Alexis Preller: Study with skull - SOLD
Alexis Preller (1911 - 1975)
Study with skull - 1968
Oil on canvas
40,5 x 50,5 cm
Signed and dated bottom middle
Sold - 2011
During the height of Modernism, when artists like Picasso were ‘enlightened’ by Primitivism and a heightened awareness of Primitive art fashionably influenced European and American art making, Preller’s art could be described as avant-garde; pushing the boundaries of the status quo. He broke away from the ideologies of the conservative white society he grew up in through his approbation of African culture.
The birth of Preller’s mythography – a term coined by Esmé Berman, referring to his vernacular of signs and symbols […] where the myths of all humankind are interconnected and woven together – resulted from his exposure to the customs, traditional rites, sculptures and fetishes of tribal Africa which stirred his emotions and imagination.
Preller’s iconography was further shaped and influenced by his visits to museums in Europe, like the Trocadero Museum in Paris where he drew inspiration from their collection of African masks and sculptures, the frescos of Piero della Francesca in Italy, and Egyptian murals. Through his research, he continuously aimed to create a new artistic idiom while trying to define his new aesthetic, and in so doing, contributed to a post colonial identity. In the introduction to the book Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows, Clive Kellner states: he sought the formation of a South African/African vernacular against the dominant colonial orthodoxy of the time .
Preller was known, when not happy with a specific painting, to either set about creating alternative versions, or keep the painting in his studio for possible reworking until he was satisfied with what it needed to say. This may have been the case with his various interpretations of ‘Study with skull’, as he painted different, yet very similar versions. The first, which showed a skull draped with a red cloth, was painted in 1947 and entitled ‘Relic’. The ‘Agamemnon’ series followed from 1969 onwards, and was reinterpreted from 1971 in the unusual work, ‘You will never know’, followed by ‘C’est magnifique’ dated 1973. ‘You will never know’ was chosen by Preller as a closing piece to his lifetime retrospective exhibition in 1972.
In ‘Study with skull’, dated 1968, the skull is compositionally placed to enable us to simultaneously see the outer details as well as glimpse into the usually protected interior volume, a design the artist had used in his earlier ‘Urn head’ paintings. Preller referred to this space as the architecture of consciousness. When describing the metaphor in a similar work ‘You will never know’, Karel Nel appropriately notes: The subject of this work seems to be the enigmatic field of thought, life experience, the remembered, the forgotten, the conscious, the unconscious – all that is stored within that circumscribed, transparent chamber. The pivotal question posed here for all is focused on the nature of both life and death, casting the sealed space simultaneously as womb and tomb . When asked about the work ‘Relic’, Preller stated that it was the skull of Christ, and that through association it is linked to Golgotha. This study, however, also reminds one of the early European vanitas paintings, with their underlying message of emptiness and the transient nature of earthly life.
In this painting Preller also used some very significant symbolic references. A lotus bud, the Buddhist symbol of purity of the body, speech, and mind, floats above the head, later being replaced in one of the ‘Agamemnon’ works by an egg, a Christian symbol representing rebirth. A laurel leaf, alluding to the classical garland of laurel leaves bestowed on the hero, is visible behind the ear, while the African wooden crocodile carving, used in many other works, is visible at the back.
The essence and message of ‘Study with skull’ is best described by Karel Nel when noting Preller’s ambivalence to conventional religion: Throughout his career, however, he was deeply interested in mythology and world religions and their varied approaches to the primary questions around life, death and transcendence .
Esmé Berman & Karel Nel, Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows , Saxonwold, 2009, pp xii, xiii, 5, 27 and 255-259