Sea Shell

Alexis Preller

Oil on Canvas on Board
29 x 38.5cm
Signed: "Preller" (Lower/Left)
Dated: 1944


Exhibited:           Graham’s Fine Art Gallery. Birth of the Modernist Body.26 March – 6 May 2007. Johannesburg

Illustrated:          Graham’s Fine Art Gallery. 2007. Birth of the Modernist Body.Graham’s Fine Art Gallery, Johannesburg. P 114 & 115.


On a number of trips to Zanzibar and the Seychelles Islands in 1948 and 1949, Alexis Preller discovered the aesthetic beauty of the shell. The earliest painting in which he used the shell, is the well-known Shells, Fishermen of Bel Ombre in the Johannesburg Art Gallery (1949). 

In subsequent years, Preller included images of shells in his orchestration of themes, such as the well-known collected images paintings of the 1950 in which he would assemble up to 18 smaller ‘paintings’, of various and diverse images such as birds, eggs, compasses, candles, flowers, fish, and the like, within the larger picture plane. In SeaShells, Preller focuses solely on the plastic form of the shells, drawing attention to their delicate shapes and the subtle nuances and tones of the blue and pink colours. 

These shells, he seems to say, are as fragile and brittle as eggs, another favourite image in Preller’s work. A shell is one of the eight emblems of good luck in Chinese Buddhism, and is found in various allegories about royalty. It is also a sign for a prosperous journey. The thirsty traveller would associate the shell with in his mind with water. 

This favourable association of the shell with water is also linked to the shell being a symbol of fertility. The mythic birth of Aphrodite, or Venus, from a shell, brilliantly depicted by Botticelli, is of obvious relevance. Added to all this, is the fact that the shapes of Preller’s shells are reminiscent of the Surrealistic ones used by Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy.

by Wilhelm van Rensburg

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