Alexis Preller

(1911 - 1975)




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


    Commences formal art studies in Berlin


    Weimar Academy under Carl Fritjof Smith


    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


    Born in Pretoria, 6 December

    1923 - 1927

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


    Employed in Pretoria City Council as a junior clerk.


    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.


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


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

    Third exhibition December in Pretoria.


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


    Working in Pretoria. Exhibition October.


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


    Joins South African Medical Corps.


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

    Helwan, Mersa Matruh and El Alamein.


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


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


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

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


    June: Exhibition in Johannesburg.


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


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

    November: Same show at Constantia Gallery, Johannesburg.


    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.


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


    Exhibition at Gallery Vincent, Pretoria.


    Lives and paints in small cottage near University of Pretoria.


    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’.


    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.


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

    Exhibits at Venice Biennale.


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


    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.


    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.


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


    Begins painting the mural.


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


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


    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.


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


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


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


    Travels to Greece, Rome, Florence.


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


    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’.


    Begins building Mudif.


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

    Death in Pretoria, 13 December.

  • Exhibitions


    First Solo exhibition, Pretoria.


    Participated in the Empire Art Exhibition, Johannesburg.


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


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


    Participated in the Van Riebeeck Tercentenary Exhibition, Cape Town.


    Participated in the Venice Biennale.


    Participated in the Venice Biennale.


    Participated in Republic Festival Exhibition, Pretoria.


    Prestige Retrospective Exhibition, Pretoria Art Museum.


    Participated in theSãoPaulo Biennale, Brazil.


    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


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


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

  • Awards


    Received the Molteno Award with Jean Welz.


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