7th Jun, 2023 18:00

20th Century & Contemporary Art

  Lot 22
Lot 22 - Alexis Preller (South Africa 1911-1975)


Alexis Preller (South Africa 1911-1975)

oil and gold leaf on canvas

Artwork date: 1972
Signature details: signed and dated bottom right; partial Pieter Wenning Gallery label adhered to the reverse


oil and gold leaf on canvas

Artwork date: 1972
Signature details: signed and dated bottom right; partial Pieter Wenning Gallery label adhered to the reverse


61.5 x 51 cm; framed size: 86.5 x 76 x 6.5 cm


Private collection, Pretoria.

Estate of Dr Plotkin, Johannesburg.

Pieter Wenning Gallery, Johannesburg.


This, never before seen, mesmerising reiteration of Alexis Preller’s iconic Adam portraits is a major discovery and a valuable addition to the artist’s documented oeuvre. The painting forms part of Preller’s series of Adamic-themed works from the late 1960s and early 1970s which comprises several versions and variations of the subject – starting with The Creation of Adam I and The Creation of Adam II.

Following an inspiring trip from Greece in 1968, Preller’s portrayal of the male form started taking a new compelling direction. The artist was seeking a return to the fundamentals of figuration in his work, and although not religious, was conceptually interested in the “Biblical myth of the origin of humankind and the parallel return to the origin of his own creative language. In both cases, the focus fell on Adam, the first human figure to be shaped in the Garden of Eden… Adam was specifically the first man and thus the essential male prototype, just as Apollo was the ideal of male beauty. In his output after Greece, Preller freely celebrated both.”[1]

Using Adam in or as the title for these works, the connection to the biblical narrative evokes themes of creation, identity, and humanity's place in the world. Preller often explored these existential questions in his art, delving into universal concepts and spiritual symbolism.

This enchanting Adam relates to the notable Icon Barbare (Adam) which was exhibited in Preller’s acclaimed retrospective exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum in 1972 and the large-scale, electrifying Adam which was shown at the São Paulo Biennale in 1973, and sold by Aspire Art in 2018 for just over R 9.1million. The historical significance and importance of these portraits are that they are direct citations of the tall and impressive 1969 intaglio Adam, portrayed full-length with a powerful physique.

Delicately rendered in oil and gold leaf, this image of 'the first man' takes on the archaic quality of a god-like being – it exudes a strong and commanding presence. The facial features of the downcast head, which are seemingly similar to that in ancient Babylonian art, are finely delineated, capturing a sense of introspection and contemplation. The empty eyes, different in colour, reference classical sculpture, while the structure of the upper chest alludes directly to the idealised body type of the ancient Greek kouros figures.

The colours are vibrant with a harmonious blend of earthy tones, gold and deep blues. This creates a sense of depth and dimensionality, enhancing the overall impact of the artwork. Preller's use of colour here is symbolic and metaphorical to imbue the work with deeper meaning; the deep blue background references spirituality and divinity as well as wisdom and intellect, while the use of gold implies nobility and power, enlightenment, timelessness and immortality.

Adam is an incredible and intellectually engaging portrait that reflects the artist's deep exploration of mythology, spirituality, and human form and condition. It stands as a testament to Preller's mastery of technique and his ability to convey profound and complex ideas through his art.

Marelize Van Zyl

[1] Berman, E. and Nel, K. (2009). Alexis Preller, A Visual Biography: Collected

Images. Johannesburg: Shelf Publishing, p. 225.

LEFT: The Creation of Adam I, 1968 | RIGHT: The Creation of Adam II, 1968

Adam, 1969

LEFT: Icon Barbare (Adam), 1972 | RIGHT: Adam, 1972. Sold at Aspire in 2018 for R9,104,000

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Auction: 20th Century & Contemporary Art, 7th Jun, 2023


Aspire Art will impress collectors with this focused, boutique-style auction in Johannesburg. A feature of the carefully compiled collection is a strong focus on contemporary African artists. Collectors of contemporary works from Africa will be spoilt for choice with works by Thierry Oussou (Benin), Richard Mudariki (Zimbabwe) and Banele Khoza (Swaziland). Local contemporary favourites include Nandipha  Mntambo, Cinga Samson and Gerhard Marx amongst others. Contemporary photographers are also well represented with works by Aida Muluneh (Ethiopia), Kudzanai Chiurai (Zimbabwe) and South African international superstar, Zanele Muholi, while important historical images are included with works of Winnie Mandela by Alf Kumalo and a portfolio of twelve works – chronicling the hardships of apartheid – from Ernest Cole’s seminal House of Bondage (1967).

A highlight of the sale is South African modernist Alexis Preller’s, Adam (1972) – a recently discovered, never before seen, work forming part of Preller’s series of Adamic-themed works from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Other significant modern pieces include a unique terrazzo sculpture by Edoardo Villa, still lifes by Maggie Laubser and works by Cecil Skotnes, Walter Battiss and J.H Pierneef. 

The sale concludes with a special section of  William Kentridge editioned prints led by the impressive Blue Head (1993 – 1998).



Viewing will be open from  Friday 2 to Wednesday 7 June 8:30 to 16:30 and Saturday 3 June from 10:00 to 14:00.

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