Painted in 1911, Hélène dates from what Jawlensky himself acknowledged as the most important and fruitful year of his entire artistic career. This picture shows the eponymous Hélène Nesnakomoff, the companion and maid of Jawlensky's great friend and fellow artist, Marianne von Werefkin. Hélène was the mother of Jawlensky's son, Andreas, born nine years earlier, and would eventually marry the artist over a decade later, formalising their long and complex relationship.
Discussing the period during which Hélène was painted, Jawlensky recalled:
'In the Spring of 1911 Marianne Werefkin, Andrej, Hélène and I went to Prerow on the Baltic. For me that summer meant a great step forward in my art. I painted my finest landscapes there as well as large figure paintings in powerful, glowing colours not at all naturalistic or objective. I used a great deal of red, blue, orange, cadmium yellow and chromium-oxide green. My forms were very strongly contoured in Prussian blue and came with tremendous power from an inner ecstasy. The hunchback, The violet turban, Self-portrait (now in Basel) and Fantasy head (Gröpel Bochum Collections) were created in this way. It was a turning-point in my art. It was in these years, up to 1914 just before the war, that I painted my most powerful works, referred to as the 'pre-war works'' (Jawlensky, quoted in 'Memoir dictated to Lisa Kümmel, Wiesbaden, 1937', pp. 25-33 in M. Jawlensky, L. Peroni-Jawlensky and A. Jawlensky (ed.), Alexej von Jawlensky: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings: Volume One 1890-1914, London, 1991, p. 31).
It is clear, in looking at the bold yellows and greens that make up the face in Hélène, as well as the reds and oranges of the headdress and ornament on the clothes, that this picture is one of those about which the artist was so ecstatic. Others dating from this moment in Jawlensky's career can be found in an array of museums including the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Harvard University Art Museums, a testimony to the quality of the works from that year.
In Hélène, Jawlensky has deliberately simplified the forms that comprise the image of his subject to a point nearing abstraction, hinting at his later developments of the depiction of the human face as a source of meditative focus. At the same time, these simplified forms and fields of oil paint thrust the bold colours of the palette into great relief. The deep and lush blue contrasts with the greens, reds and oranges which, highlighted by some of the dark outlines, appear luminous, recalling stained glass windows. The use of the green in particular recalls the great influence that the example of Matisse had had for Jawlensky, who met the French artist on several occasions, including during a visit to Paris made in the same year that this work was painted. The use of green in the face of Hélène recalls in particular Matisse's controversial portrait of his wife, nick-named La raie verte because of the use of the same colour to emphasise the shadow cast by her nose. In Hélène, though, Jawlensky has taken the use of this green to the next level by using it on a larger scale, both in the skin tones and in the arresting eyes of the sitter.
The sudden release that led to the developments in his paintings during this period owed themselves to the great confluence of influences which Jawlensky now combined in a unique way, resulting in a new bold and distinctive style. The forms have become vaguely abstracted and codified, in a manner that suggests that the Fauvism and Expressionism that had previously influenced Jawlensky had now fused with recognition of his own Russian origins. For these forms recall the almost abstract appearance of the Orthodox icons of the churches of his youth (even the use of green seems in some way to echo the colours of Russian religious paintings, where it was often used as a ground and sometimes shows through, lending the various saints and Madonnas a faint olive hue). It was at this moment that the importance of the human face, which was to remain so central to Jawlensky's art for the rest of his life, truly came to the fore. In the supine pose with which Hélène has been rendered, the figure recalls religious iconography. And despite the boldness of the colours, whose presence in simple fields itself recalls Russian icons, there is a poise, a contemplative stillness present in this painting that invokes an almost mystical dimension. Discussing his paintings, Jawlensky stated that, 'It became necessary for me to find a form for the face, for I realized that great art was only to be painted with religious feeling. And that was something I could bring only to the human face' (Jawlensky, quoted in C. Weiler, op. cit., p. 30). For Jawlensky, harkening back to his Russian roots and the influence of these icons, the human face was the perfect archetypal subject in which divinity and beauty could be perceived: 'For me the face is not just a face but the whole universe. In the face the whole universe becomes manifest' (Jawlensky, quoted in ibid., p. 56).
This spirituality had come increasingly to the fore since Jawlensky's meeting with Franz Marc the previous year, which would become mutually beneficial and mutually influential. Marc would soon join the Neue Künstlervereinigung Munich which Jawlensky had helped to found and had subsequently chaired. His interest in paring away the accumulated cultural detritus in order to reach a spiritual core and translate that into a new, vigorous visual language was an aim that was echoed increasingly in Jawlensky's own works, albeit in a more contemplative manner. It was in part for this reason that Jawlensky would also subsequently play such an important part in the Blaue Reiter movement which was gradually formed after a schism within the Neue Künstlervereinigung Munich, which had been subverted from its original intentions from within.
Hélène was split from Mädchen mit roter Schleife (lot 4 and originally verso of the present work) as was the artist's intention per his handlist (see Alexej von Jawlensky Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings Volume One 1890-1914, no. 396, p. 319).