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ART REVIEW : Eye-Opening Portraits by Jawlensky

January 25, 1991|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — The turning point in the small but marvelously precise exhibition of paintings by the early 20th-Century Russian-born painter Alexej Jawlensky, recently opened at the Long Beach Museum of Art, arrives in the fourth of the show's five galleries. Seemingly slight, and at first imperceptible amid the painterly seductions of Jawlensky's radical use of vibrant color, the subtle change is nonetheless decisive. Simply, the eyes close in Jawlensky's portraits.

Earlier, the coal-black disks and stylized lozenges that dominated his portrait heads of the late-1910s had created an intense, commanding point of linkage for a concentrated exchange between viewer and image. Even before, in such blunt portraits as "The Gardener" (1912)--a humble peasant who has been transformed into the image of a modern, visionary prophet through glowing rings of brilliant color--Jawlensky has burned the old man's eyes into the canvas, ringing the lids and the bright blue irises with hard, black lines to rivet the subject's outward gaze.

In a manner owing a certain debt to the portraits of Van Gogh, but far more mystically inclined than the earthy Dutchman ever was, Jawlensky's portraits emphatically want to put you face to face with something ethereally transcendent. Sometime around 1920, however, the disks and lozenges flatten out, most often into horizontal lines or thin rectangles. These closed eyes suggest the face of neither sleep nor death, but of silent meditation. From an aggressive effort to connect the portrait to the audience, by returning in the painted image the viewer's concentrated gaze, Jawlensky now began to coax a contemplative sense of loss and distance. Closing their eyes, he literally shut the portraits' metaphoric "doorway to the soul."

This effort began with several portraits titled "Christ"--one clear indication of the artist's commitment to painting as a spiritual quest. "Alexej Jawlensky: From Appearance to Essence" manages to trace that quest with a degree of breadth and depth that belies its relatively small size.

The show includes just 47 pictures, painted between 1906 and 1937, from among hundreds the artist made. Many are very small--especially those from the artist's last years, when dimensions little more than a few inches were not uncommon. (Jawlensky suffered from progressively crippling arthritis, which necessitated a reduced scale and finally forced a cessation in his painting four years before his 1941 death.) But the museum's show benefits from a judicious selection of 14 loans from public and private collections around the country, as well as from the generally high level of quality of its own Milton Wichner Collection, from which the remaining 33 paintings and works on paper have been drawn.

Half the loans to the exhibition will be found in the first room. All are paintings that predate Jawlensky's 1914 expulsion, as a Russian national, from Munich at the outbreak of World War I. These are paintings by a man clearly obsessed with the expressive possibilities of brilliant color, intent on learning both its vocabulary and its recent history in advanced European painting. In them, the artist avidly tries on techniques and motifs borrowed from a wide range of sources, including Symbolism, Post-Impressionism and traditional Russian icons, and from such artists as Vasily Kandinsky, Gabriele Munter and Emil Nolde.

Cruelly, Jawlensky's expulsion from his adopted homeland began the process through which his own accomplished but unresolved painting would begin to find its way. After 22 years in the military, he had emigrated from St. Petersburg to Munich to pursue his art, and he had established a comfortable life during the 18 years he was there--thanks to the personal devotion and financial support of Marianne von Werefkin, who gave up her own career as an artist to become Jawlensky's champion. All that was quickly torn asunder when he was forced to flee to Switzerland.

Imagine Jawlensky's predicament. He was 50 years old, without a home or country, increasingly destitute, and as yet had not found a means of expression for the spiritual yearnings that guided his artistic ambition. Soon, two events conspired to transform Jawlensky's painting.

First, he met Emmy Scheyer in 1916. (Jawlensky gave her the affectionate nickname, Galka, a Russian word for crow). Yet another artist who abandoned her own work to champion his, Scheyer offered unwavering encouragement for the ever more radical abstraction of Jawlensky's small landscape paintings, and of the great series of portrait heads (including portraits of Scheyer) that, in the Long Beach exhibition, announce the arrival of the mature period of his art.

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