Among the initial observations prompted by “Alexei Jawlensky” at the Neue Gallery—the first U.S. retrospective devoted to the Russian-born Expressionist—is that Jawlensky was a better Van Gogh than Van Gogh himself. Toward the beginning of the exhibition, viewers encounter Portrait of Marie Castell (1906), a canvas that could be mistaken for the real thing. The thickly applied brushstrokes, acidic colors, stiffly rendered contour, flattened composition, and prole-ish character of Castell—poor Vincent couldn’t have done as well. And, in significant ways, he didn’t. Sure, Jawlensky followed on the heels of Post-Impressionism; pictorial tics that were revolutionary ten to fifteen years earlier were, if not outmoded, then accepted by advanced painters. Still, it’s worth noting how adept Jawlensky is at navigating space, delineating anatomy, and bringing variety to the picture’s facture and chromatic range. Talk all you want about how Van Gogh’s ham-handedness connotes passion and commitment—he rarely achieved the virtuosity, the light and electricity, of Portrait of Marie Castell. That, and Castell looks at us with a degree of self-possession. Van Gogh smothered sitters with an overheated temperament—his own. For Jawlensky, “heat” was an option, not the sine qua non. So much so that the “Expressionist” tag seems misapplied over the course of the oeuvre.
Jawlensky’s claim on history is guaranteed by his being a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter.
“Alexei Jawlensky” spotlights a talented stylist of limited scope. Organized by Vivian Endicott Barnett, a curator specializing in German and Russian Modernism, the Neue Galerie exhibition gives Jawlensky (1863–1941) due diligence without having him overstay his welcome. Born in Torzhok, a town located in the province of Tver, Jawlensky was an eighteen-year-old cadet in the Imperial Russian Army when he underwent a transformative experience, discovering his true vocation upon encountering the painting section of the Moscow World Exposition. Strings were pulled—possibly by his father, a colonel—and Jawlensky was re-stationed in St. Petersburg; there he pursued art while fulfilling his military duties. Jawlensky studied with Ilya Repin, the most renowned of nineteenth-century Russian painters, and it was within Repin’s circle that he met, and became involved with, fellow artist Marianne van Werefkin. Feeling stifled by the brand of realism extolled by Repin, Jawlensky and Van Werefkind moved to Munich in search of more progressive environs. Once there, they befriended Wassily Kandinsky, and made the requisite trip to Paris, where Jawlensky became acquainted with the work of Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse, and, yes, Van Gogh.
Jawlensky’s claim on history is guaranteed by his being a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter, a group of like minds without whom Expressionism is inconceivable. Alongside Van Werefkin, Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Gabriele Munter, and August Macke, Jawlensky sought to embody transcendentalist aims through painterly means, following upon Kandinsky’s dictum that the “beautiful . . . . springs from inner need, which springs from the soul.” One sees this most keenly in a group of mask-like faces Jawlensky painted during the Teens, in which minutely tuned gradations of chroma and light are draped upon compositions reminiscent of Byzantine icons. Though Jawlensky tilted towards abstraction, he never completely abandoned representation. The splotchy landscapes displayed at the center of the exhibition test the limits of recognizability even as Jawlensky continues to hold onto things—hillocks and trees, clouds and sky. Jawlensky’s debt to Kandinsky is patent, particularly in the jewel-like colors and brusque application of oils. Too much of a debt, perhaps. Strolling through “Alexei Jawlensky,” other painters are recalled so vividly that one can’t help but wonder how Jawlensky’s pictures would hold up in the company of his Blaue Reiter colleagues or simpatico figures like Marsden Hartley, Paul Klee, and Robert Delaunay.
The show-stoppers in “Alexei Jawlensky” are few, but the exhibition never truly lags. New Yorkers may recognize Helene with Colored Turban (1920) on loan from the Guggenheim, a Matissean play of fulsome shapes and smoky reds held in check by a sweeping neutral green. Oberstdorf-Mountains (1912), with its bulky outlines, fatty slurs of paint, and glowing color, threatens to muscle its way out of the canvas. The portion of the show titled “Working in Series” puts into focus what is, aesthetically if not chronologically, the culmination of Jawlensky’s art. These paintings of faces aren’t portraits in the traditional sense, but are structural armatures—often mannered and, at their best, highly streamlined. Early examples like The Old Man (Yellow Beard) (1912) and Byzantine Woman (Bright Lips) (1913) have their gruff charms, but they rehash, rather than vitalize, the verities of Expressionism; they’re period pieces of a generic sort. The line-up of “mystical” heads fares better because they break free of the particulars of anatomy, settling for ideograms of the human face. “Settling,” however, is the problem. It didn’t occur to Jawlensky that a composition could be made as variable as the colors that prompted him to put brush to canvas in the first place.
The exhibition concludes with an artist who has been vilified as “degenerate” by the Third Reich, and suffers from an arthritis that would ultimately still his art. The paintings become smaller, distilled, and clouded—pointing to a loss of manual dexterity, and likely indicative of a hostile political climate. In the intimate final gallery, viewers encounter the “meditation” pictures, images that further reduce the portrait schemata to what are, essentially, cruciforms; not a few observers have likened their back-lit surfaces and linear scaffolding to stained glass windows. Learning that Jawlensky guided his brush using crippled hands can’t help but put pause to criticism; all the same, it’s a mercy that Orenstein culled only a handful from a series that numbers close to a thousand. Variety and invention were not Jawlensky’s strong suits. And neither, in the end, was Modernism. The picture that lingers most vividly in the memory is Helene at the Age of Fifteen (1900), the earliest canvas on display and the most fluent, haunting, and conservative. Its fetching slurs of ochre, umber, and dusty pink coalesce in a manner that shows up Jawlensky’s “advanced” pictures as brittle exercises in form. Not everything the avant-garde alighted upon turned to gold—the upshot, however inadvertent, of “Alexei Jawlensky.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 9, on page 47
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