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Perfecting the Art of Reading Faces

Alexej Jawlensky found rich variety in the human visage. A new exhibition highlights the gems as he moved from realism to abstraction.


The icons of modern art tend to be big, muscular paintings--Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase," Leger's "The Mechanic," Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie." Harold B. Nelson, director of the Long Beach Museum of Art, had something different in mind when he organized the latest exhibition, "Icons for a New Era: The Spiritual Abstractions of Alexej Jawlensky."

Drawn from the museum's collection of 35 Jawlensky works, the show, which opened June 15, features 21 small, vividly colored but deeply introspective paintings that may have been inspired by religious icons seen by the artist as a young man in his native Russia. More to the point, his best-known works--portrayals of faces that evolved from splashy, relatively realistic likenesses to elegantly composed abstractions--have achieved iconic status in art history. Resonating far beyond their modest size, which rarely exceeds 18 by 12 inches, the faces have an enduring power and popular appeal.

"They are among the jewels of our collection," Nelson said of the Jawlenskys, donated to the museum in 1979 by the estate of Los Angeles attorney Milton Wichner. The bequest represents the work of an artist who led a privileged artistic life in Munich and produced a distinctive body of work, but was exiled in Switzerland during World War I and died in poverty in Germany in 1941, crippled by arthritis and scorned as a "degenerate" by the Nazis.

"Jawlensky was such a magnificent artist," Nelson said. "He was such a spiritualist. There's a depth of feeling to the work and a serenity that unfolds throughout the years."

Among the paintings on view, an early (circa 1914) still life appears vibrant, but the title, "Mourning," indicates the artist was always aware of the cyclical nature of life, Nelson said. "When you get to the late still lifes, I sometimes liken them to extinguished embers in a fire. There's an intense glow surrounded by darkness."

Unlike many of his peers whose work encompasses various subjects and styles, Jawlensky was uncommonly consistent, Nelson said. "He found rich variety in subtle variations of a similar image."

Most often, that image was a face. In the show, three paintings, created in 1915-16, portray a dark-haired girl as a solid, almond-shaped form constructed of bright chunks of color. A 1919 example of Jawlensky's "Savior's Faces" series and a 1920 work, "Christ," are relatively airy, but they introduce a religious tone, with sad expressions belying the cheery, pastel tones. A trio of later works, made in 1928-30, is named for seasons or weather: "Late Summer," "Frost" and "Winter Ringing." Here, Jawlensky orchestrated strikingly distinctive effects by applying different color schemes to the serene essence of a face, reduced to a few lines and shapes.

Born in 1864 in Torzhok, Russia, Jawlensky moved to Moscow with his family when he was 10. He was educated for a military career, but became interested in painting while he was a teenage cadet and began spending his free time at the Tretyakov Gallery. He studied at the Imperial Academy of Art in Moscow with realist painter Ilya Repin, then emigrated to Munich, in 1896, in search of a more adventurous artistic environment.

By then, he was under the wing of Marianne von Werefkin, a wealthy artist four years his senior who gave up her career to promote his work and provide him with a comfortable lifestyle. Free to pursue his artistic vision, Jawlensky became part of an artistic community that included a more prominent Russian emigre, painter Wassily Kandinsky.

Forced to leave Germany when World War I began, Jawlensky fled to Switzerland in 1914 and lived there until 1921. His relationship with Werefkin deteriorated, but he soon met his next angel, German artist Emmy Scheyer--whom he nicknamed "Galka," the Russian word for a black bird. Both the name and the friendship stuck. Galka E. Scheyer was Jawlensky's agent first in Europe and later in the United States.

Despite her help, Jawlensky never recaptured his carefree life. He moved back to Germany, settling in Wiesbaden in 1921. Struggling with arthritis and a hostile political climate that considered the unnatural forms and colors in his avant-garde work "degenerate," he continued to paint until the late 1930s, but his work grew increasingly dark and morose.

Jawlensky is represented in museum collections throughout Europe and the United States. Southern California has a particularly rich holding of his work because Scheyer settled in Los Angeles, where she promoted the work of a group she called the Blue Four--Jawlensky, Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger and Paul Klee. Scheyer died in 1945. Her collection was later entrusted to the Pasadena Art Museum, now the Norton Simon Museum. The holding includes 148 pieces by Jawlensky. (The Simon is planning major exhibitions at the end of this year and in 2003 based on that holding, along with the publication of a catalog of its Blue Flour collection by Vivian E. Barnett.)

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