Alexis Preller

(1911 - 1975)

About

Alexis Preller was born in 1911 in Pretoria and went to school at Pretoria Boys High School, where he was always drawn to the theatre and was involved with many productions. Later he worked as a clerk for some time before persuading his family to allow him to pursue his studies in the arts, intending to write plays for the theatre. In 1934 Preller left South Africa for London, where he met JH Pierneef, the successful South African painter who was at that time commissioned to paint a series of murals for South Africa House in London. It was on his advice that Preller enrolled at the Westminster School where he began to study painting, which proved to be an irrevocable turning point in his life. It was here that he was introduced to and greatly inspired by the Post-Impressionist works of Gauguin and Van Gogh, which influenced his earlier works of the 1930s and 40s in terms of bright and pure colour, subjective views of the subject matter and sincerity in execution. On his return to South Africa in 1935 where he began to exhibit his works and made further studies of his home, Swaziland and the Congo, drawing further inspiration from tribal art and practices, which forever left an imprint of Africa on his work. 

Although at this stage he was nicknamed the ‘South African Gauguin’, Preller belonged to none of the established art movements and continuously evolved in his career as an artist. The Second World War greatly influenced Preller’s work. The experiences he underwent between 1939 and 1943 resulted in paintings of macabre subject matter including disfigured and wounded bodies, but juxtaposed with these were more celestial elements of butterflies – a metamorphosis from wounds, and spiritual entities that gives the impression of a higher power or reason beyond human control. This style in his compositions was heavily influenced by the European Surrealists of the 1920s and 30s.

In the mid-1940s Preller returned to Europe, where he began to focus on the painting of still lifes, which he imbued with symbolic meaning in each object, from eggs to intricately carved figures. He experimented further with ritual and mystical themes, maintaining an interest in the Ndebele tribe, which began in the 1930s and was never fully satisfied. In this experimentation at this time, due mainly to his use of blue-green tones often contrasted with a fervent red, it is referred to as his ‘Blue Period’.

In 1953 Preller travelled to Italy and to Egypt where he was exposed to art of the Quattrocento (15thCentury Renaissance) and Egyptian mythology. The combination of these frescoes and paintings with the symbolism and mystical ancestry of ancient Egypt allowed Preller to further develop his own ideals. By 1965 Preller had started a period that focused on non-figurative expression with a tendency to create works centred on the celestial in an abstract technique, decorated with gold leaf to emphasise the cosmological theme.

The abstract space that Preller endeavoured to explore was soon abandoned and he returned to his earlier approaches, which encompassed the main qualities that he pursued for the majority of his artistic career, those that never succumbed to any one exact style or fell into any specific art movement. Preller’s unique style and individuality allows him to be considered one of South Africa’s most intriguing 20th Century artists.  

  • Studies

    1912

    Commences formal art studies in Berlin

    1913

    Weimar Academy under Carl Fritjof Smith

    1914

    Studies under Professor Gari Melchers, Martin Brandenburg at the Levin-Funcke Studio, Berlin

    Later returned to Wiemar for a brief spell at the Bauhaus

  • Chronology

    1911

    Born in Pretoria, 6 December

    1923 - 1927

    Pretoria Boys High School (PBHS). Leading roles in school plays.

    1928-33

    Employed in Pretoria City Council as a junior clerk.

    1934

    Meets Norman Eaton. Leaves for London. Letter of introduction from Eaton to JH Pierneef. Begins studies at Westminster Art School under Mart Gertler, et al.

    1935

    London, Berlin, Hamburg, Antwerp. Returns home via East Coast of Africa. First exhibition October in Pretoria.

    1936

    Second exhibition at Leon Levson’s photographic studio, Johannesburg.

    Third exhibition December in Pretoria.

    1937

    February – September: England, Scotland. Studio in Paris, two months in Monte Carlo. On return, spends September to December painting in Switzerland.

    1938

    Working in Pretoria. Exhibition October.

    1939

    June-October: Study and painting trip to Belgian Congo. Stays at Lake Kivu. Returns to Lake Tanganyika and Lualaba River.

    1940

    Joins South African Medical Corps.

    1941

    14th Field Ambulance leaves for Egypt in April, via East Coast of Africa.

    Helwan, Mersa Matruh and El Alamein.

    1942

    Sidi Omar, Sidi Rezegh, Tobruk. Captured June. Prisoner of War North Africa.

    1943

    Prisoner of War in Italy. Repatriated to Egypt in April. Returns to Pretoria via East Coast.

    1944

    June: Exhibition of war paintings in Johannesburg, opened by Uys Krige.

    Buys plot near Pierneef’s home. Norman Eaton designs studio. Starts building Ygdrasil.

    1945

    June: Exhibition in Johannesburg.

    1946

    June: Exhibition in Pretoria, opened by Prof. Matthys Bokhorst. November and December in Paris.

    1947

    January in London. October: Exhibition at Christi’s Gallery, Pretoria.

    November: Same show at Constantia Gallery, Johannesburg.

    1948

    Paints two versions of ‘The Kraal’. Exhibits in his studio. Sells Ygdrasil and leaves for the Seychelles Islands beginning October. Stops at Mombasa and Zanzibar. On Mahé, stays in Beau Vallon.

