Walter Battiss (1906-1982) Bird & Boy, silkscreen on paper, edition unique colour variation 1/1, 50 x 38 cm, 1968
Walter Battiss (1906-1982) Bird & Boy, silkscreen on paper, edition unique colour variation 1/1, 50 x 38 cm, 1968
Image: Images courtesy Warren Siebrits and the Art of Collecting ©The artist(s) or the artist’s estate

The Making of Nesos

This month marks the start of the process, set in motion 49 years ago, of making what Walter Battiss (1906 – 1982) considered to be the pinnacle of his artistic expression as a printmaker. The work in question is Nesos (Greek for island) which is comprised of 54 individually printed silkscreens, which took him from February to August 1968 to complete. In this seven-month period Battiss devoted just about all his time to the making of these images, "a most trying effort under the blazing African sun" is how he referred to it in a letter written to his dear friend Dacre Punt. The images were then bound into book form and the completion of the work was first announced in The Pretoria News in September 1968.

After many years of researching Battiss’s life it occurred to me that this work was not only seminal in the artist’s oeuvre but also seminal in the transition he made, in the late sixties and early seventies, to develop an island of his own. In the minds of many art lovers, both here and abroad, it is Fook Island that will be remembered as his most important contribution to global art and culture. This is why I decided to give Nesos such a prominent position in the recent exhibition of Jack Ginsberg’s collection at Wits Art Museum (WAM).

I recently made the exciting discovery of locating two silkscreens conceived and printed by Battiss for Nesos but that, for various reasons, were not included in the final selection of 54 images. These works are both extremely rare and this is the first time I have seen them in the course of nearly 30 years of research. No impressions of these two images by Battiss are included in the Jack Ginsberg Collection of over 700 works recently gifted and housed at WAM. Both images are printed on a larger scale than the images selected for inclusion in Nesos and are both variants of similar images from the artists book. They are also differentiated by the fact that they are in tiny edition sizes of 10 instead of 25, which was the edition size chosen for Nesos. These exceptional prints are also signed by the artist using his full name instead of just Battiss. This indicates that the prints were either regarded by the artist as proofs or more often than not were intended as gifts, which were therefore never made available commercially at the time.

Walter Battiss (1906-1982) Archaic Venus: with a catalogue of desires in her thighs, silkscreen on paper, edition 3/10, 36 x 46 cm, 1968
Walter Battiss (1906-1982) Archaic Venus: with a catalogue of desires in her thighs, silkscreen on paper, edition 3/10, 36 x 46 cm, 1968
Image: Images courtesy Warren Siebrits and the Art of Collecting ©The artist(s) or the artist’s estate

In many instances, if a silkscreen print by Battiss is signed Walter Battiss it is accompanied with a personal inscription by the artist. Although these two rare Nesos variants do not bear an inscription a third silkscreen, which forms part of this small collection and belonged to the same owner, does bear the warm inscription "Bird & Boy (Special Proof) — To Munirah Nazli wishing her great happiness".

Bird & Boy (1968) was definitely produced during the Nesos sessions sometime between February and August 1968 but was immediately disqualified from inclusion in the final selection of images for the simple reason that it is portrait in format and not landscape. It’s in many ways a great shame that this seminal image didn’t make it into Nesos because it conveys one of the central themes of Battiss’s experiences on the Greek islands, that being the importance of man existing in equilibrium and harmony with nature. One wonders what Donald Trump would make of a philosophical concept of this nature. Maybe one day we might be all lucky to read the headline "Trumped by Nature" when he is finally put out to pasture.

Walter Battiss (1906-1982) Attic Sea, silkscreen on paper, edition 3/10, 39 x 53 cm, 1968
Walter Battiss (1906-1982) Attic Sea, silkscreen on paper, edition 3/10, 39 x 53 cm, 1968
Image: Images courtesy Warren Siebrits and the Art of Collecting ©The artist(s) or the artist’s estate

For anyone interested in having a deeper understanding of the conceptual and visual relationship between Archaic Venus: with a catalogue of desires in her thighs and Attic Sea with images from Nesos please consult the following items in Walter Battiss: I Invented Myself – the Jack Ginsberg Collection on page 88 and refer to items 1968.21 to 1968.31. Turning back to page 86 one can refer Bird & Boy to item 1968.13 where two colour variations are reproduced, one in blue and green and the other in brown and white. My research indicates that some of these early colour combinations are in variance and are therefore unique. These impressions were marked by Battiss in an edition of 10 or otherwise Special Proof, as in the case of this particular print, and can therefore be regarded as a monotype. I have traced examples falling into this category, which are unique in their colour variation, to the Pretoria Art Museum and the Jack Ginsberg Collection. The example referred to above inscribed to Munirah Nazli is a third unique colour variant.

However, it must be stressed that Battiss returned to this image at a later point to print an edition of 25 copies in brown and white and prints from this edition are by no means as rare as the ones referred to above and should be priced accordingly.


For more information about these works please email the author at enquiries@warrensiebrits.co.za

© Wanted 2016 - If you would like to reproduce this article please email us.