A career-spanning selection of paintings made by Alexis Preller between 1935 and 1975 went under the hammer at the Strauss & Co auction in Johannesburg.
“What an array of ways of working!” enthused Professor Karel Nel, a respected artist and noted Preller expert, during a recent lecture on Preller. The lecture, which was hosted by Strauss & Co, offered an insight into the biographical context and outstanding aesthetic attributes of the ten Preller lots on offer.
The lots, which have a combined high estimate value of R18 770 000, affirm Preller’s canonical status.
“Preller, along with Walter Battiss, helped shift the pendulum of South African art from Cape Town to Johannesburg”, says Nel. The two artists however differed greatly in style and technique. Influenced by Picasso, Battiss possessed a muscular style and lightness of touch, whereas Preller, whose influences were Van Gogh and Gauguin, was often focussed on space and physicality. Reserved in person and totally dedicated to his craft, over time Preller produced a body of work in which ideas and images recur.
Preller was especially drawn to depicting the male nude. Lot 239, Adam (estimate R 6 500 000 – 9 000 000), an almost life-size rendition of Adam made in 1969. Prominent New York collectors, Ruth and Jerome Siegel, acquired Adam from the Lidchi Gallery, Johannesburg, shortly after it was made. The work was thought lost by Nel and art historian, Esmé Berman, while they worked together on the two-volume biography of Preller published in 2009.
Nel, whose delight was palpable as he spoke in front of this repatriated work, says Adam holds a “pivotal place” in Preller’s complex oeuvre. He elaborates: “The power and ambiguity of this piece lies in its complex connections to many biblical and mythological figures in Preller’s work throughout his life: be it hieratic Egyptian pharaohs, Adam, the stylized Luba and Dogon ancestor figures, David, the great Greek marble Kouri, and the Christ.”
Preller’s interest in archetypal male figures emerged in works painted after World War Two. A remarkable early example from 1952, Lot 242, David (estimate R 250 000 – 350 000) focuses on the body language of the torso rather than the extremities of head and lower legs. The painting appears in a number of photographs of Preller taken in his Toscadi studio in Pretoria in 1949, shortly after his return from the Seychelles. It too was believed lost.
Preller’s David is one of a number of his works acquired by Liselotte and Walter Hardebeck, expatriate German collectors who settled in Johannesburg. The Hardebecks were discerning collectors who also acquired works by Battiss, Irma Stern, Douglas Portway and JH Pierneef. Remembered as a glamorous and cultured socialite, Liselotte survived her husband by 25 years, passing away in 2014.
The Prellers from the Hardebeck Collection, one of the last consignments brought into Strauss & Co by the late Stephan Welz, cover a range of styles and periods. Lot 232, Ritual Bull (estimate R80 000 – 120 000) is part of a series of small-scale works specifically and opulently framed by the artist in the 1940s. Also from this period, Lot 249, Woman with Red Hair / Ophelia (R200 000 – 300 000) is a rare portrait of a woman by an artist who largely avoided painting likenesses.
“Besides the rare self-portraits, or images of people in his close circle such as his sister Minnie, Christi Truter, and much later Guna Massyn, Preller seldom did portraits of identifiable figures,” says Nel.
Also from the Hardebeck Collection, Lot 222, Tower of Babel II (estimate R500 000 – 700 000) is one of the last paintings Preller worked on for his 1975 exhibition at Goodman Gallery. The spiralling, shell-like form in this work quotes the archaic symbol of the Tower of Babel and forms a common theme in Preller’s output. “This late work is a highly stylized version of the tower and differs substantially from Preller’s earlier interpretation of this theme in the very large oil on gesso, titled The Tower, in the Pretoria Art Museum collection,” says Nel.
Lot 233, Archaic Sandals (estimate R200 000 – 300 000) from 1948 dates from the period Preller travelled to the Seychelles. It forms part of a series of evocative paintings of sandals that offer both social comment and an oblique form of self-portrait. The Hardebecks purchased the work on a 1979 auction at Sotheby’s Parke-Bernet.
Preller’s inventive way of working in his later years saw him experiment with, among other media, oil and gesso on canvas. Lot 234, Space Angel (estimate R4 000 000 – 6 000 000) from 1971, which depicts a disembodied head in aquiline profile, typifies this working method. Unlike Adam, Preller’s archaic head is rendered in high relief gesso which he then over-painted to simulate an opulent and textured surface.
“The piece is testament to Preller’s lifelong and on-going process of working and reworking images that were significant to his iconographical vocabulary, with each version systematically attempting to release a new and nuanced reading of his original, iconic, and prototypical image,” says Nel.
The offering of ten Prellers also includes Lot 240, an unusual triptych of non-figurative collage and oil on board paintings collectively titled Moon Suite (estimate R150 000 – 200 000). The three miniature paintings, which will be sold as a single lot, were included on Preller’s retrospective exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum in 1972.
Lot 248, Revelation (estimate R400 000 – 600 000) from 1945 portrays a lush and mystical landscape that draws on Preller’s experiences as a prisoner of war in Italy and North Africa, as well as his earlier journey to the Belgian Congo in 1939.
As is evident from the Strauss & Co offering, Preller’s manner of synthesising biographical events with a repertoire of archaic and archetypal images culminated in a highly individual and idiosyncratic body of work. Nel characterises Preller as a “transgressive” and “quietly fearless” artist. He concluded his packed lecture with a summary overview: “Preller’s work is a form of visual philosophy.”
The ten Prellers went on sale at 8pm at the Wanderers Club on Monday, 7 November 2016.
All images are courtesy of Strauss & Co.