‘Who am I?’

‘Who am I?’

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This is one of the great questions of life. In one form or another, people have grappled with it throughout the ages. Their quest for an answer has come to us in many forms – in their literature, in their art, in their seeking after power, wealth and significance, and in the gods they have invented or refused. It sometimes peaks in a cry for help. It often enters a new dimension, when the personal ‘who am I?’ meets the majestic ‘WHO … I AM!’ of an even greater identity. Human existence is not meaningless when it is caught up with ‘You’. Hope is born.

The Alexis Preller exhibition – Africa, the Sun and Shadows – at the Standard Bank Gallery, is an absorbing journey with one man, as he expresses himself through his art. In its early stages the paintings invite the viewer to stand and watch, as the artist seems to experiment with various forms and shades, and to disclose the initial influence of people like Van Gogh and Gauguin. As the journey progresses more symbolism appears, and then the heroic figures make their entrance. There is change again, and the onlookers seem now to be invited into the forms and colours, to search for themselves.

What will they find there? Much may depend on what the artist was beginning to discover, and the journey already walked by his guest.

Unlike a journal, painting can be a very public form of expression. Paul Gauguin painted a picture entitled “Whence? What? Whither?” in 1897, just before he attempted suicide. But in the end it was Vincent Van Gogh who took his own life and Gauguin who did not.

Preller was born in 1911 in Pretoria and studied both in London and in Paris. During the Second World War he served in the South African Medical Corps. He was captured after the fall of Tobruk and held as a prisoner-of-war for two years. Val Woodley records that “The horror and suffering with which he came into contact influenced his choice of subjects on his return to South Africa. He said it was ‘To show that even in the most gruesome sights there is some beauty, even if only in the colours’”.

Preller’s use of colour is indeed fascinating and appealing, as is his gift of composition. Many of his figures are unusual, but very striking and often regal, and show the effect of the different peoples and cultures by whom he was influenced.

He died in 1975.

I enjoyed the exhibition, and could happily re-visit it to spend more time with particular items in the collection, that stirred both thought and emotion.

The Standard Bank Gallery itself is very special. It opened in 1990 and has developed into ‘one of the cities formost fine-art venues. It has as a major focus the promotion of South African Art. A highly qualified committee, accountable to the Chairman, operates within a specific acquisition policy.

Two floors of beautifully interlinked galleries, convey a peaceful sense of space and light. There is plenty of room in which to mount both large and small exhibitions, as well as to stand and gaze and ponder. Enlightening texts are displayed on the walls, and there is a quietness that keeps the noise of the city away from one’s thoughts.
It is easily accessible, with no entrance fee, and with free parking available beneath the gallery.

It seems that you can still ‘Bank on the Standard!’

Only one person can be you – find that person

Exhibition: Open until Saturday, 5th December 2009
Hours: Mon – Fri 08h00 to 16h30; Sat 09h00 to 13h00

Click here to read more about the exhibition.

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