits Art Museum.

In the Walter Battiss Art Museum, two of the oil paintings brought by Battiss to be part of the collection in 1981; Woman and Child, and Portrait of Julian, make it fairly obvious that, for the rest of his life, Battiss would continue to have the odd “Picasso moment”.

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