Alexis Preller | The Fishermen of Beau Vallon, Mahé, Mending Nets | Price on request


In this centenary year of the founding of Surrealism, Strauss & Co will host Alexis Preller: Surreal Discovery, our first official London selling exhibition dedicated to the revered South African painter Alexis Preller. Much lauded in his home country, Preller was frequently and controversially associated with Surrealism, a revolutionary European art and literary movement founded in 1924. Strauss & Co will present 17 examples of Preller’s charged symbolist works at Cromwell Place from 5 to 10 March 2024.

Alexis Preller: Surreal Discovery will be the first time that works by this preeminent modernist, who died in 1975, are celebrated in London. Despite Preller’s strong links with the English capital – he trained at the Westminster School of Art and showed in an important group show at Tate in 1948 – he never held a solo exhibition in London. For London audiences, the exhibition will provide an opportunity to marvel at Preller’s audacious technique and compelling mix of African and European symbols.

“Alexis Preller’s Surrealist credentials have long been subject to debate,” says Dr. Alastair Meredith, Head of Department, Strauss & Co. “The artist tended to distance himself from the movement, while authorities on his work – Esmé Berman, Frieda Harmsen and Karel Nel, whose excellent retrospective exhibition devoted to Preller is currently view at Norval Foundation in Cape Town – have usually separated the development of his visual language from conventional Surrealist goals.”

But, adds Dr. Alastair Meredith, “There is certainly some benefit in viewing Preller’s work within a Surrealist context. A pivotal painting from 1949, Head (Adapting Itself to the Unendurable), which Strauss & Co sold in 2018 for R7.1 million / $366 750, surely draws from the artist’s subconscious, and might be read as a personal attempt to come to terms with repressed emotions. Purely visually, moreover, so many of Preller’s meticulously recreated visions have obvious Surrealist counterparts.”

Strauss & Co will present 11 works available for sale by private treaty, and an equal number of loan works from collections in London, Turin, Pretoria and Johannesburg. Important works for sale include African Head from 1953, which shows Preller’s consummate skills as a draftsman and colourist. Significant loan works include surrealistic compositions like Still Life with Eggs and Fetish Enthralled.

Dr. Alastair Meredith, a specialist in early twentieth-century South African art and Strauss & Co Art Department HOD, who holds a doctorate from Cambridge University, will be in London to provide vital context to this important exhibition.

“It is exactly seven decades since Alexis Preller represented South Africa at the 1954 Venice Biennale, where he was described in the catalogue as a ‘leading Surrealist’ alongside better-known international proponents,” says Kate Fellens, Project Lead, Strauss & Co. “Unfortunately, with cultural isolation due to South Africa’s apartheid policies, international opportunities to see and debate Preller’s enigmatic paintings dwindled. Preller forms part of a small cohort of important South African modernists whose achievements we at Strauss & Co believe are deserving of reappraisal.” 

Recent and current high-profile exhibitions have restated the legacy of Surrealism, albeit unevenly. The Met’s 2021 blockbuster, Surrealism Beyond Borders, which explored the global diffusion of surrealist creativity, included only one African artist, Mozambican painter Malangatana Ngwenya. Alexis Preller: Surreal Discovery provides a much-needed opportunity to expand the story of global Surrealism to include South African artists.

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