Modern and Contemporary Art

Live Virtual Auction, 16 May 2023

Modern and Contemporary Art

Sold for

ZAR 462 100
Lot 30
  • Alexis Preller; Sebastian I
  • Alexis Preller; Sebastian I
  • Alexis Preller; Sebastian I

Lot Estimate
ZAR 400 000 - 600 000
Selling Price
Incl. Buyer's Premium & VAT
ZAR 462 100

About this Item

South African 1911-1975
Sebastian I

signed and dated '47

oil on canvas laid down on board
50 by 37,5cm excluding frame; 71,5 by 59 by 6cm including frame


Preller suffered a distressful breakup with Christi Truter in 1946 and, after a suicide attempt, spent the subsequent weeks and months distraught and insecure. But for a hastily arranged and ultimately restorative trip to Paris with his friends Peter and Susan Marais, where he drew great inspiration and excitement from the Louvre and the African collections at the Trocadero Museum, his development as a painter might well have stalled. In Paris he was also captivated by a chance discovery of an illustrated book on Hieronymus Bosch, the fifteenth-century Dutch fantasist, and he arrived back in Pretoria in 1947 with renewed motivation. Later that year, across two separate solo shows in Pretoria and Johannesburg, he exhibited three works revolving around the early Christian theme of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. Adding to a long line of Western interpretations, most of them showing the anguished Roman soldier bound to a stake and pierced with arrows, Preller’s versions – Sebastian I, Sebastian II (African Sebastian) and Sebastian III – conflated personal emotion, European tradition, and an African spirit. While Preller’s private suffering provides an important frame of reference for the hugely influential Sebastian I, the present lot, the iconography the artist settled on is fascinating. He reimagined the Roman martyr with West and Central African power figures in mind. Surely recalling the examples he had seen at the Trocadero, he dragged a European theme into an African context by replacing sleek Renaissance arrows with rustic steel nails. He also reduced the figure to its elemental forms: an egg-shaped head, featureless, is impaled on a spine-like stake. This disquieting, mute and disempowered image was developed further in the ensuing versions, taking on even wider-ranging significance against the backdrop of apartheid and colonial rule in Africa.


Pretoria Art Museum, Prestige Retrospective Exhibition, 1972.

Christi’s Gallery, Pretoria, Twenty Paintings, 10 to 25 October 1947.

Constantia Galleries, Johannesburg, Twenty Paintings, 17 to 29 November 1947.


Esmé Berman and Karel Nel (2009) Alexis Preller: Collected Images (vol. 2), Johannesburg: Shelf Publishing, illustrated in black and white on page 43.

View all Alexis Preller lots for sale in this auction

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