Entertainment Art Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows

Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows

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This major and long-overdue retrospective exhibition, never seen before in the Cape, showcases the work of Alexis Preller (1911-1975) and is curated by Karel Nel of Wits University.

Preller was a major South African artist, whose unconventional form of expression was impossible to classify in terms of the mainstream art movements of his time. Despite his art’s elusive quality, his richly coloured paintings and distinctive, poetic vision earned him widespread critical acclaim and a host of loyal admirers.

In search of an art “rooted in the Africa soil”, as he put it, Preller drew his initial inspiration from the Ndebele (Mapogga) people, who lived in the Pretoria vicinity, where he spent most of his life. To realise his goal of creating an art that was relevant to his time and place, he travelled to other parts of Africa, visiting Swaziland, the Seychelles, Zanzibar, Egypt and the Congo. While in Paris, he also sought inspiration from the African sculptures in the Trocadero Museum.
Critics in South Africa have labelled Preller a Surrealist, which the artist rejected. He has also been referred to as an Expressionist, particularly by Walter Battiss, who said, “the expressionist school counts as members – Irma Stern, Maggie Laubser, Alexis Preller and others of like nature”. It was also Battiss who invited Preller to join the New Group in 1938, particularly because he, along with others such as Laubser and Irma Stern, was seen as innovative and different to other artists of his era. From today’s perspective, Preller is regarded as an important figure in the South African avant-garde movement of his time, and as an African modernist.

As an innovative artist, Preller’s contribution to South African art lies in his combination of the language of modernism and a distinctly African frame of reference. By incorporating African influences, he broke away from the European tradition and developed a new form of artistic expression. “As a form of modernist vernacular”, writes Clive Kellner, “Preller’s artistic practice is distinguishable from European modernism. As Picasso was to Europe, so Preller is to Africa!”

In his art, Preller created a world of signs and symbols, shaping a private cosmology in which the myths of humankind are interconnected and interwoven – those from Greek, Egyptian and African cultures, for example. Kellner comments: “Ultimately, the synthesis of Preller’s cosmological world is constructed in the mind of the viewer. Here the intersection of Greek mythology, Mapogga culture, hieratic emblematic signs such as maize cobs, shells and African masks, and Egyptian motifs begin to represent another world – an ancient African universe.”

The exhibition is accompanied by Alexis Preller, art historian Esmé Berman and artist Karel Nel’s comprehensive monograph on the artist, which consists of two volumes: an extensive biography of Preller and a collection of his works.

Venue: South African National Gallery, Government Ave, Cape Town.
Tel: (021) 467 4669
Gallery Hours: Tue- Son: 10:00am to 5:00pm.
Duration: 22 Dec 2009 - 28 Feb 2010