30th Nov, 2022 18:00

20th Century & Contemporary Art

Lot 58
Lot 58 - Alexis Preller (South Africa 1911-1975)


Alexis Preller (South Africa 1911-1975)
Circles of Life

oil and gesso on canvas

Artwork date: 1966
Signature details: signed and dated bottom right

Sold for R1,069,000
Estimated at R1,000,000 - R1,500,000


oil and gesso on canvas

Artwork date: 1966
Signature details: signed and dated bottom right


61 x 70.5 cm; framed size: 88 x 98 x 3 cm


Private collection, Johannesburg.


Circles of Life (1966) is a forceful and vital work painted during a short, but important period in the mid-sixties, when Alexis Preller stepped away from his familiar and established aesthetic to create a body of abstract works – which today are instantly recognisable and widely-celebrated as ‘classic’ Preller.

In the period from 1959-1963, Preller had been consumed with work on the mural Discovery (of the Sea Route around Africa). His third and ultimately most important commission, the work measured a monumental 3 x 12.75 metres and was installed at the new Transvaal Administration Building in Pretoria

A mammoth project, the artist had been married to this mural for 4 years and it is not surprising that once relieved of it he wished to venture into new territory. In a radio interview in 1964 with art critic and broadcaster Harold Jeppe and art historian Esmé Berman, Preller described his thinking:

I did realise after the mural that I had reached a psychological moment – that I would virtually have to start all over again ... Now people can quite obviously say that I am deriving from the abstract painters of the day. And I am doing it quite deliberately; because while l was busy with the mural, three, four years had gone by and I realized that the studios right around the world were being concerned with this idea of something that has nothing to do with figuration at all.

With my African race I was concerned with very definite forms and figurations; and it occurred to me, ‘Why should I be painting like this when the whole world has suddenly destroyed all figuration?' And I knew that a very exciting thing had happened – a wonderful thing had happened – that artists as a group had quite successfully destroyed the image![1]

What followed was a period where Preller wholeheartedly embraced the abstract form. The artist’s biographer Karel Nel notes that, “Alexis Preller's pleasure in creating his gestural abstract paintings of the mid-sixties was clearly evident in the spontaneous vitality of those creations. His emotional response to the mystique of the celestial bodies was invested in the kinetic action of his painting arm. Thick paint, laid on in swirling movements, created circular and spiralling forms, which mimicked the motion and the radiance of the stars and, especially, of the sun”.[2]

It is only regrettable that many of Preller’s paintings, especially from this time, have left his home country, South Africa. Scattered across the globe in the collections of emigrant families, Nel explains that Preller’s later works were, in particular, “affected by the exodus during the 1970s; and among those works are many of the missing abstract paintings”.[3]

Sarah Sinisi

[1] Alexis Preller interviewed on radio by Esmé Berman and Harold Jeppe, SABC: broadcast 20 July 1964.

[2] Berman, E & Nel, K. (2009). Alexis Preller: Collected Images. Saxonworld: Shelf Publishing. p. 221.

[3] Ibid.


The artist is represented in numerous local and international collections, notably, Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town; Norval Foundation, Cape Town; Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg; Javett Art Centre, Pretoria and Ellerman House Collection, Cape Town.

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Auction: 20th Century & Contemporary Art, 30th Nov, 2022


The focused sale brings to market 84 highly collectable lots, with the diverse collection showcasing highlights by modern masters including magnificent still-life compositions and a Zanzibari boat scene by Irma Stern, an Alexis Preller abstract and an early JH Pierneef landscape. Also included is a significant collection of celebrated contemporary artists: Mustafa Maluka, David Koloane, Walter Oltmann, Norman Catherine, Willem Boshoff, a rare self-portrait oil by Robert Hodgins as well as a large bronze sculpture by Zanele Muholi, the first of this new body of work to be offered on auction.
The sale features a special selection of artworks by William Kentridge. One of the most celebrated and influential living artists today, his major retrospective exhibition is currently on show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. This is one of the most unique and high-quality Kentridge collections to come to market. Spanning his career and showcasing the many mediums in which he works, the sale features signature charcoal drawings alongside collages, tapestry, prints and sculptures.

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