Alexej Von Jawlensky (1864-1941)
Born in Torzhok in Tsarist Russia in 1864, Alexej von Jawlensky was the son of a colonel of the Imperial Army descended from minor nobility. The death of his father in 1872 made it especially necessary that he pursue a military career. Indeed, it was during his stay at a cadet academy in Moscow in 1880 that he happened upon an exhibition and discovered painting, which swiftly had a profound impact upon him, and would determine his future existence. While continuing nevertheless on his track to become an officer, he made regular visits to exhibitions at Tretyakov gallery, patronised the art world, and even began to paint. He became friends with the great Russian painter of the period Ilya Répine (painter of Moussorgski’s portrait), through whom he met the painter Marianne von Werefkin who became his partner and introduced him to Helen Neznakomova. The three of them lived under the same roof until 1921, the year in which Werefkin left them. Jawlensky then married Helen in 1922, who was the mother of Jawlensky’s son Andrej (born in 1902).
Jawlensky’s painting was born from realism until he started travelling to France in 1905. He painted landscapes in Carantec, Brittany in a pointillist style and discovered the work of Van Gogh and Gauguin in Paris, which would play an important role in his artistic development. So too would the work of Matisse, whom Jawlensky met at the Salon d’Automne in 1905 (which saw the Fauve scandal), where he exhibited in the Russian section. During the winter of 1906, Jawlensky became friends with Willibrod Verkade, the Dutch follower of Gauguin and member of the Nabis movement who then became a monk. Verkade introduced Jawlensky to Synthetic Art (the formal core of Fauvism), the colours laid flat, enclosed by shapes, intended to express an internalised vision.
It was a period of effervescence for German artists who rallied around the different avant-garde movements. Along with Kandinsky and Werefkin, Jawlensky founded the NKVM (Neue Künstlervereinigung München; New Artists’ Association of Munich) in 1909. This association sought to create an art of synthesis, in which the representation of the world is not objectified, but rather transcended by inner life and spirituality. Starting in 1908, he spent his summers working in Murnau at the foot of the Bavarian Alps, where Gabriele Münter and Kandinsky had bought a house. There, Jawlensky created an original style inspired by the simple layouts of Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau), the Matisse-inspired elements of the ‘Post-Fauve’ movement, and the stylistic simplifications of the popular Bavarian glass painters.
‘I knew that I had to paint not what I saw but simply what I had inside me, in my soul… Instead of a heart, I had the feeling of having an organ that I had to make resound. And the nature I had before my eyes encouraged me.’
‘The artist must express his divine face through art, forms and colours. Therefore, a work of art is the physical incarnation of God and art, “a desire to see God”’.
The group dissolved in December 1911, but was quickly replaced by Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a movement created by Kandinsky, which was decisive in the emergence of German Expressionism by going even further in simplified forms and vivid colours unrelated to reality. Jawlensky also seems influenced by the art of the icon when he produced works marked by the hieratic figures and the use of halos. The First World War put an end to Der Blaue Reiter, and Jawlensky sought refuge in Saint-Prex, Switzerland, with Werefkin and Helen, where they stayed until 1921. Beside his window, he painted a series of small Variations sur un thème de paysage, in which austerity reflects a much more abstract experience: ‘Something inside me prevents me from painting colourful and sensual paintings. Suffering changed my soul and dictates that I find new forms and new colours to express what weighs on me.’
He went to Zurich, the hub of European artists and intellectuals who had fled the war, thus breaking his isolation. In Zurich he made the acquaintance of Marie Laurencin and sculptors Wilhelm Lehmbruck and Jean Arp, as well as Emmy ‘Galka’ Scheyer, who became his leading patron and impresario.
In 1918 he moved to Ascona, Switzerland, where he met the sculptor Archipenko and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Jawlensky continued much in the same manner, however began devoting himself to the human figure and especially the face. He began the series Têtes Mystiques, Visions du Christ and Têtes Abstraites, which are all eminent bearers of spirituality.
Back in Germany in 1921, he settled in Wiesbaden and became a German citizen in 1930. Still in pursuit of a more spiritual art, Jawlensky focused largely on a long sequence of Méditations of Biblical inspiration. Meanwhile, the osteoarthritis from which he suffered since 1927 continued progressing until he was incapable of painting and succumbed to total paralysis in 1938: ‘My very last works are small in size but my paintings have become significantly profound and spiritual through colour. Feeling that with the illness I would be unable to paint for much longer, I have worked like a fanatic on my little ‘Méditations’. Today, I bequeath these small – but important – creations to the future and to art lovers.’
Fruits of intense prayer, these mystical works show no recourse to nature: if at first we recognise faces with closed eyes in a pared-down geometrical stylisation, they evolved little by little toward an extreme schematisation, where a thickly drawn black line encloses areas with dull colours applied in vertical hatching.
When Jawlensky saw his work labelled ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, he wrote to convince them to let him exhibit his works, affirming the strength of his connection with the religious artistic tradition of his homeland, Russia.
Jawlensky would not be forgotten: while Lisa Kümmel helped to catalogue his oeuvre during the last years of his life, Emmy Scheyer gave 150 works from her collection to the Pasadena Art Institute (which became the Norton Art Museum). Today the artist is represented in most of the German museums, including in Wiesbaden and Wuppertal (Von der Heydt Museum), as well as at the Centre Pompidou.
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