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Alexei Jawlensky (Russian, 1864–1941)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Russian painter and printmaker, active in Germany. When he was ten, his family moved to Moscow. Following family tradition, he was originally educated for a military career, attending cadet school, and, later, the Alexander Military School in Moscow. However, while still a cadet, he became interested in painting. At the age of 16, he visited the Moscow World Exposition, which had a profound influence on him. He subsequently spent all of his leisure time at the Tret’yakov State Gallery, Moscow. In 1884 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Samogita Infantry–Grenadier’s Regiment, based in Moscow. In 1889 he transferred to a regiment in St Petersburg, and later enrolled in the Academy of Art (1889–96), where he was a student of Il’ya Repin. Indeed his works of this period reflected some of the conventions of Realism (e.g. W. W. Mathé Working, 1892; St Petersburg, Rus. Mus.). Seeking to escape the limitations on expression exhorted by the Russian art establishment, in 1896 Jawlensky and his colleagues Igor Grabar, Dmitry Kardovsky and marianne Werefkin moved to Munich to study with Anton Ažbe. Here he made the acquaintance of another expatriate Russian artist, Vasily Kandinsky. In Munich Jawlensky began his lasting experimentation in the combination of colour, line, and form to express his innermost self (e.g. Hyacinth, c. 1902; Munich, Lenbachhaus).

In the early years of the 20th century, backed by the considerable wealth of his companion Werefkin, Jawlensky spent his summers travelling throughout Europe, including France, where his works were exhibited in Paris with the Fauves at the Salon d’Automne of 1905. Travelling exposed him to a diverse range of artists, techniques, and artistic theories during a formative stage in his own career as a painter. His work, initially characterized by simplified forms, flat areas of colour and heavy black outlines, was in many ways a synthesis of the myriad influences to which he was exposed. As well as the influence of Russian icons and folk art, Ažbe imparted a sense of the importance of line and colour. In Paris, Jawlensky became familiar with the works of Vincent van Gogh, and some of his paintings reflect elements of van Gogh’s technique and approach to his subject-matter (e.g. Village in Bayern (Wasserburg), 1907; Wiesbaden, Mus. Wiesbaden). In particular his symbolic and expressive use of bright colour was more characteristic of van Gogh and Paul Gauguin than of the German Expressionists, with whom he had the greatest contact. In 1905 Jawlensky visited Ferdinand Hodler, and two years later he began his long friendship with Jan Verkade and met Paul Sérusier. Together, Verkade and Sérusier transmitted to Jawlensky both practical and theoretical elements of the work of the Nabis, and Synthetist principles of art. The Theosophy and mysticism of the Nabis, with their emphasis on the importance of the soul, struck a responsive chord in Jawlensky, who sought in his art to mirror his own inner being. The combination of technique and spirituality characteristic of these movements, when linked to Jawlensky’s own experience and emerging style, resulted in a period of enormous creativity and productivity.

Between 1908 and 1910 Jawlensky and Werefkin spent summers in the Bavarian Alps with Kandinsky and his companion Gabriele Münter. Here, through painting landscapes of their mountainous surroundings (e.g. Jawlensky’s Summer Evening in Murnau, 1908–9; Munich, Lenbachhaus), they experimented with one another’s techniques and discussed the theoretical bases of their art. In 1909 they helped to found the Neue künstlervereinigung münchen (NKVM). After a break-away group formed the Blaue Reiter in 1911, Jawlensky remained in the NKVM until 1912, when works by him were shown at the Blaue Reiter exhibitions. During this period he made a vital contribution to the development of Expressionism. In addition to his landscapes of this period, Jawlensky also produced many portraits. Like all of his work, his treatment of the human face and figure varied over time. In the years preceding World War I, for example, Jawlensky produced portraits of figures dressed colourfully (e.g. Schokko with a Wide-brimmed Hat, 1910) or even exotically (e.g. Barbarian Princess, 1912; Hagen, Osthaus Mus.). However, following a trip to the Baltic coast, and renewed contact with Henri Matisse in 1911 and Emil Nolde in 1912, Jawlensky turned increasingly to the expressive use of colour and form alone in his portraits. He often stripped from his art the distraction of brightly coloured apparel to emphasize the individual depicted and the artist’s own underlying state of mind (e.g. Head of a Woman, 1912; Berlin, Alte N.G.).

This dynamic period in Jawlensky’s life and art was abruptly cut short by the outbreak of World War I. Expelled from Germany in 1914, he moved to Switzerland. Here he began Variations, a cycle of landscape paintings of the view from his window at isolated St Prex on Lake Geneva. The works in this series became increasingly abstract and were continued long after he had left St Prex (e.g. Variation, 1916; and Variation No. 84, 1921; both Wiesbaden, Mus. Wiesbaden). In ill-health he spent the end of the war in Ascona. While in St Prex, Jawlensky had first met Galka Scheyer, a young art student who was captivated by his works. Scheyer’s expressions of admiration and support reinvigorated Jawlensky’s art and (with less success) his finances, first by embracing his theoretical and stylistic tenets, and later by promoting his work in Europe and the USA.

After a hiatus in experimentation with the human form, Jawlensky produced perhaps his best-known series, the Mystical Heads (1917–19), and the Saviour’s Faces (1918–20), which are reminiscent of the traditional Russian Orthodox icons of his childhood. In these works he attempted to further reduce conventional portraiture to abstract line, form and, especially, colour (e.g. Head of a Girl, 1918; Ascona, Mus. Com. A. Mod.; and Christ, 1920; Long Beach, CA, Mus. A.). In 1921 he began another cycle in the same vein, his Abstract (sometimes called Constructivist) Heads (1921–35), for example Abstract Head: Red Light (1930; Wiesbaden, Mus. Wiesbaden). His graphic art also included highly simplified, almost geometric heads, such as the lithograph Head II (1921–2; Wiesbaden, Mus. Wiesbaden).

In 1922, after marrying Werefkin’s former maid Hélène Nesnakomoff, the mother of his only son, Andreas, born before their marriage, Jawlensky took up residence in Wiesbaden. In 1924 he organized the Blue four, whose works, thanks to Scheyer’s tireless promotion, were jointly exhibited in Germany and the USA. From 1929 Jawlensky suffered from a crippling arthritis that severely limited his creative activity. During this final period of his life he endured not only poor health and near poverty but the threat of official persecution as well. In 1933 the Nazis forbade the display of his ‘degenerate’ works. Nevertheless he continued his series of increasingly abstract faces, producing more than 1000 works in the Meditations series (1934–7), which included examples of abstract landscapes and still-lifes, as well as portraits. These series represented further variations on the face broken down into its component parts, using geometric shapes, line and colour to convey the mood of the painting and, hence, that of the painter himself. Jawlensky’s state of mind is vividly reflected in these works, as he adopted an increasingly dark, brooding palette (e.g. Large Meditation III, No. 16, 1937; Wiesbaden, Mus. Wiesbaden). By 1937, when his physical condition forced him to cease painting altogether, these faces had been deconstructed to their most basic form: a cross forming the expressive brow, nose and mouth of the subject, on a richly coloured background (e.g. Meditation, 1937; Zurich, Ksthaus). No longer able to use art as a means of conveying his innermost self, Jawlensky began to dictate his memoirs in 1938.

Edward Kasinec
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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