Several striking aspects stand out in the exhibition that opens at the Wits Art Museum today, Walter Battiss: I invented myself, The Jack M Ginsberg Collection.
Most obvious is that art collector and philanthropist Jack Ginsberg is donating his personal collection of more than 700 works to the museum. This alone will become a significant influence on Battiss scholarship.
A beautifully produced book that accompanies the exhibition includes not just essays and a catalogue, but a comprehensive reference system for future researchers navigating the collection.
The second attention-grabbing factor is that the curator of the exhibition, Warren Siebrits, an art dealer and Battiss expert who has been instrumental in sourcing important works for Ginsberg’s collection, discovered “a major cache” of 103 letters in the Unisa archive in Pretoria.
“They’re controversial on a certain level, at least in the perceptions of what most people think about Battiss, because they confirm a number of important things, most importantly his bisexuality,” says Siebrits.
Correspondence between Battiss and a younger male lover in London forms the main substance of Siebrits’s 100,000-word essay in the book.
“They give us such a rich, completely new reading of Battiss and his work,” says Siebrits. “They provided so many new insights and made connections for me for the first time.”
Their value for Siebrits is more than the thrill of biographical discovery (and they do contain some surprising revelations).
“They allow Battiss to speak in the first person,” he says. Sceptical of some of the “limbs” and “tangents” art historians go out on, Siebrits sees the biographical approach of the letters as a chance to pursue a less thematic reading of Battiss’s life and work.
Battiss is undoubtedly one of South Africa’s most loved artists, and his works are highly collectable. At the same time, he’s become a rather cuddly figure. But the friendly, harmless “Gentle Anarchist” that was presented at the Standard Bank Gallery exhibition a few years back is not the Battiss that Siebrits wants to represent.
So, the third major difference between this exhibition and those in the past, is that it is arranged chronologically and not thematically.
Siebrits refers to thematic arrangements as “amorphous blobs”. He doesn’t believe they do justice to Battiss’s remarkable capabilities as an artist. “Once you’ve put [a work] into the thematic group, how do you show its unique quality?” he asks.
Siebrits believes the chronological arrangement allows viewers to see how Battiss, unlike most other South African artists who work through clear phases, “revisits styles and pictorial idioms” throughout his career. You can also see the range of the work Battiss produced simultaneously – prints and silkscreens, pop art, oils, performance and conceptual art, and watercolours.
This arrangement demonstrates Battiss’s remarkable talents, but also humanises him. “Even for someone as great as Battiss, you want to demystify things,” says Siebrits.
The exhibition runs at Wits Art Museum, Johannesburg, until October 9