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Pranas Domsaitis: From Prussia to South Africa

Pranas Domsaitis was an artist of Prussian descent who spent a large part of his life as a farmer and became a full-time artist prior to the dark cloud of World War I gripped much of Europe. Defined by a mix of European expressionism and ecclesiastical art, Pranas was definitely not one-dimensional.

Born on 15 Augustus 1880 in the town of Cropiens, formerly part of the Kingdom of Prussia; although the current location is somewhat of a mystery, it is considered to be mostly Lithuanian even though he only formally took citizenship in 1920. The son of a peasant farmer, his original name was Franz Domscheit and probably never received any formal education till much later in life.

Being a son of the farm, art might not have been something his father would have planned for him. Much to his father’s dislike and with the assistance of Max Liebermann, Domsaitis embarked on studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in 1907. Upon graduation of his first form of schooling in 1910 he embarked on further travels and studies in some of Europe’s major art centres; including Paris, Florence, Amsterdam and London.

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Picture Credit: and

His peasant and religious culture had a formative influence on his artistic development, style and subject matter. On his travels through Europe he met and befriended Edvard Munch in Norway. The influence of  Liebermann, Lovis, Corinth, Rouault and other Lithuanian folk art also played a major role in his formation as an artist. Munch was credited as being the greatest influence in Domsaitis leaning toward expressionism.

World War I confined Domsaitis to military service and returning to his parents’ farm. The end of the war meant that this budding artist could continue with his aspirations in art.

Walter Battiss and Fook Island

Walter Battiss was one of South Africa’s most well known abstract painters. His thirst for knowledge stretched him in all directions. He was a jet setter, writer and publisher and also took part in numerous exhibitions.

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Walter Battiss is credited with the creation of Fook Island. His travels during the 60s took him to many different islands, such as Seychelles, Zanzibar, Madagascar, Fiji etc. Fook Island, an imaginary place, was a fusion of his fondest memories of these islands. He described it as an “island of the imagination”. An island complete with a map, people, plants, animals, history, postage stamps, passport and driver’s license, captured the attention of his followers.

Walter Battiss Fook Island

Over the following years the island gained popularity and attracted much interest. A study of many of the artefacts show some satire and humour. Never intended as a political statement, one could see it as a parallel to the South Africa of the 1970s. For King Ferd III, Walter’s alter ego, Fook Island represented a “creative utopia”;(source: a world away from the crude, selfish world we sometimes live in.

The innovation, creativity and diversity of Walter Battiss continues to inspire and challenge aspiring artists. From bushman to friend of Picasso to King Ferd III, Walter Battiss has a special place among South African artists.

The Wandering Mind of Walter Battiss

The wandering mind of Walter Battiss made him one of the unique characters of his time. He had an almost unusual interest in African art, ranging from Ndebele artwork to Bushman rock art. Some commentators attribute his eccentric style to the influence of his friendship with Picasso in the 1950s.

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(Photo Credit: and

He was a founding member of The New Group, a collective of young South African artists who set out to explore fresh ideas in art and explore new frontiers. A large number of this group had been studying in Europe at the time and their arrival in their motherland left them disillusioned with the conservative culture surrounding South African art. This group enjoyed a tenure of about 10 – 12 years after which it was disbanded as a result of being institutionalised. It was in this period of time that he released his first book, ‘The Amazing Bushman’.

The Walter Battiss Company notes that it was 1955 when the started experimenting with calligraphic art and evidence of human and animal abstractions became evident. It was about this time when Ndebele art became a prominent feature of his artworks.

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(photo credit: and

The early 60s saw his curiousity soar to new heights as his interest in Islamic culture took him on several trips to Central Africa and the Middle-East. One might surmise that this was the period of time that he wanted to explore the rest of the world. Towards the end of that decade he made numerous trips to the north; including Greece in 1968 and Seychelles in 1972. Walter Battiss traveled to many other parts of the world as well, including Hawaii, Zanzibar, Fiji and Madagascar.

Walter Battiss was an influencer and innovator. He had a special interest in man and his environment. His impact on many young artists and the South African art scene remains as valuable as the art he left behind.

