Return to Articles


Through November 5, 2007 at the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena

by Marlena Dononhue

Vasily Kandinsky and Alexei Jawlensky were Russian artists known for their journey, both geographical and aesthetic, from repressive turn-of-the-century Russia to the avant-garde liberation offered in Germany in 1900. We know them for their early associations with Expressionism, and maybe also for picturesque anecdotes of left-brained careers derailed by the impassioned pursuit of art. Kandinsky was to study math, and Jawlensky was headed toward a life in the Imperial military--one imagines upper crust Victorian moms wringing long delicate hands as these moustached gents went off to be bohemians.  At sixteen Jawlensky visited the Moscow World Exposition where he fell under the spell of paint. Records indicate that in 1884 he’d advanced to lieutenant, but by 1889 he’d enrolled in the Academy of Art. He made tracks for Munich in 1896, wanting to escape the stifling creative life under Czarist rule.

From the get go, Jawlensky’s works show a clear, very deliberate link to ideas and techniques of color expressionism passing to Munich from the French Fauves. He was equally drawn to the ideas of universal communication through form that were preoccupying Kandinsky at the time. The young artist made the acquaintance of fellow expatriate Kandinsky fairly early, but he never showed with the Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) artists with whom Kandinsky was closely and famously affiliated. The works on view here do indicate that Jawlensky shared then fringe theosophical ideas that to be “modern” art had to tap the unedited “primitive" simplicity of folk culture. This is apparent in early, almost puerile landscapes and his most famous female head, “Blond” from 1911 (done the same year Kandinsky extends these ideas to abstraction, and also of the first Blaue Reiter exhibition).

Fairly early, Jawlensky limited his subjects to female heads, and to be very honest, these works so aptly assimilate Fauve experiments by Matisse (e.g. his “Green Stripe”), Derain and early Kandinsky that we might have missed him all together next to these mainstays. That he does come down to us is in good part due to Galka Emmy Scheyer--an artist turned collector and impresario. She saw his work in neutral Switzerland in 1916, where the one-time soldier went to avoid World War I. The young Scheyer was so taken, she hunted Jawlensky down and the two became lifelong friends. Scheyer began to collect and advance his work, along with the work of three other painters she met through him--Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee, and Vasily Kandinsky. She dubbed them the “Blue Four” in the late 1920s, long after any of them had ties to the Blaue Reiter. The “Blue Four” was formed at the Bauhaus in Weimar much later, when expressionism had become an accepted idiom of Modernism, and the keen eyed Scheyer could promote such art for education and no small profit.

"Mystical Head: Head of an Angel"
1917–1918, oil and pencil on textured
cardboard, 13 7/8 x 12 inches.

"Japanese Flower," 1913, oil on cardboard mounted on masonite,
21 1/8 x 19 1/2 inches.

"Blonde," c. 1911, oil on card-
board mounted on masonite,
21 1/8 x 19 3/8 inches.

"Abstract Head: Life and Death,"
1923, oil and pencil on card-
board, 16 3/4 x 12 7/8 inches.

In 1953 Scheyer donated her 150 Jawlensky works to the then Pasadena Art Institute--now the Norton Simon Museum. She was apparently drawn to Jawlensky’s signature heads, and her own face appears in several.

The historical interest of pulling this substantial stash out for display is that we trace an arc from the hard driving early heads of Munich, to visages that begin to look architectonic and stiffly forced in the mid- to late-‘20s. Early on, Jawlensky seems fired up and just plain in love with whipped up paint and strident color for their own passionate sake. And here the artist is irresistible even as he is predictable. To wit, stand in front of “Child with Doll,” the famous “Blond,” and “Blossoming Girl.” By contrast, the later “Mystical Head” (1919) and “Savior's Face” (1921) exude this self consciously “I am making modern art” feel; the heart seems gone and these feel benumbed and derivative by comparison.