Throughout the 1950s, Alexis Preller modelled his paintings upon the generic carved head figure. Whether the head is surrounded by other symbols or stands alone in the composition, it remains the focal point of his still lives. In the Visual Biography: Alexis Preller: Collected Images, Karel Nel explains that the carved head is inspired by Preller’s early studies of “a small ebony carving that had been the model for African Head and the Gateway”. Preller was intrigued by statuettes such as the Benin Bronze Head housed in Berlin’s Museum Fur Volkerkunde. However, in each one of the paintings in which Preller depicts the carved head, he adorns it with different patterns and colours, rendering every figure distinct from the other.
In “Still Life with Apple” (1957) Preller repeats the outline of the statute, creating the illusion of seeing double. In contrast, “African Head” (1953) is a smooth depiction— the head is painted with surrealist human qualities which draw attention to the eyes, lips and nose. However, “Still Life with Apple” is a development of the still life theme, where the carved figure is treated as another object as opposed to a semi-human representation.
Preller experiments with still life technique as the central arrangement of head, apple and cheese has no grounded relationship to the surrounding subject matter. Instead haphazard clashes of blue diagonals float in a sunset of African orange. Whereas Preller’s diagonal treatment of form, notably in the apple, reminds the viewer of cubist still lives, the subject matter is undeniably influenced by his upbringing in South Africa and his studies into African art objects further north.
In this way, Preller reveals both his painterly skill as well as his academic prowess. He had a deep understanding of how to combine different techniques and international art influences into his works. This creates still lives which are akin to no other— they testify to the artist’s inward vision of reality together with his outward knowledge of humanity.