'Woman with a Lyre' oil on canvas 152 x 122cm (59 13/16 x 48 1/16in).
PROVENANCE: The collection of Mrs Lily Cohen A private collection
EXHIBITED: Johannesburg, Lidchi Gallery, 13-24 March 1956 Pretoria, Pretoria Art Museum, Alexis Preller Retrospective, 24 October - 26 November 1972, no.80
LITERATURE: E. Berman and K. Nel, Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows, (Johannesburg, 2009), illustrated p.179; a photograph of the artist with the work p.187 E. Berman and K. Nel, Alexis Preller: Collected Images, (Johannesburg, 2009), illustrated p.162
Presenting his 16th solo exhibition at Johannesburg's Lidchi Gallery in 1956, Alexis Preller mesmerized viewer when they came face to face with his new offering for the first time. Woman with a Lyre was the largest work Preller had exhibited to date, and was unlike anything he or any other South African artist had produced. In their visual biography of the artist, art historians Esmé Berman and Karel Nel position it as one of the most significant works in Preller's career.
In the Lidchi Gallery exhibition, Woman with a Lyre was grouped with nine other pieces, including Hieratic Women (1955), and Primavera (1995), under the heading "African Figures". This collection of works formed the most compelling and innovative section of the exhibition, reflecting the fresh influences of Egyptian and Italian Quattrocento traditions (gleaned from his recent travels), and demonstrating "great leaps in the idiomatic language of his visual statements, leaps that carried the conceptualised images of previous shows into a realm of figures, signs and symbols stranger than any he had shown before".
The "lineage" of Woman with a Lyre can be traced back to the early stages of the artist's career. Drawing once again from the image of the Mapoggo (Ndebele) woman, Preller exalted her "onto a plane of semi-divinity... portraying her in hieratic terms, similar to the conventions used in Ancient Egypt for depicting their god-kings". Moreover, the Benin-like seated figure playing a musical instrument in the middle panel of the All Africa Mural (1953-1955) is clearly an ancestor of the work, as are the Dogon carving-inspired figures in Garden of Eden (1954) and Adam and Eve (1955). The Woman with a Lyre would also inspire further explorations of the same subject, and pictorial elements in the painting, such as the three-pronged pitch-fork and crescent shapes, would become recurring icons.
Using a restrained palette, large planes of colour are "enlivened by the co-existence of multiple segments in subtle tertiary tones and by several dark accenting forms". Through the careful calibration of colour, Preller achieves a compositional complexity that is remains uncluttered and harmonious, resulting in one of his most remarkable works.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: E. Berman and K. Nel, Alexis Preller: Collected Images, (Johannesburg, 2009), pp.178, 163, 165
CAPTION FOR SECONDARY IMAGE: The artist alongside the current lot, Woman with a Lyre, 1957. Image by kind permission of Esmé Berman.