20th Apr, 2024 18:00

TAKING FLIGHT: Selected Works from the Phoenix Collection

  Lot 20
Lot 20 - Alexis Preller (South Africa 1911-1975)


Alexis Preller (South Africa 1911-1975)
The Wounded Soldier

oil on canvas laid down on board

Artwork date: 1944
Signature details: signed and dated top right
Exhibited: Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg, 'Alexis Preller', 6 to 19 June 1944.

Literature: Nel, K. and Berman E. (2009). 'Alexis Preller: A Visual Biography: Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows'. Johannesburg: Shelf Publishing. illustrated in colour on p.70.

R700,000 - R900,000

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oil on canvas laid down on board

Artwork date: 1944
Signature details: signed and dated top right
Exhibited: Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg, 'Alexis Preller', 6 to 19 June 1944.

Literature: Nel, K. and Berman E. (2009). 'Alexis Preller: A Visual Biography: Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows'. Johannesburg: Shelf Publishing. illustrated in colour on p.70.


38 x 53.5 cm; framed size: 32.5 x 68 x 3.5 cm


Aspire Art, Johannesburg, Historic, Modern & Contemporary Art, 17 June 2018, lot 21.

Private collection, Cape Town.

Stephan Welz & Co. in Association with Sotheby's, Important South African, British and Continental Paintings, Watercolours, Sculpture and Prints, Johannesburg 8 May 1995, Lot 58.



In the catalogue of his exhibition of War Paintings that was held at the Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg, in June 1944, Alexis Preller included a summary of a War Diary that he composed in Pretoria from letters written to family and friends while he was on active service. Preller’s diary entry for 9 December 1941, referring to his time at Sidi Omar in the Libyan Desert, seems to relate directly to The Wounded Soldier that was featured on this exhibition. “Working in the operating theatre offers enormous opportunities to see the thing at a high level. Somehow I intend getting it down in a permanent form. Though if I did nothing about it, it is enough that I am here to see it, to be part of it. To feel the pity of it, to look calmly at its brutal momentum.”[1]

The indications of “a high level” and being “part of it” suggest that Preller’s representation of the wounded soldier was never intended to be a straightforward record of a war-time operating theatre such as might have been made by an official War Artist, but rather an expression of his heightened experience of witnessing such a scene. Recalling such experiences in an interview with Esmé Berman and Harold Jeppe for the SABC in July 1964, Preller spoke with great empathy for his fellow man,

In an operating theatre I saw so much beauty behind some things that were obviously horrifying. It was almost as if it were in a studio, with a classic nude placed behind a great light, with a group of people working very directly and urgently on a particular figure. And by the time that he had been cleaned up, I would see a stained body, stained with acriflavine and iodine. And gauze swabs which had been placed into wounds suddenly became transformed into butterflies, and I saw something infinitely beautiful, and it had no horror for me at all. There was in fact no horror, because the mood in that room had all the friendliness and comfort that could be demanded from any human group in such a situation.[2]

The Wounded Soldier, in other words, is testament both to the horrors of war and, with extraordinary compassion, the triumph of the human spirit in these appalling conditions.

Michael Godby

[1] Preller in, Berman, E & Nel, K. (2009). Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows, Saxonwold: Shelf Publishing, p. 67

[2] Ibid. p. 75.


The artist is represented in numerous local and international collections, notably, the Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town; University of Pretoria Art Collection, Pretoria; Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg; Tate Modern, London; Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C. and the British Museum, London.

The overall condition is very good.

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Auction: TAKING FLIGHT: Selected Works from the Phoenix Collection, 20th Apr, 2024



29 March – 20 April
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