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FOTAG Focus Articles

For a number of years the Natal Witness ran articles by FOTAG members. These articles called the FOTAG Focus discussed artworks from the collection on display.

Home > Articles > Fotag Focus > Boys' swimming pool, Walter Battiss

Boys' swimming pool

oil on canvas

Walter Battiss

by Daryl Houghton

Boy's swimming pool, Walter BattissWalter Battiss was my art teacher at Pretoria Boys' High school during the sixties, and doubtless part of the attraction of this painting for me is related to this fact. It reminds me of those special art lessons when little work was done and Battiss entertained us with stories of growing up in the Great Karoo (he spent the larger part of his childhood in the little town of Somerset east in the Eastern cape). He would tell of bird shooting expeditions, kleilat fights, and, significantly as far as this painting is concerned, swimming - as he put it - kaalgat, in farm dams. At first glance, Boys swimming pool appears to portray a group of archetypal figures in the style of a san rock painting - swimming and sunning themselves under an African sky. However, a closer look at the work reveals two bicycles, discarded clothing and even a pair of boots. This suggests that this is no timeless Arcadian scene, but that the silhouette-like figures are, in fact, boys from some Karoo dorp who have cycled out into the country to swim naked in a river pool.

In the foreground a group of boys disport themselves in the water, where they are joined by a laughing dog, tongue lolling (a typically Battissian touch of humour). At the centre of the composition, three boys stand poised on a rock and prepare to dive into the water, while others lie on the warm, golden brown rocks, soaking up the sun. It is a scene full of lively activity set in an ancient landscape of rocks and distant flat-topped hills.

The paint has largely been applied with a palette knife and the resulting scumbled texture seems to approximate the the rough layering of rock strata. There is little tonal contrast in thsi work and it is as if the blazing sun has drained the chromatic glow from the colours. The water is represented as a slab of dark cerulean blue with no modulation, around which the rest of the composition is grouped. The somewhat somber palette of earth greens and, ochres and reddish browns is enlivened by flashes of orange that complement the blue of the water. The figures have lost their individuality and are reduced to a series of flat, yellow "cut-outs" emphatically outlined in black. It is as though they have become an integral part of their natural surroundings.

Battiss, like the painter Paul Gauguin, often sought to portray humankind living in a Utopian state of harmony with nature and with each other. In this particular work it is as if the trappings of "civilization", in the form of the bicycles and clothing, have been discarded and the boys have returned to a state of grace and are at one with water, earth and sky.

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Johansson collectionThe Tatham Art Gallery holds an Art Collection that contains significant British and French artworks dating back to the 18th century. Its South-African art collection is focused on, but not exclusive to, the art of KwaZulu-Natal.


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A selection of current and archival articles from the Tatham Art Gallery. These articles provide a historical and contemporary perspective on the Gallery and the visual arts in KwaZulu-Natal.

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