Alexis Preller

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.

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

1975

Retrospective Exhibition held, Johannesburg

1973

Participated in the São Paulo Biennale, Brazil.

1972

Prestige Retrospective Exhibition, Pretoria Art Museum.

1966

Participated in Republic Festival Exhibition, Pretoria.

1956

Participated in the Venice Biennale.

1954

Participated in the Venice Biennale.

1952

Participated in the Van Riebeeck Tercentenary Exhibition, Cape Town.

1948

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

1938

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

1936

Participated in the Empire Art Exhibition, Johannesburg.

1935

First Solo exhibition, Pretoria.

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

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.

1953

Received the Molteno Award with Jean Welz.

1955

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

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