    1949

    Returns via Zanzibar and Mombasa. September. Exhibition in Johannesburg.

    1950

    Exhibition at Gallery Vincent, Pretoria.

    1951

    Lives and paints in small cottage near University of Pretoria.

    1952

    April: Exhibition in Johannesburg, mostly Mapogga studies. Exhibition in Pretoria, October, opened by Noman Eaton, included the paintings ‘Rima’ and ‘Christ Head’, bought by South African National Gallery, and ‘Collected Images’.

    1953

    Exhibition in Cape Town, opened by John Paris. Molteno Award, with Jean Welz. Awarded commission for mural in Receiver of Revenue Building, Johannesburg. Study trip to Italy. Murals and easel paintings in Rome, Tarquinia, Florence, Arezzo, Venice. Mosaics at Torcello, Ravenna. Continues study trip in Egypt. Visits renowned tombs, pyramids and temples. On return, prepares sketches for the mural.

    1954

    Moves to studio at Hartbeestpoort Dam in March. Begins painting mural.

    Exhibits at Venice Biennale.

    1955

    Mural panels completed and installed in April. July: Awarded Gold Medal for Art by SA Akademie.

    1956

    April: Exhibition at Lidchi Gallery, Johannesburg. Johannesburg Art Gallery acquires ‘Hieratic Women’. Twelve paintings on Venice Biennale. Buys farm, Dombeya, in Brits district. October: Starts building studio/home.

    1958

    Exhibition at Lidchi Gallery, Johannesburg, includes two versions of ‘Grand Mapogga’. Completes mosaic mural for Dr. Hennie Meyer, Pretoria.

    Commission for large mural in Transvaal Provincial Administration Building, Pretoria.

    1959

    Drawings for mural accepted. Begins building new studio to accommodate the painting. Starts setting out charcoal drawing on canvas.

    1960

    Begins painting the mural.

    1962

    Completes the mural, ‘Discovery’, in February. Prepares for exhibition in November, at Pieter Wenning Gallery, Johannesburg, opened by Harold Jeppe.

    1963

    Exhibition at SA Association of Art gallery, Pretoria. Mural Installed, opened to the public in November.

    1965

    Radio documentary by Lourens Fourie broadcast in April. Exhibition at Lidchi Gallery, Johannesburg, includes ‘Golden Temple’, ‘Golden Choros’. ‘Solomon and the Queen of Sheba’ bought by Pretoria Art Museum.

    1966- 1967

    Builds guest unit at Dombeya. Paints ‘Golden Chariot of the Sun’ , other gold paintings.

    1968

    Meets Guna Massyn. Travels to Greece, Turkey, Italy. On return, begins Adam/Apollo theme.

    1969

    Works on large-scale Intaglios for exhibition at Lidchi Gallery, Johannesburg in October. Includes versions of ‘Creation of Adam’

    1970

    Exhibits ‘Marathon’ and ‘The Tower’ at Lidchi Gallery.

    1971

    Travels to Greece, Rome, Florence.

    1972

    Retrospective exhibition at Pretoria Art Museum, opened by Prof H van der Merwe Scholtz.

    1973

    Travels to Europe, Greece and Aegean Islands. Filming of documentary, Alexis Preller, by Esmé Berman and Edgar Bold. Eleven works on Sao Paulo Bienale include ‘Marathon’, ‘Unfound Kouros’, ‘You will never know’.

    1974

    Begins building Mudif.

    1975

    Twenty-second exhibition, at Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, November.

    Death in Pretoria, 13 December.

  • Exhibitions

    1935

    First Solo exhibition, Pretoria.

    1936

    Participated in the Empire Art Exhibition, Johannesburg.

    1938

    Participated in the New Group Exhibition, the first being held in Cape Town.

    1948

    Participated in the South African Art Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London.

    1952

    Participated in the Van Riebeeck Tercentenary Exhibition, Cape Town.

    1954

    Participated in the Venice Biennale.

    1956

    Participated in the Venice Biennale.

    1966

    Participated in Republic Festival Exhibition, Pretoria.

    1972

    Prestige Retrospective Exhibition, Pretoria Art Museum.

    1973

    Participated in theSãoPaulo Biennale, Brazil.

    1975

    Retrospective Exhibition held, Johannesbur

  • Collections

    Public Collections

    • South African National Gallery, Cape Town
    • Johannesburg Art Gallery
    • Pretoria Art Museum
    • Durban Art Gallery
    • William Humphreys Gallery, Kimberley
    • King George VI Gallery, Port Elizabeth
    • Ann Bryant Gallery, East London
    • Hester Rupert Museum, Graaff-Reinet
    • Africana Museum, Johannesburg
    • Rembrandt Art Foundation, Stellenbosch
    • University of Witwatersrand Galleries, Johannesburg
    • University of South Africa, Pretoria
    • Sandton Municipal Collection
  • Commissions

    Public Commissions

    1953-55

    Commissioned to paint a mural for the Receiver of Revenue Building, Johannesburg.

    1959-62

    Commissioned to paint mural for the Transvaal Provincial Administration Building, Pretoria.

  • Awards

    1953

    Received the Molteno Award with Jean Welz.

    1955

    Received the Medal of Honour from the South African Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns.

Artwork