Book Review – The heart of Preller

2011-01-19 13:11

Esmé Berman has registered a brave attempt in her biography of the late South African visual artist Alexis Preller.

For how else can we define an attempt at textually capturing the kernel of such a unique and vast personality?

The lives of artists are the most prone to myths and legends, making subjects like Preller very illusive.

In Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows, Berman debunks the enigma of Preller as much as she balances art history with Preller’s life story.

Berman’s background as an art critic and her personal friendship with her subject helps her project.

Her book has also benefited from a foreword by art curator Clive Kellner, former director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

To achieve this balancing act, Berman calls her book a “visual biography” and includes a vast selection of images and a strong narrative in 361 pages.

Though with only 12 pages dedicated to colour reproductions of the artist’s
oeuvre, the book is detrimentally flooded with grey images that occupy every other page.

By Preller’s own declaration, his life’s mission was “in painting to identify myself with my age and place”. ­

Berman documents Preller’s trajectory in Africa and his “approbation of African culture” and how this affected his creativity as an artist.

For Preller, this meant the evolution of iconography that went beyond the condescending visual language of ­colonial and settler artists who depicted Africa as outsiders looking in.

Preller used Ndebele semiotics to depict an Africa at the interface with modernity.

In Berman’s biography, she ­highlights how he enraged the status quo, joined the band of artists who helped to define modern art in South Africa, and his relationships with Hendrik Pierneef, Walter Battiss and Irma Stern.

In Alexis Preller: Africa, the Sun and Shadows, Berman goes back to the 30s to unearth an 18-year-old artist living in a conservative society and one who dared to pass frank commentary on same-sex love, declaring his own ­identity at the same time. – Percy Mabandu

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