Bearers of Provender signed and dated 'Preller / 44' (lower left) oil on composition board 118.3 x 36cm (46 9/16 x 14 3/16in).
Bearers of Provender is typical of Alexis Preller's work in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Heavily influenced by a trip to Swaziland in 1937, Preller infused his works with imagery of the women he saw there, much in the tradition of artists like Gauguin and Irma Stern. "Preller's idioms came directly from his immediate experience of Africa and not via the primitivist conventions of Europe. They are infused with an awareness of things unseen a spiritual content, which has nothing to do with the purely superficial qualities of line and shape that European artists had adopted from traditional African carving."
What is highly striking about Bearers of Provender is the use of colour, particularly the varying contrast of blues, greens and earthy mahoganies as flesh tones. Many of Preller's other works from the 1930s utilise saturated, Fauvist colour, but here one sees the artist branching into the use of homemade paint, mixing raw pigment with an oil-and-turpentine medium to generate a thoroughly unique colour palette. The contrast of reds and turquoise would later emerge as a thematic palette throughout Preller's career.
During the war years 1939-43, Preller served in the SA Medical Corps. Interrupting his path as an artist, Preller did not complete many works during this period. Bearers of Provender is almost identical in composition to Swazi Procession/The Feast (1939/44) (illustrated in Berman & Nel, 2009, p.49 and Bouman, 1951, p.98) and suggests that the work was at least conceived and possibly started earlier and completed in 1944 upon Preller's return to his artistic path.
"The artist tells me that in his studio he had a very tall piece of wood, half round, and he wanted for a long time - a period in which he had been carving a good deal - to decorate this piece with figures, some carved, some inlaid with metals, bronze, brass and silver. He had to abandon this scheme, but he never lost sight of it.
"The vision matured within him during five years, and finally it took the shape of a painting. As he had visualised the beam in space, or against a skyline, he now proceeded to paint this procession of figures in the same manner: a narrow strip of teeming life cut by space, and not by the edges of the frame. It is not a particular ceremonial feast really; it is the 'procession', in composition, of people whom he saw going about, laden with food, fruit and fowls, as if for a feast. The title is appropriate in that those human beings, with their loads of everyday produce, seem to live in a sort of paradise of abundance. The 'space' is blue of varying colour, with slight indications of decorative figures. The rest of the colour is a complete range, pale and light.
"This work to my mind is an outstanding example of representing Native life in its own style, which is the style of decorative sculpture, but at the same time it reveals the spirit of yet another art and culture. Does this work not show a strong affinity with the portals of Gothic cathedrals, where not natives, but Christian saints form a procession towards Heaven?" (Bouman, 1951, p.98)
BIBLIOGRAPHY: E. Berman, Art & Artists of South Africa, (Cape Town, 1983), p. 351 E. Berman & K. Nel, Alexis Preller, A Visual Biography, (Johannesburg, 2009) A.C. Bouman, Painters of South Africa, (Cape Town, 1951), p. 98