From R800 to R8.5m: price of Alexis Preller's art has skyrocketed
Alexis Preller's Fleurs du Mal is a misleading artwork. At first, second or third glance you take it to be a beautiful exotic woman in the vein of one of Gaugain's Tahitian works.
The artwork, which will go on auction at Strauss & Co's auction in Johannesburg this month, is a product of the trauma of war.
Staid patterns in visual culture have programmed us to misread the painting. It seems unlikely when Preller made the work, in the mid-1940s as World War2 was ending, he was trying to trick the viewer. He was possibly putting a socially pleasing spin on conditions he felt he could not be open about.
As a homosexual man he enjoyed naked men and Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil) is an expression of him luxuriating in this desire.
Preller was openly gay but he was not, as the art historian and artist Karel Nel has observed, "indiscreet or provocative"
Your initial perception of the gender of the subject is rooted in our expectation that a naked subject ought to be female. This misperception is slyly advanced by Preller as the painting directly recalls Paul Gaugain's Manao Tupapau (Spirit of the Dead Watching), one of the French artist's famous portraits of a Tahitian woman.
But if you compare the two, you'll notice that Preller's naked subject doesn't have feminine curves. The subject has no hips, the buttocks are firm and the shoulders are broad.
Preller was openly gay but he was not, as the art historian and artist Karel Nel has observed, "indiscreet or provocative".
He needed to sell his art, often to a conservative, ''verkrampte" Pretoria audience. Embedding a male nude in a familiar way could be read as part of his discretion. The trauma of war is also hidden. The study grew out of drawings he made of injured soldiers he encountered during his time as a POW in Italy during the war.
In appropriating the female form and tradition in art, he taps into male vulnerability, which during war is physical and psychic.
The ''wounds" to the male body in the painting are concealed or marked by the titular ''flowers" - trauma can't be seen, the artist seems to suggest.
"I saw so much beauty behind some things that were horrifying," he recalled of the war.
In recent years, the value of Preller's art has been sharply rising. You could snap up a work for around R100 to R800 for sometime before 2012 when The Creation of Adam I sold for a record R8,5-million at a Strauss & Co auction.
"The market for Preller has never been hotter," says Bina Genovese, one of the managing directors at Strauss & Co.
What made Preller's artwork suddenly so desirable?
"Up until recently he has been one of the mid-century artists capable of museum-quality works that has been overlooked and undervalued," suggests Alastair Meredith, art specialist at the auction house.
The final secret that the Fleurs du Mal withholds is the value it will find when it goes under the hammer next Monday. It is expected to fetch up to R6-million.
• 'Fleurs du Mal' - along with numerous other Preller works - will be exhibited in Johannesburg at the Wanderers Club in Illovo from November 10 to 12. Art lovers are invited to join walkabouts at that venue ahead of the auction there on November 13. For more information visit straussart.co.za
• This article was originally published in The Times.