Important South African and International Art, Decorative Arts & Jewellery

Cape Town  |  10:30am Mon 5 Mar 2018


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Alexis Preller; Red Figure Tilling
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Lot 581

South African 1911-1975
Red Figure Tilling
oil on canvas
29.5 by 36cm excluding frame

Sold for R 180 000
Including Buyer's Premium and VAT R 204 624

Estimate R 180 000 - 240 000

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This early unsigned and undated work was probably painted in 1937 the year in which Alexis Preller spent several weeks in Swaziland. His initial search for a direct experience of Africa was a quest that would later take him to the Congo in 1939. 

The work clearly shows his respect and deep regard for the work of both Maggie Laubser and Irma Stern, in its subject matter and its direct and bold engagement with his composition and handling of his paint. 

In this work the woman’s pronounced forehead, small simplified eyes and mouth have a mask-like quality. The stocky female figure kneels forward, her hand resting on the long wooden handle of the hoe while she stares intently at a dark brown trench gauged through the soil.  The dominant red ochre traditionally used in Swazi ritual practice colours the surface of her skin, hair and clothing visually creating a solid mass. The awkward monumentality of the bulky figure ambiguously floats above the ground in a curious manner visually dominating the simplified landscape evoked by the looming blue mountain, a distant dwelling, the soft green landscape and gentle sky. Preller’s depiction of the woman as integral to the land is perceptive and a powerful direct observation. 

Red Figure Tilling, as with other works of this period, appears to assert that the awkward aspects of the works were occasioned not by technical inadequacies, but by a deliberate effort by Preller to unlearn western aesthetic conventions, while he groped for an intrinsically African expressive form. 

Karel Nel 

Esmé Berman and Karel Nel. (2009) Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows, Johannesburg: Shelf Publishing. 


Karel Nel

Esmé Berman and Karel Nel. (2009) Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows, Johannesburg: Shelf Publishing.

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