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Alexis Preller leads Strauss & Co’s upcoming Johannesburg sale

  18 May 2018     Archived

Two important works by Alexis Preller painted twenty years apart - one a gripping self-portrait from 1950, the other an enigmatic visualization of the mythical Greek god of the sea produced in 1970 - are among the outstanding lots by this acclaimed artist to go under the hammer at Strauss & Co's forthcoming live sale in Johannesburg, to be held at the Wanderers Club on 4 June.

Captions left to right

Lot 292

Alexis Preller
Self Portrait as an Old Man
signed and dated '50
oil on canvas
50,5 by 60,5cm
R 3 000 000 - 5 000 000

Lot 274

Alexis Preller
Head (Adapting Itself to the Unendurable)
signed and dated '49
oil on canvas laid down on board
44 by 40cm
R 3 000 000 - 4 000 000

Lot 263

Alexis Preller
Consider the Lizard
signed and dated '55
oil on canvas
57,5 by 69cm
R 3 000 000 - 4 000 000

Lot 279

Alexis Preller
The Storm/The Mapogga Woman
signed and dated '49
oil on canvas board
29,5 by 24,5cm
R 1 000 000 - 1 200 000

Preller's Self-portrait as an Old Man (estimate R3 - 5 million) was painted a quarter century before his death in 1975 and includes two depictions of the painter's older self. Preller uncannily captures the look and committed expression of his older self in these likenesses. The work's remarkable acuity is matched by its rarity: Pretoria-born Preller only made three self-portraits throughout his career.

Great excitement surrounds Preller's undated intaglio painting Poseidon (estimate R3 - R5 million), a unique depiction of the mythical Greek god of the sea executed in the artist's sculptural late-career painting style. The work portrays a disembodied, bearded head floated against an aquamarine background.

Contributing to the excitement around Poseidon is the fact that it has never been exhibited before. Poseidon was a gift from the artist to close friends, and has remained in the same family collection since it left the artist's studio in 1970.

"As a counterpoint to the series of sky-floating angel heads that Preller unveiled at the Henry Lidchi Gallery, Poseidon, more appropriately, glides through a glinting, translucent, oceanic world," note Karel Nel and Alastair Meredith in a detailed catalogue entry for this work.

Nel, an art historian, curator and accomplished artist in his own right, has previously described Preller as South Africa's most important post-war painter. It is an opinion shared by collectors. Preller has been a star performer at Strauss & Co auctions over the past two years. He was Strauss & Co's third most valuable artist of 2017, achieving combined sales of R33.5 million from 24 lots sold.

Other noteworthy Preller works on offer at Strauss & Co's impending Johannesburg sale are Consider the Lizard (estimate R3 - 4 million), Contrapuntal Figures II (estimate R2 - 3 million) and Head (Adapting Itself to the Unendurable) (estimate R3 - 4 million).

The earliest of these three works is Preller's imposing Head (Adapting Itself to the Unendurable), an important 1949 work from the artist's celebrated Seychelles period. At once sensuous and commanding, the disembodied head was modelled after a young man that Preller likely encountered during his happy and restorative weeks on the Indian Ocean islands.

Painted six years later, in 1955, Consider the Lizard is a symbolic study of a male figure. Produced directly after completing a large-scale mural commissioned for the Johannesburg offices of the Receiver of Revenue (now South African Revenue Service), Consider the Lizard was exhibited at the 28th Venice Biennale in 1956.

Preller was remarkably adept with colour, as is evident in the beautiful russets, browns, dark maroon-toned browns and bronze of Consider the Lizard, and the delicate lilacs, warm yellows and cobalt blues that feature in Contrapuntal Figures II from 1964.

A distant companion piece to Contrapuntal Figures, an earlier work shown at the Henry Lidchi Gallery in 1956, Contrapuntal Figures II skilfully integrates figures into a largely abstract composition. "The expansiveness of Contrapuntal Figures II's approach suggests the artist re-engaging with a painterly world after spending the years between 1959 and 1962 on the enormous, intricate, all-consuming Discovery mural for the Transvaal Administrative Building in Pretoria," observe Nel and Meredith.

Preller was greatly fascinated by the Ndebele people - also known as "Mapogga" - and frequently portrayed aspects of their culture in his work in the 1940s and 1950s. The Storm/The Mapogga Woman (estimate R1 - 1.5 million) is a small, early Mapogga work from 1949. It was painted at a time when the artist's work was enjoying wide exposure both locally and abroad, notably in an exhibition of South African art at the Tate, London, in 1948.

Preller often painted animals, often with great delicacy. Produced in 1953, The Fish (estimate R600 000 - 900 000) measures just 20 by 24.5 cm. The work is visually beautiful and highly emblematic. Preller's stay in the Seychelles between 1948 and 1949 stimulated his appreciation of especially marine animals. "He was captivated by the rainbow hues and harmonies of the shoals of exotic fish, and these play their way through a series of his paintings," state Nel and Marion Dixon in their catalogue entry.

The strong demand for Preller's work in the secondary market today owes a great deal to the scarcity of his work. Writing in 1962, painter Robert Hodgins, then working as a journalist at editor Otto Krause's News/Check magazine, remarked on the constant demand for Preller's infrequently exhibited work.

During his lifetime, Preller not only beguiled collectors with his sensual and mystical art but other artists too. The upcoming Johannesburg sale also includes two Preller works owned by the late sculptor Danie de Jager: an unusual portrait incorporating mechanical devices (estimate R40 000 - 60 000) and preparatory charcoal drawing for his Christ Head (estimate R10 000 - 20 000).

Strauss & Co's bumper offering of Preller works will be on view from Friday 1 June. The forthcoming sale also includes a special focus on abstract art and a formidable selection of contemporary art.

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