With its restless brushwork and gentle, wistful palette, it comes as little surprise that Alexis Preller painted the present lot shortly before joining the war effort. Having wrestled with guilt in the early months of 1940 with many of his countrymen mobilised, the artist put his early career on hold to sign up with the South African Medical Corps. Bearing in mind the violence and trauma that he would experience in the frontline surgeries of North Africa, St Joseph’s Lilies in a Pink Vase appears beautifully and very deliberately subdued.
Resting on the sharp edges of the improbably pink vase, or strewn across the table top, Preller’s lilies are thick-stemmed and fleshy; the artist’s chosen creams, mustards and mint-greens are thickly applied. The twisting stems, the quivering, curling leaves and the heavy drooping buds and flowers form a sinuous, decorative and off-kilter lattice that controls the composition. Yet the curious split background, painted with rich teals to the left and sharper purer blues to the right, not to mention the dramatically upturned table top, sets up a disorientating viewpoint.
Painted after his time at the Westminster School of Art in London, and with the work of his then mentor, Mark Gertler, fresh in mind, St Joseph’s Lilies in a Pink Vase, with its flat sense of space, emphatic, memorable colour and great emphasis on surface pattern, might well be understood as a distant South African relative of the Bloomsbury and London Groups.