Alexis Preller was a South African artist whose influences came from far and wide. He was known for his unique approach and ability to expose a different kind of beauty. Obviously not fond of labels, he rejected the “surrealist” tag. Another great South African artist, Walter Battiss, called him an expressionist. Battiss invited him to join the “New Group”, because of his innovative and different approach to art.
After completing tertiary education in England and France, Alexis Preller served in the South African Medical Corps during the Second World War. Spending two years as a prisoner of war was certain to leave a few scars in his mind. It was from this state that he returned to South Africa and the memory of horror and suffering formed the basis of his new work. The post-war Preller was adamant to show that even in the most gruesome sights there is some beauty, even if only in the colours.
His art had many influences; from European surrealism to the African art he encountered on his trips to Swaziland and Belgian Congo. Some of his later sculptures were the influence of the Dogon people, which were images of a reclusive tribe in an isolated region of Mali. Furthermore, his still life compositions bear testimony to his instinctive sense of perfection in every facet of his art. His absolute command over the media which he used inspired many.
As one journeys through his art, the influence of various artists are clear to see. Preller’s “Florentine Head” reflects the seriousness with which he studied Pierro della Francesca, while other pieces illustrate his admiration for the Dutch post-impressionist, Vincent van Gogh.
A thoughtful look at his life shows why he is regarded as an important figure in the South African avant-garde movement of the time.