Still life of drapery and objects signed and dated 'Preller 45' (lower right) oil on canvas 61.5 x 71.5cm (24 3/16 x 28 1/8in).
PROVENANCE: The collection of Eljra Solomon, Cape Town Thence by descent to the current owner
Having received his art training in London and Paris, Alexis Preller's early work inspired by the traditional rites and craft objects he observed in Swaziland and the Congo tended to infuse African subjects with a style and composition redolent of Gauguin's Tahitian paintings. In 1940, however, Preller joined the Field Ambulance Corps as a medical orderly in North Africa, where, in 1943, he was captured and incarcerated as a prisoner of war in North Africa and Italy. Upon his return, and with his artistic vision honed and altered by the intensity of his experiences, his painting took on the dense symbolism and surreal effects that characterise his most familiar work. His return from war is also marked as the entry into his "Blue Period". This period is notable for the use of gem-like hues of blue and green, the dominant colour palette of the current lot.
From the mid 1940s, Preller focussed for a concerted period on still lifes. For his compositions, he drew on the everyday objects and artefacts in his studio at "Yggdrasil". Preller's objects are imbued, however, with a haunting significance, a luminosity that lifts them into metaphysical terrain. As in the current lot, most of his still lifes include the draped folds of a patterned cloth; a dynamic visual field in which the other objects are placed. In Still life of drapery and objects, two enigmatic crania lie at the centre of the composition: a horse skull and a humanoid head sculpture. Esmé Berman suggests that the distorted human "urn-heads" (torso-less and with a flat base, as in Remembrance of Things Past) of this period unite an awareness of the tribal practices of Congolese cranial binding with his front-line observations of medical trauma. Rather than a direct transcription of some external reality however, the two sets of memories take on new, mythic shape in this unseeing sculpture.
Next to the head leans a small sculpture. The female form emerging in relief (possibly one of the small carvings with which Preller was experimenting at the time) infers, perhaps, a fertility fetish. The sculpture is angled upon a book: books offer a recurring motif in Preller's work, though here it may act merely as a ballast to the sculpture. As Esmé Berman and Karel Nel have examined in their discussion of another still life, Morning Glory and Thorns, books were central to Preller's life and works. Over time, he built up an extensive library, and many art volumes turn up in his works, usually open at colour plates. Despite referencing real, tangible objects, this still-life seems to levitate in an otherworldly space, heralding key elements of what would develop into Preller's distinctive "mythography".
BIBLIOGRAPHY: E. Berman, Painting in South Africa, (Pretoria, 1993), pp. 156-163 E. Berman and K. Nel, Alexis Preller, a Visual Biography, (Johannesburg, 2009), pp. 50-53