Walter Battiss: A Bright Imagination

Walter Battiss, one of South Africa’s foremost abstract painters, spent a large part of his career coupling art and education. Amongst other things he was the art master for Pretoria Boys High from 1936 till the late 1960s. He travelled, collaborated, wrote books, exhibited; doing everything an artist could do.

He was born in 1906 in Somerset East, Eastern Cape. In a few short years his family moved to Koffiefontein and then eventually settled in Fauresmith, where he matriculated in 1923. He started working as a clerk at the magistrates court just the following year. After gaining some work experience he enrolled in tertiary studies.

He completed a diploma at Witwatersrand Technical College followed by a teacher’s diploma at Johannesburg training college. Soon afterwards he went back to work at the magistrates court while also studying. He finally obtained a bachelors degree in fine art at UNISA; by this time he was already into his thirties. Unlike many other local artists, he did not study overseas at this time.

Battiss met up with Picasso and Gino Severini in the 1950s and was even invited to lecture on South African art during that same year. He took some time to travel through Europe in the 60s and visited the Seychelles in the early 70s. This saw the birth of his legendary and imaginative ‘Fook Island‘. His imagination and ideal of Fook Island led him to a much deeper place than just being a quirky artist. This was his weapon of choice against apartheid; he noted that Fook Island exists inside everyone.

Walter Battiss: African Art

It is clear that Walter Battiss was more than colour, imagination and abstract art. He was a deep thinker and used his art to speak to people.

Come back for more of Walter Battiss in the weeks that follow.

The Legacy of Robert Hodgins

Robert Hodgins described painting like surfing; much time is spent bobbing about, waiting for the right wave to come. Herewith noting the nature of creating art, often a lengthy process instead of instant gratification. This is a typical Hodgins analogy, finding the most unlikely comparisons to art.

After having a late start as an artist, Hodgins spent the early 80s on a series of paintings depicting Alfred Jarry’s Ubu character. (Read our previous posts incase you missed out)  He continued referring to himself as a “young artist”, despite his advancing years. During this time he enjoyed experimenting with various media and techniques. In this way he could stay relevant and exhibitions always offered something new, rather than predictable retrospectives, as many artists do once they reach a certain point in their careers.

He quickly became a much loved feature on the South African art scene. Collaborating with the very well-known William Kentridge and Deborah Bell in Hogarth in Johannesburg (1987) and The Little Morals Series (1991).

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A self-proclaimed optimistic old sod is indicative of his nature and character. He was witty and sharp, verbal banter with Robert was considered a treat. An opportunity to dine with Mr. Hodgins was considered to be nourishment for the soul as much as for the body.

Robert’s art is extensively represented in museums and corporate collections throughout South Africa, various private collections also boast a number of his pieces. The Wits Art galleries have a significant portion of his artwork, including a number of major paintings donated to the institution by the artist himself. To this end Wits University takes great pleasure in bestowing a Doctorate of Literature on Mr. Robert Hodgins.

Robert passed away on 15 March 2010, after a short battle with cancer. He is not only remembered for his significant contribution to South African art, but also for his witty and often humorous outlook on life.

Some of the tributes that poured in on his passing came from Deborah Bell , Art on Paper Gallery and and .

Investment Art = Investing in Legacies

We’re pleased to announce that our ‘Colour & Culture‘ exhibition was nothing less than the provocative success we hoped it would be, with intriguing conversations sparked about art created within the South African context – across centuries, colours and cultures. (If you missed it, click here to our previous post below where you can explore the catalogue online and exhibition walk-through on Youtube!)

On Wednesday, we’ll be publishing a riveting and revealing story about Irma Stern and her legacy of letters. See you Wednesday! Otherwise, if you’d prefer having these musings and latest art news delivered straight to your inbox, click here!)


Absolut Art Gallery - Irma Stern - South African Art

EXHIBITION: Colour & Culture: A Cohesive Clash


Absolut Art Gallery_Colour and Culture Exhibition

An exclusively inclusive South African conversation surrounding the cohesive power of colour which blends together human beings across ages and cultures, painting an endlessly evolving portrait of South Africans.

{ Includes the work of Old South African Masters, Modern Masters andContemporary Artists. }

We’ve made sure you can experience the exhibition online by browsing through the catalogue and exploring the gallery in the virtual walk-through below:

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