In 1948, the same year Girl with an Oriole was painted, John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate Gallery, London was in South Africa selecting the final works for a show they hosted entitled “Exhibition of Contemporary South African Art Overseas”. One of Alexis Preller’s submissions for the show, apart from his painting Basuto Allegory (which was one of two paintings reproduced in colour for the exhibition catalogue) was the first version of The Kraal. When the second version of this painting appeared later that year, the young girl from Girl with an Oriole was also present, portrayed as a diminutive figure in the bottom right corner of the composition. It is unclear which particular work was created first as they were both publicly presented for the first time at his Ygdrasil studio exhibition in September 1948.
Although predating his study trip to Italy, the formal structure of Girl with an Oriole references Florentine Quattrocento painting in the stiff, upright posture and the expressionless features of the figure that is cropped at the shoulder. Rich in cultural reference, the red-ochre encrusted hair and beadwork draped over the women’s shoulders are features particular to the Pedi and Ntwana ethnic groups.1 Her garment, incongruous with the rest of her adornments, is not particular to any African culture, but rather harks back to the European missionaries who provided their flocks with smocks and tunics to cover their bare breasts. The textile draped in the background, visible behind her head, is a decorated Swazi cloth.2 Certainly the most distinctive feature in this painting is the sharp lines that appear to pen her head. Appearing almost as parachute cords reminiscent of his wartime paintings, it looks somewhat like a cage around the young African’s head, imprisoning her perception receptors. As a further incongruence, the little bird appears to be outside the bars that encapsulate her head, though it still manages to remain perched on her shoulder, as free as she is trapped – perhaps a subconscious reference to the troubling political landscape of the time. Preller’s thoughtful sensitivity is inherent in this painting, not only conceptually, but similarly in the subtle rendering of the forms and the gentle dialogue between the complimentary variations of the primary colours.
Ensconced as she is, Preller renders the young girl regal and gracious, seductive in her calming allure. Exotic in her appearance, the depiction of the young African is comparable to Paul Gauguin’s handling of his Tahitian women subjects years before. In this work we see his absorption of the language of Western Modernism coupled with a unique identity and vision of Africa, supporting a critic’s observation, having seen his work in a group exhibition in 1937, that Alexis Preller was “South Africa’s Gauguin”.
1 Berman, Esmé and Nel, Karel, Alexis Preller: Collected Images, Shelf Publishing, Johannesburg, 2009, page 69.
The late Tobie Louw, Pretoria.
In his studio 'Ygdrasil', Pretoria, 18-25 September 1948, catalogue number 12.
Pretoria Art Museum, Pretoria, Alexis Preller Retrospective Exhibition, 24 October - 26 November 1972, catalogue number 26.
Berman, Esmé and Nel, Karel, Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows, Shelf Publishing, Johannesburg, 2009, illustrated in colour on page 118 and page 121 illustrates an image of this work hanging in the artist's studio, Ygdrasil.
Berman, Esmé and Nel, Karel, Alexis Preller: Collected Images, Shelf Publishing, Johannesburg, 2009, page 68 and 99, illustrated in colour.