Neue Galerie | February 16 – May 29, 2017
Every art movement has lesser lights who have not achieved the fame of their contemporaries. Good artists—they may have one or two arresting works, or careers of determined, consistent effort—but for one reason or another are not bold names. In the Hudson River School, it is Worthington Whittredge and John Frederick Kensett; in Pre-Raphaelitism, Elizabeth Siddal and Arthur Hughes; in Impressionism, Gustave Caillebotte and Alfred Sisley; in Neo-impressionism, Henri Cross; in Abstract Expressionism, Elaine de Kooning and Clyfford Still. In the German Expressionist movement that coalesced around Vassily Kandinsky in Munich in the early 20th century, it is the Russian-born Alexei Jawlensky (1864 – 1941). A talented painter, one who was adept at assimilating avant-garde styles over the course of his career, Jawlensky’s oeuvre lacks a singular masterpiece, and his work was little collected by Americans. It is the mission of the fifteen-year-old Neue Galerie, New York’s most focused art institution, to exhibit works that fill gaps in Austrian and German modern art in august local collections. This enlightening, first major U.S. museum exhibition on the artist (and the accompanying, defining catalogue) will not catapult him into the first rank, but it compellingly covers his entire career, with a particularly deep focus on the rocky second half of his life. For Jawlensky, this was a period marked by: exile due to war; the indignity of the Nazis labeling him a degenerate artist, prohibiting him from exhibiting, and crushing his market (although he became a German citizen the next year); and a fatally debilitating arthritis.
The first of three thematic galleries devoted to Jawlensky’s late works includes early portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. Self-Portrait with a Top Hat (1904), self-assured and self-aware, depicts the artist as a bourgeois dandy against a swirling mass of green-toned strokes, his flesh painted in stylized striations familiar from Vincent van Gogh. Having grown up in a military family in Moscow and then cosmopolitan St. Petersburg, where he studied in the traditional art academy, this was the artist aged forty. By 1904 he had spent a decade in Munich, absorbing the Western European avant-garde from Post-Impressionism to incipient Fauvism, exhibiting at the Salon d’Automne in 1905 in Paris alongside Matisse and Derain. Before the Great War intervened, he spent two famous summers in 1908 – 09 with Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter in Murnau, near the Bavarian Alps, painting blue mountains and picturesque villages with the heavy outlines of Gauguin’s Cloisonnism and in the bold, glowing colors of stained glass and Russian medieval art. Kandinsky and Münter considered him their mentor, but Jawlensky’s pleasing works from this period, such as Factory at Oberau (1910), seem controlled by comparison to the others’ intensely experimental and visionary pictures.
A talented mimic, Jawlensky rode through various avant-garde styles, but, unlike Francis Picabia in France, he did not deconstruct art world pieties, make light of its seriousness, or flit mischievously around from style to style. All his life, he used oil on board or linen-finished paper, not canvas—presumably because it was cheap, portable, and allowed for his preferably fluidly-applied paint and, astoundingly, up to one thousand versions in a series. The second room features a series of Variation paintings in which he focused his energy on nature in various states of abstraction. Based on the prosaic view of a lane, homes, and trees visible from a window of the house in Saint-Prex, Switzerland, where he lived when forced to leave Germany in 1914, the series over eight years became progressively abstract and expansive in feeling—the new rainbow palette and forms reflecting what he called the change in his soul.
Jawlensky then turned to Abstract Heads—featured in the third room—his presiding subject from around 1918 to 1933. He termed some of them “Inner Vision[s],” and they would come to constitute a consuming motif: a female face broken-down and subjected to a combination of Mondrian’s utopian grid with the fractured visuality of Soviet Constructivism and the spiritual force of icons of Jesus’s disembodied face (as in images of the veil of Saint Veronica). Jawlensky, would spend all of his artistic maturity in Germany and Switzerland, but remained wedded to old and new Russian art his whole career. Its icons, not necessarily religious, had a great impact on him. Related Byzantine art, like the mosaic of a wide-eyed Empress Theodora at San Vitale in Ravenna, also persist. The floating and fragmented female or androgynous heads that dominate his late work are clear combinations of these elements; he was not interested in the female body or sexuality—the standard tropes of masculine modernism and Germanic expressionism. For Jawlensky, the face was treated as a totemic presence that married the spiritual, the historical, and the personal.
In a small final room of the museum, Jawlensky’s series of Meditations (1934 – 37) are moving due to their postcard size and knowing he painted them under increasing arthritic duress. They are essentially the earlier faces now rendered just as crosses, but with precise parallel strokes, from steadying the brush with his two crippled hands. Subtitles such as “Play me a Song” or “Mea Culpa” read as quiet supplications.
Jawlensky’s abstraction was intimate and limited in focus: he did not set out to change the world as did Kandinsky or Mondrian or Kirchner (unmentioned in the exhibition, but vividly present in much of the artist’s work). He sought and lived a quiet life in a tumultuous time. But the Neue Galerie’s exhibition is rewarding and ultimately moving—the final room will stay with you in its illumination of an impressively indomitable spirit. Sometimes even a lesser light can reveal a more concentrated, superior truth.
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for The Brooklyn Rail.