Determined to become London’s next big theatre talent, a young and ambitious Alexis Preller left for London in 1934 with a compact suitcase, an introductory letter (which would become the tool that forged his path in the art world), a small sum of money and the support of his friends and family. There were conditions to this exciting new adventure, however. Preller had agreed to take up art classes in London while he pursued his acting career, in an effort to ensure that he was gaining something practical from this venture. What better place to study the arts than in a city that was bursting with some of the best art museums, art schools and teaching studios in the world. Upon Preller’s arrival in London, he was faced with a bustling, high-energy atmosphere, where artists and creatives seemed to embrace the tribulations that came with the Great Depression, which was in full swing by this time, creating work that encompassed these struggles.
While the small-town South African found the city thrilling, he was still able to find a piece of home in South Africa House, ‘Home from Home’ for visiting South Africans, where many of South Africa’s most well-known artists had works on display. Following the success of his station panels back in South Africa, J.H. Pierneef had been asked to create murals for the walls of this newly finished building. Preller was lucky enough to have an introductory letter to Pierneef from Norman Eaton in hand, and was able to meet the successful artist and take advantage of his knowledge of the art scene in London. Pierneef suggested that Preller enroll at the Westminster School of Art while he continued to develop his acting and writing skills.
Preller’s experience at the Westminster School of Art was to be a shock to the system. He was faced with live models for the first time, and moreover, he was expected to draw for the first time. It became clear quite early on that his drawing skills lacked in comparison to his fellow students. He finally made the decision to paint his live models rather than attempting to draw. Having said that, he was still encouraged to adopt the subtleties of the Impressionistic style, which involved mechanisms that were outside of his domain. Preller continued to use bright, unmodulated colour, which indicated a lack of tonal understanding to most of his tutors and fellow students. However, artist tutor, Mark Getler helped Preller to understand that he could use colour to build form, rather than simply colouring in. This sparked something in Preller, and after his work was singled out as one of the best pieces at the year-end student exhibition, Preller’s fate was sealed: he was going to be an artist.
In the following months, Preller worked relentlessly on developing and improving his technique. As is customary for young artists, Preller often attempted to imitate and experiment with the styles of his idols. Even before arriving in London, Preller had a fascination with van Gogh’s works and would often escape the busyness of London life by visiting museums that held examples of his work. Preller completed Vincent van Gogh (1935) as a copy of van Gogh’s original work, Seated Zouave, in an attempt to pick up some of the nuances of the artist’s style. Preller mimics the way in which van Gogh clearly and almost forcibly outlines the figure and forms that are present in his work. Preller also fed off of van Gogh’s use of saturated colour to enliven the scene. While this work may have been a copy, perhaps an indication that Preller was still attempting to pinpoint his style and find his way as an artist, we see elements in the work that would soon become characteristic of the artist. Even in this early work, we see Preller’s affinity to the use of intensely hued colour palettes. Painting in large blocks of colour, we see a far heavier hand to that of van Gogh’s kinetic brushstrokes, with Preller often painting flat colours first and building forms from there. His instinctive responsiveness to van Gogh’s work was persistent throughout his life. In the early work, Man in the Sun, which Preller described as his first fully resolved work, the allusions to van Gogh’s 1888 work Patience Escalier are clear. In Preller’s final years, upon reflecting on his most significant influences, he painted a version of van Gogh’s ‘final Self-Portrait’ as a final homage to, and as a symbol of, his unfaltering admiration for the artist.
Many feel that van Gogh’s painting style was just the surface level of Preller’s fascination. Perhaps it was Preller’s solitary nature that allowed him to identify with van Gogh’s painful sense of isolation. Preller’s affinity with van Gogh may have also been cemented in the fact that Preller, like van Gogh, dedicated much of his life to the pursuit of contemplative ideals and the process of delving into oneself to produce the best work. This often involved both artists living their lives in austere simplicity, exploring the conflicted psyche. This self-contemplation becomes more and more noticeable in Preller’s works in the years to come, as the artist came into his own. This tendency allowed Preller to produce works that took items and scenes from his immediate surroundings, but transformed them in the way they related to him and his life, with these objects becoming iconographic and talismanic symbols. This sense of personal rapport became one of the most appreciated characteristics of the artist’s works in the years to follow. – A.C.
Berman, E. & Nel, K. 2009. Alexis Preller: Africa, The Sun and Shadows. Shelf Publishing: Saxonwold. pp xv-21 & 318.
Berman, E. & Nel, K. 2009. Alexis Preller: Collected Images. Shelf Publishing: Saxonwold: pp xi-3.
Bouman, AC. Painters of South Africa. H.A.U.M h/a J.H. de Bussy: Cape Town: pp 97-98.
(South African 1911 – 1975)
VINCENT VAN GOGH
R 300 000 – R 500 000