Walter Battiss was born in the Karoo town of Somerset East. 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. In 1919 the Battiss family settled in Fauresmith where Walter completed his education, matriculating in 1923. He took a job as a clerk in the Rustenburg Magistrates court in 1924. His spare time was spent painting.
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 rock art.
Walter Battiss was a founding member of The New Group. He was unique in that he had not studied in Europe. In 1938 he visited Europe for the first time and met Abbé Henri Breuil. The following year Battiss published his first book titled ‘The Amazing Bushmen’. He married Grace Anderson, a renowned art-educationalist in 1940. It was at this stage that his previously realistic style of painting began to take on an hieratic, symbolic character.
In 1944 Walter Battiss became the first South African artist to ever represent rock art from a purely aesthetic point of view through his exhibition of copies of rock paintings. Four years later, in 1948, he ventured out into the Namib Desert where he lived among the Bushmen for a time. It was also the year that Battiss won the bronze medal and diploma for painting and woodcuts at the International Olympiad Exhibition.
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. The following year saw him appointed Principal of the Pretoria Art Centre. It was at this stage of his career that he acquired the appellation, ‘The Bushman Painter’. It was also during this time that he began to experiment with coloured woodcuts. In 1954 he was elected a Member of the Executive Commission of the International Association of Plastic Arts. In the same year Battiss was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and printed his first serigraph.
1955 welcomed the appearance of calligraphic forms in his work, as well as the introduction of animal and human abstractions; the influence of Ndebele bead work in his art becomes clear.
Battiss was awarded the Pro Arte Medal by the University of Pretoria in 1956. Two years later, in 1958, he returned to Pretoria Boys High School to teach. In 1960 he was elected a Fellow of the International Institute of Art and Letters.
It was in 1962 that Walter Battiss began exhibiting numerous canvases using palette-knife colour mixing with sgraffito 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. After the culmination of his term as Chair of Fine Arts at Rhodes University, he returned to Pretoria Boys High School.
In 1964 Battiss was awarded the Medal of Honour of South African Akademie. 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’, which was published by UNISA.
Between the years 1966 and 1968, Walter Battiss made several trips to Greece, thus beginning 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. Walter Battiss retired from his position as Professor of Fine Arts at UNISA in 1971, and a special issue of ‘De Arte’ was published in his honour.
Battiss visited the Seychelles in 1972 and became enchanted by the unspoilt nature and simple island life. In 1973 he was awarded an Honorary D. Litt. et Phil. from UNISA. Additionally, 1973 swa 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. In the same year Battiss’ wife, Grace, passed away.
After a lengthy visit to the Pacific Islands in 1976, Walter Battiss began to travel frequently and extensively to those remote, exotic areas. The ‘Fook Island’ concept began to flourish, acquiring South African and international adherents, which gave rise to ‘fooklore’, stamps, currency and publications. In 1980 Battiss designed 4 stamps for the Botswana postal service. The following year the Walter Battiss museum opened in his birth-place.
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. On 20 August 1982, Walter Battiss was struck down by a sudden heart attack and passed away. He was 76 years old.