Last week the first Walter Battiss exhibition in 37 years returned to the Cape, entitled  ‘I invented myself’, and opened in Stellenbosch at the Rupert Museum. It was such a momentous day that the heavens celebrated with a dramatic thunderstorm, and pouring rain.

In September 2016 I was lucky to be taken on a private tour of the Jack M. Ginsberg Collection of the art of Walter Battiss at the Wits University Art Museum. The Collection had been donated by Mr Ginsberg, one of our country’s most passionate Battiss collectors, particularly of the artist’s water colours. We were a small group of Battiss fans, and I had brought Marion Mertins with me, whom I had met in Johannesburg. 

The Battiss exhibition was curated by Warren Siebrits, also a passionate Battiss fan, who compiled a book about the Jack M. Ginsberg Collection, reflecting Battiss’ life as an artist, in five distinct phases, through his art. Battiss had written about his life: ‘I have decided to live for ever, I am ready, if necessary, to die now & for me I’ve had 4 lives already & am on my 5th’!

I first met Warren in Hermanus in June 2016, at Hermanus FynArts, where he was a speaker about his favorite artist. The painting on the right was one of a number of alternatives buyers of the Battiss book could choose as a cover for one’s book.  

Hermanus FynArts 2016 a feast of a fine arts Festival!

The Rupert Museum is a large building, and a vast number of Battiss works formed part of the exhibition, displayed chronologically in the five phases of Battiss’ artist life. My friend Llewellyn Lambert (right) joined me at the exhibition, and commented about the vastly different styles of Battiss’ work over his lifetime. 

A table of Rupert wines allowed one to taste the Cape of Good Hope Riebeeksrivier red wine. Another table close by was heaving with canapé treats of sushi, caprese salad on mini skewers, and with cheese, fruit, and biscuit platters. 

A microphone had been set up in front of the largest Battiss work at the exhibition, entitled ‘African Paradise’, the main photograph above. Eduard du Plessis (left) was the first speaker. I was grateful to have been invited to the exhibition opening by him, a client of my PR Consultancy many moons ago. Ed’s wife Susan inherited a substantial Battiss Collection from her late husband Professor Murray Schoonraad, who was the Battiss biographer. Ed has created the Walter Battiss Company, which sells a wide range of artifacts with Battiss motives from his works.  Its website states that one can buy Battiss art as prints, on wallpaper, on ceramics, and in textiles. 

Ed shared that Battiss had inspired others to do art, sharing his spirit through his art and personality, evoking creativity and free thought. Shortly before his death in 1981, Battiss had said in an interview:’What I think will be interesting is that people who surround me at this moment, and the people who might surround my myth in the future, will have something inside themselves that will animate them to do art, or to do something that is akin to art. And that, to me, is where I will live – in having inspired other human beings to do art’. 

The artist fought mediocrity, rejected conformity, radiated optimism, and stimulated inventiveness and a creative vision of the world. He was humble, despite being known to all. As an artist he studied man and his environment, initially via African and rock art. He was at the forefront of the South African Art scene, a leader of every art movement since 1938. Battiss was interested in life, was a hard worker, had compassion for his fellow artists, and loved nature. He vehemently opposed the censorship of art. 

Ed praised Warren Siebrits (left) for his dedication and enthusiasm in hanging the exhibition, and described him as a ‘walking, live Google’ on the topic of Walter Battiss and his art, giving him new insight into the life and work of Battiss, despite the extensive private Battiss collection of the Du Plessis family. The exhibition drew on works in the Rupert Art Foundation, Jack Ginsberg, Ed du Plessis, and the Wits Art Museum. 

Warren thanked the Rupert family for welcoming the Battiss exhibition in its Museum. He shared that he met Jack Ginsberg in 1969, and that they have become friends. The book he compiled about the Jack M. Ginsberg Collection documents its 700 works in chronological order. He also told us that Battiss was at his most productive in the last ten years of his life, having created 465 works in this period. He was testimony to the fact that one does not decline with age. Battiss’ first exhibition was held at Rand Afrikaans University at the age of 21, and his last was at the age of 55. In his lifetime he had created about 18000 – 20000 works of art, more than JH Pierneef and Irma Stern had done. 

Ed also introduced Jack Ginsberg (left), describing him as a philanthropist and being a passionate long-standing supporter of contemporary South African art. He is best known for his internationally renowned collection of artists’ books. He founded the Ampersand Foundation in 1997, to allow local artists to be exposed to the international art world, to allow them to achieve their full potential. In the past 21 years more than 150 local artists and curators have spent time in his apartment in New York, on an all-expenses-paid program. Jack collected more than 700 Battiss works over a 25-year period, which he donated to the Wits Art Museum in 2016. He officially opened the art exhibition at the Rupert Museum. 

I invented myself’ Walter Battiss exhibition, Until 11 August. Rupert Museum. Stellenbosch. Twitter: @WalterBattissCo Instagram: @WalterBattiss @walter_battiss_company

Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chris_Ulmenstein