Pretoria-born artist Alexis Preller studied art in London at the Westminster School of Art and expanded his knowledge of art and art history by reading voraciously and travelling widely in Europe and Africa. He studied Egyptian, ancient Greek, Etruscan, early Renaissance and southern and central African art and culture, in particular, and created an art that was of his own place and time rather than a continuation of either traditional European practice or avant-garde Modernism.
As a young student Preller was fascinated by the work of the French Post-Impressionists Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) and Paul Gauguin (1848–1903). Their use of bright arbitrary colour and their imaginative transformation of nature appealed to his own artistic impulses.
In South Africa there were no opportunities to study the masters of European modernism, and it is therefore not surprising that Preller would have found local inspiration in the examples of Irma Stern (1894–1966) and Maggie Laubser (1886–1973).
It was Stern’s example that had the greater influence on him, and, as Esmé Berman has observed, his early works, notably those of his Swaziland period, are heavily influenced by her style. This charcoal drawing is very similar in style, mood and treatment to many of Stern’s drawings in this medium, but Preller’s own individual style, marked by a plumpness and a tapering of forms, is clearly in evidence.
In the foreword to the “Alexis Preller retrospective” catalogue for the exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum in 1972, Esmé Berman wrote:
“Perhaps the earliest and the best-known Preller theme is that woven out of the mystique of Africa. From his observations of tribal life and ritual, from the inscrutable surviving ruins, fetishes and symbols, from the art of the primeval past, he spun a myth awakening a forgotten tribe and called up visions of its origins and gods.”
Alexis Preller was born in Pretoria and attended Pretoria Boys High School. After completing school he worked as a clerk before persuading his family to allow him to seek a future as an artist.
In 1934 he set off for London where he met JH Pierneef, who advised him to enroll at Westminster School of Art.
In 1935 he returned to Pretoria where he held his first exhibition. In 1937 he went to Paris and studied art at Grande Chaumiere, under Othon Frieze.
On his return from these studies Alexis Preller stayed in Swaziland for a while. In 1938 he joined the New Group, and was included on their first exhibition.
In 1939 he went on safari to the Congo but the outbreak of World War II brought him back to Pretoria.
After the war in 1946 he went on a study-trip to London and Paris.
Between 1948 – 1949 he travelled Zanzibar and the Seychelles where he produced many paintings.
In 1953 Alexis Preller went on another study-trip, this time to Italy and Egypt. In 1954 he settled on a farm near Hartebeespoortdam.
In the year of 1968 Alexis Preller undertook a trip to Greece and Italy, this is also when he began with his autobiography.
He held his last exhibition in Johannesburg in 1975, and later in the year he suffered a heart attack and passed away.