By early 1962 Alexis Preller was satisfied that he had finally completed his Discovery mural for the newly complete Transvaal Provincial Administration Building in Pretoria. This ambitious work had occupied his attention from 1958 to 1962, its exacting detail and panoramic complexity had led to a process of working with large traced cartoons to transpose his initial drawings onto the 2,9 by 12,8 metre canvas before translating them into paint.
In November 1962 Preller re-emerges from years of absence, brought about by the demanding and focused work on the mural, with the opening of his much-anticipated exhibition at the Pieter Wenning Gallery, Johannesburg.
As is often the case with Preller, he produces two versions of Ritual Bull, one shown on this exhibition and the other, the following year, at the Association of Arts Gallery, Polley’s Arcade, Pretoria. The two distinctive versions are both made from the same tracing or cartoon and they display two markedly different approaches to the subject - one dark, mysterious and painterly and the other light, stylised and specifically graphic (the present lot).
In the work on auction, Preller harnesses strong outlined form and detail to create a work with hard edged qualities, very current in the contemporary paintings of the ‘60s. His colour palette is also very unusual with its dusky pinks, tan, beige, russet, cerulean blue and maize yellow all often outlined and accentuated with a deep brown hue.
Preller’s earlier African subjects now no longer bore resemblance to his earlier Mapogga models but focused on the iconic images of bulls and birds, which had appeared in his work from as early as 1949 with his painting of The Herd Boy of 1949 and The Small White Bull of 1953. Both allude to the sacred nature and centrality of the bull to the value system of the herders of the southern and eastern African seaboard. Amongst these groups these ceremonial and monumental animals are seen to be connected to the symbolic and ancestral world. The white Nguni cattle in particular are associated and much revered within the royal clans of Kwa-Zulu Natal.
Preller further develops this anthropomorphic theme in his award-winning work Ritual Bull of 1958. Here the seemingly massive white bull dominates the format overlaid by a series of translucent stylised geometric leaf and emblematic shield-like forms, all set against a brilliant viridian red and light ochre background punctuated with horns and spikes.
Preller’s deep interest in the symbolic, the mythological and the sacred open up the readings of many of his works. The iconic image of the potent bull dominates the work, the Ritual Bull of 1962 on auction. It floats here as a cypher of this symbolic animal, one which cosmologically resonates beyond its local context and as far back as the bull cults of Minos of Crete and of the earliest archeological sites of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, Turkey.
The bull hovers above the radiant form of an eclipsing solar disc while a curious horned masked bird stands stiffly below on the striated oval of a tree trunk. The bird’s one wing arcs upwards like a crescent moon while the other undulates with red flare or flame-like forms, its body completed with the fan-like tail which looks distinctly like a folded paper aeroplane, its surface demarcated with ruled and wavy lines. The boldness of the composition is emphasised by the formality of the painting style and the particularity of the unusual colour combinations.
Pieter Wenning Gallery, Johannesburg, 20 November to 4 December 1962, catalogue number 17.
South African Association of Arts Gallery, Polley’s Arcade, Wachthuis, Pretoria, 15 to 31 October 1963, catalogue number 3.
(Karel Nel is not able to confirm whether the present lot or another work with the same title, dated 1962, was shown on these exhibitions.)
Esmé Berman and Karel Nel. (2009) Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows, Johannesburg: Shelf Publishing. Pages 199, 227, 254, 307, 367 and 387.