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alexei jawlensky

14 may 2017

The Neue Galerie's exhibit of art by Alexei Jawlensky this spring is enormously informative and moving – and has fortunately been recorded and elaborated by a splendid catalogue edited by Vivian Endicott Barnett.

One of the origin stories of German Expressionism focuses on four artists – only one of them German – sharing summer working vacations at Murnau, at the feet of the Bavarian Alps, late in the decade of the 1900s. Gabriele Münter, the sole German in the group, went there with her partner, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, and two other Russians joined them, the couple Marianne von Werefkin and Alexei Jawlensky. They painted Bavarian villages and landscapes in bold colors and near-abstract shapes. (Jawlensky's Murnau Village, 1908 is below.) Von Werefkin would give up her own painting career to support and promote Jawlensky's; Münter would become best-known as a footnote to the world-famous Kandinsky (such was the fate of too many women artists of the period). Jawlensky's reputation has hovered in between Münter's and Kandinsky's, and the Neue Galerie show is a big event in rebuilding that reputation.

Jawlensky (1864-1941) didn't grow up with any artistic training or aspirations to culture. He was from a Russian military family and duly became an officer in the Tsarist army. In 1882 he saw an art show in Moscow. He claimed he'd never seen paintings before. For the rest of his life, he saw value in nothing other than painting.

Jawlensky's early work consists of some landscapes, some of the portrait heads that would later become his signature theme, and some still lifes, like the astonishing Black Table of 1901. It's just a table with a dish and a vase on it, obliquely presented, stylized to a few suggested lines, and blurry in realization – but you feel at once that its artist saw a different possibility in the sparse materials of the composition than anyone else could have seen. Andreas' Garden – Carantec (1906) is similar. You can see the influence of Van Gogh, Jawlensky's artistic hero, in the dauby brushwork and the lurid colors, but there's something else: an idiosyncratic sense of framing, a delight in a peculiar, ephemeral shade of orange that dominates the picture.

Then (in Jawlensky's life, and in the exhibit and its catalogue) came the Murnau years, and then not long after the defining catastrophe of Jawlensky's life. He and von Werefkin (and Hélène Nesnakomoff, mother of Jawlensky's son Andreas; things were complicated) had been living in Munich for many years, but at the outbreak of war with Russia in 1914, they had to relocate quickly to Switzerland. Jawlensky was cut off from money, contacts, markets, his studio, and a Van Gogh he owned. He took to painting "variations": series of the same small image executed and re-executed relentlessly, hundreds of times over, for the next 25 years. These variations began as stylizations of the view from his Swiss home. He then moved to heads of women, then to heads of a "savior," literally iconic depictions of a Christlike face somewhere between serenity and Passion.

Jawlensky moved back to Germany (now married to Hélène, and without Werefkin) after the War. After another decade, the Hitler regime branded him "degenerate" and he was not allowed to exhibit in Germany. Nearly seventy, afflicted with debilitating arthritis, Jawlensky painted more than ever. The final paintings in this exhibit and catalogue are his "Meditations," phenomenal variations on the savior's head (now dissolved into panels of colored lines), and a return to still lifes. Only able to work by holding a brush in one hand and guiding it with the other, Jawlensky suggested bouquets of autumn flowers and sweet peas in splashes of heartbreakingly intense color.

Like George Inness, Jawlensky was consumed by a highly individual spirituality. He saw painting as his way of mediating his spiritual experience to the world. My Spirit Will Live On, he called one of his late "meditations," a sentiment that the Neue Galerie adopted for a small display of these late works in one of their most effective exhibition spaces (a room that the year before had held one of Munch's "Screams" and similar works by other artists).

Barnett herself provides essays on major "turning points" in Jawlensky's life, and on the history of American collectors' acquisition of Jawlensky pieces. During the War he met Emmy Scheyer, a tireless promoter, who placed many of his works in the hands of American private collectors, where they remain today (several of them lent to the Neue Galerie for this occasion). Scheyer, another woman who gave up painting for promotion, had the real modernist knack for groupings, and tabbed Jawlensky as one of "Der Blaue Vier," the "blue four," along with Kandinsky, the Swiss painter Paul Klee, and the American Lyonel Feininger. These four had sweet-all in common by the time that Scheyer connected them in the 1920s, but it was a heck of a brand name, and it enriched all of its members.

Terrific essays by Roman Zieglgänsberger on Jawlensky's early work, Jill Lloyd on his late variations, and Angelica Jawlensky Bianconi on Jawlensky's spiritual aspirations round out this marvelous volume. Publishers Prestel, of Munich, have outdone themselves with the quality of the plates that make up the heart of the book. This undertaking is a triumph for all concerned, and a long-overdue one for Alexei Jawlensky.

Barnett, Vivian Endicott, ed. Alexei Jawlensky. Munich: Prestel, 2017.