Alexis Preller: Travelling the world to bring art home
Talk about living every artist’s dream!
I didn’t know very much about Alexis Preller before the recent sky-high closing of Girl with the Oriole at Strauss & Co. art auctioneers, for almost R4 million last November (2012). The name sounded familiar and I recognised the colourful Gauguin-esque quality of the painting, but never imagined the charmed life of this acclaimed South African artist. Having scouted around for more of Preller’s work, I realised that I’d been admiring his colourful canvases for a long time; my favourites including Nude, Icarus Falling, and Boys Bathing (very, very Gauguin, indeed!).
Let me tell you a little more about Alexis Preller…
Born in September 1911, Preller attended Pretoria Boys High School. After matriculating, he found work as a clerk, but his affinity for art and the desire for life as an artist made him persuade his family to allow him to study art. Go big or go home, it seems, because Preller was given the opportunity to study abroad at the Westminster School of Art (as recommended by JH Pierneef) in 1934. A year later, he arrived back in Pretoria and exhibited his work for the first time.
In 1937, Preller left for the northern hemisphere once again to study at Grande Chaumiere in Paris before settling in Swaziland for a while and painting prolifically. Heavily influenced by Van Gogh and Gauguin, the Impressionist colour palette is evidenced in much of his work, still permeating the development of his own style.
Upon his return to Johannesburg, he exhibited again and was hailed in the media as the “South African Gauguin”. During the latter part of the 1930’s, Preller became part of the New Group and some of his work was included in their very first exhibition. He went to central Africa and was influenced by tribal ritual and the power of erupting volcanoes, before needing to return home at the start of World War II to serve his time in the army.
His subsequent exhibitions in the mid-1940’s explored themes of war and soldiers, but then Preller returned to Europe yet again; this time to explore the Greek influence and to put his inner reflections onto his canvases.
Alexis Preller continued to travel and paint, allowing himself to be influenced by the colours, sights, sounds and people he experienced; always to return to South Africa to exhibit more work. He wrote the introduction to his biography written by Christi Truter, and in the latter half of the twentieth century, he began to receive massive recognition for the enormous body of work he had produced so far. He received a Molteno Award, and a Medal of Honour by the South African Akademie, and continued to travel and paint, with continuous demand for his paintings.
Alexis Preller’s last exhibition took place in 1975 in Johannesburg and in the same year, he died of a heart attack. Since then, the desire for Preller’s work has not abated and any available paintings to be found at auctions attract large reserves.