Sunday, March 19, 2017


"ALEXEI JAWLENSKY" is an exhibition that opened at the Neue Galerie in New York mid February.  There are about 75 paintings in this exhibition dating from 1900 until 1937. 

Jawlensky (1864-1941) was born in Russia and went to school in Moscow and studied in St. Petersburg with the well know Russian artist Ilya Repin (1844-1930).  Tiring of the latter’s realism Jawlensky moved to Munich in 1896.  Twelve years later his friend Wassily Kandinsky, the better known of the two, proposed forming Neue Künstlervereinigung München (literally the Munich New Artist's Association) and Jawlensky, Marianne von Werefkin, Gabriele Münter and others joined him.

As Peter Schjeldahl says in his New Yorker review the artist was more derivative than innovative and that is quite evident in the work. He was mostly inspired by Matisse, Kandinsky, Klee, and Franz Marc of the Blaue Reiter School though it is not difficult to see influences from other artists such as van Gogh.  For example Self-Portrait with Top Hat, 1904 lent by a private collector.

Between 1914 and 1921 Jawlensky created a series, which he referred to as “Mystical Heads” and “Savior’s Faces” one of which I illustrate below.  They show him moving towards abstraction.  There are loans from all over including four from the Long Beach Museum near Los Angeles that I am sorry to say I did not know of.  They own one of the Variations mentioned above “Abstract Head: Late Summer (Crescent Moon)”, 1928.

Jawlensky was exiled from Germany at the start of World War I and moved to Switzerland from 1914 to 1921 when he returned to Southern Germany.  In Switzerland he stayed in a house with a window from which he had a view down a path.  Thus began a series called “Variations”. He painted the view over and over again, the works becoming more abstract each time until one has to be told or have seen earlier versions to know what he was representing.  The museum was not able to supply me with images so with apologies are thumbnails with 2 Variations one with “Black Figure”, ca. 1916 from the Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, next “Large Variation: Wide Path–Evening”, 1916 from the Museum Wiesbaden to illustrate my point.

By 1934 his arthritis was so debilitating that he could hardly wield a brush but his passion for painting carried him on.  Between then and 1937 he painted more than 1000 small images of what he called “Meditations”.  Many of them from a private collection are shown in the exhibition in a small darkened gallery accompanied by the music of Bach which Jawlensky listened to while working.  These works are considered religious in nature as Jawlensky took his Russian Orthodoxy very seriously.  Here is one of the Meditations from the Museum Wiesbaden, German, Meditation: My Spirit Will Live On, June 1935.

Jawlensky was an important colorist and expressionist and that is demonstrated at the Neue Galerie.  Some exhibitions, however, give one a real appreciation of an artist and others expose their weaknesses.  Even though there were a few still lives and landscapes, I found the repetition of Jawlensky’s series possibly more important for the scholar’s study rather than an appeal to enjoy his work.

The show was organized by Vivian Endicott Barnett an independent scholar and expert on the artist and will run through the end of May.

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