Unfinished work by SA's Alexis Preller expected to fetch R4m - but is it real?

'The Christ Head' is believed to be one of the last works by the great South African surrealist before his death, but proving its provenance has been a long, hard road

02 June 2019 - 00:13 By Percy Mabandu
'The Christ Head' by Alexis Preller
'The Christ Head' by Alexis Preller

Joburg's art lovers, ragtag hangers-on and the city's wealthy will convene over wine and chatter as the latest art world wonder goes under the hammer on June 2. An electrifying painting dubbed "the last Preller" will go on sale at Aspire Art Auctions, expected to fetch well over R4m.

The unfinished canvas is one of the final paintings the late great surrealist Alexis Preller worked on before he died in 1975. The painting has generated interest from tjatjarag experts, shadowy art collectors and art history boffins. The mystery and enigma that is piling up around the artwork come in part because of its clever title. The authors of its provenance have called it The Christ Head.

Now, any painted portrait bearing the word Christ in its title, especially by an artist as mysterious as Preller, begs comparison with other spectacular images of Jesus. Think of Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi: the painting broke records as the most expensive painting yet sold at auction, fetching a mind-blowing $450m (R6.69bn) in 2017.

When it emerged on the market it was put through the most rigorous forensic tests and investigations. People continue to wonder about its authenticity in a global art market where the "fakes industry", according to CNN, is worth $461bn.

And so it follows that when Ruarc Peffers, MD of Aspire Art Auctions, revealed "the last Preller" in a talk at the University of Pretoria, eyebrows were raised. The university's renowned art sleuths and fake busters, chief curator of collections Gerard de Kamper and Salomé le Roux, demanded to put the "last Preller" to the test.

They would have to peel back over four decades since the artist's death to see if the painting could authentically find its way to Preller's studio, style and identifiable, skilful hand.

Alexis Preller with his cat.
Alexis Preller with his cat.
Image: Supplied

Preller died on December 13 1975 of heart failure. The 64-year-old artist was well alive to the likelihood of his death as he went into surgery - and operation from which he would not wake. Stories and scandals that surrounded his death spoke of a man who knew he was dying. This gave deeper mystery to everything he left behind.

His preparations involved giving his lover, Guna Massyn, detailed instructions about what was to happen in the event that he not return from hospital.

It is this level of meticulous care that raises interest in the authenticity of The Christ Head, along with the revelation in a biographic catalogue by Esmé Berman and Karel Nel of another Preller work, Marathon II (1975), as the very last finished work by the artist before his death. That piece was shipped from his house to the Goodman Gallery for exhibition.


Once allowed to probe The Christ Head, De Kamper and Le Roux turned to using ultraviolet light photography, a technique that allows investigators to see beyond layers of paint on a work. It reveals the process followed by the painter to create it. In the case of fakes, which are often painted over other, older work to achieve the look of age, detectives are able to see under the paint and find a work's true identity.

For art investigators interested in uncovering the workings of an artist's mind, the technology helps them study Preller's painterly process, layer by layer, even in instances where the painter may have second-guessed himself and changed his mind. Every altered choice in the depicted motifs comes to light.

De Kamper found that The Christ Head had gone through few changes.

"Originally it seemed that the face was a little bit more woman-like," he says. A lot of the black stubble marks and the darkness above the eyebrows were not there in earlier layers. De Kamper ventures that the work is not signed precisely because the artist was still working on it.

The absence of the artist's signature in no way diminishes its veracity or authenticity. In fact, as Peffers puts it, the lack of the artist's signature "adds a lot more to the allure and mystery than a signature would have done".

The investigation into the painting is helped a great deal by what is arguably its earliest documented sighting. The painting makes an in situ appearance in an SABC documentary from 1975. The unfinished painting is pictured propped against the wall of Preller's studio with a rag hanging over it. It is seen alongside another work, a preparatory sketch for Preller's copy of a Van Gogh portrait and another painting, of a Greek head.


On the surface, it does not take much to recognise The Christ Head as a Preller. It sits comfortably alongside his other head studies. The scarification marks, his unique brush stroke and the surrealist stylisation are all there.

One would have to see it with the series of heads and portraits from the same era, such as Salome, which is dated 1974, and Angel King and Poliziano - which were both complete in 1975 - to settle any doubt.

'Angel King' by Alexis Preller
'Angel King' by Alexis Preller
Image: Supplied

A fascination and fixation with heads was a central feature of Preller's practice. The shape of a head, whether as a portrait of an admired friend, or a study of a fascinating subject, was a defining feature of his oeuvre.

As Preller put it in the SABC documentary shot around the season of his death: "It all started with the Barotse pot which I found in Livingstone [Zambia] on my way up to the Congo . It is the most beautiful thing. It is tied up with things I found in the Congo, like the children whose heads are bound [in fabric at birth] in order to achieve the Akhenaten shape [of the Egyptian pharaoh of that name]. This Barotse pot, the curve of [its] back, led me to a drawing which gave me the original drawing for the urn head," he tells Berman in the interview.

The drawings and paintings of the urn heads became a signature motif that opened Preller up to powerful variations on the human head. They became much more than a representation of a person's likeness, even when he was painting portraits of recognisable figures, family and friends, like his sister Minnie, Christi Truter or his lover, Massyn.

"A living shell is like a house for a small animal. I see the skull as a fabulous piece of architecture, a habitation for the human animal; the brain, the intellect and everything that can register his experience and his living reaction," Preller said in the month before his death.

He had been battling a long-standing illness that required an operation. The surgery was made risky by his age and the wear he had put on his body over years of ravenous living. Against the advice of skittish friends and family, as 1975 slouched to a close, the ageing artist resolved to go ahead with the operation.

It was one of at least three big things on his to-do list. Death would not let him see them through. Preller was also building an Arab-style guest cottage on his farm, Dombeya, near Hartbeespoort Dam. His days spent scratching about in the red clay to instruct his builders would have been punctuated by moments of painterly retreat to work on The Christ Head.

This was the last stroke of a journey that began in 1933 when Preller left a job as a clerk with the Pretoria city council to pursue art training at London's Westminster School of the Arts. He later left the British city for Paris, to study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. This formal training launched Preller's lifelong learning and creative search that turned him into an important historical figure.

'Adam' by Alexis Preller.
'Adam' by Alexis Preller.
Image: Supplied

In the grand pantheon of modern South African artists, he sits alongside the likes of Walter Battiss, Irma Stern and JH Pierneef. Preller's work draws inspiration from sacred household objects and experiences he found and encountered on his travels.

He had devised a unique form that speaks to Christian iconography, colonial awe of Africa and a lofty personal painterly language. There's an unmistakable capricious capacity for mystery that is key to the creative power of Alexis Preller, and it's especially alive in his unfinished Christ Head.

The Aspire Art Auction takes place at 6pm on June 2, at the Gordon Institute of Business Science in Johannesburg