Painted in 1912, Tanz mit gelbem Fächer dates from one of the greatest periods of Alexej von Jawlensky's long and influential career. For it was in the years between the Summer of 1911 and the outbreak of the First World War that, by his own admission and according to his own judgement, the artist created his greatest works, developing his own unique and powerful aesthetic, a style that combined his search for the spiritual in art with a boldness of execution that owed itself in part to the examples of a wide range of influences from Gauguin to Kandinsky to Matisse. A range of these works are now in museums throughout the world.
The theme of the dancer in Tanz mit gelbem Fächer is perfectly suited to the swirling, lyrical, boldly-coloured forms which make up this figure. There is an internal rhythm to the painting that deliberately and evocatively echoes its theme. Many of Jawlensky's paintings from this vintage moment in his life featured female figures, often focussing on the face, a theme that would become increasingly dominant over the coming years. Here, that sense of focus and composition, which often resulted in a Madonna-like image, has been eschewed in favour of an expansive view of the twisted, dancing body, adding a secular and sensual aspect to the picture that is only emphasised by its compositional similarity to the classical statues of the bathing Aphrodite.
Perhaps the theme of the dance had been suggested by Jawlensky's renewed acquaintance, in 1911, with his fellow painter Henri Matisse. Certainly, the sensuality and colourism of Jawlensky's works from this period show a similar field of interests, as does the reference to dance, so famously captured in Matisse's own large-scale paintings on the same theme from 1909 and 1910, now respectively in the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Jawlensky had long loved music, even risking court martial in order to attend concerts while a student at the military academy in his native Russia; he had also come to know Sergei Diaghilev, the founder and director of the notorious Ballets Russes, during his time in St. Petersburg. Diaghilev had visited Jawlensky at his adopted home in Munich in 1911. They saw each other again when the Ballets Russes visited Munich in March 1912, the year that Tanz mit gelbem Fächer was painted. This indication of the importance that music had to Jawlensky, and of his involvement in musical circles, makes the theme of this strange, slightly Oriental dance all the more pertinent. It is one that recurred, sometimes in the form of dancing women, sometimes in the perhaps flamenco-infused theme of the Spanish women, in several of his works during this period, as is evident in Frau mit Fächer, now in the Museum Wiesbaden, and Infantin (Spanierin).
In a later memoir of the period, Jawlensky explained the artistic genesis of this period:
'In the Spring of 1911 Marianne Werefkin, Andrej, Helene 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... 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. Pieroni-Jawlensky and A. Jawlensky (ed.), Alexej von Jawlensky: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Volume One, 1890-1914, London, 1991, p. 31).
During this time, Jawlensky was one of the most important and influential artists working in Germany, and had cultivated an amazing network of friendships and acquaintances within the world of the arts across Europe. This was reflected in part in his founding, in 1909, of the Neue Künstlervereinigung Munich, alongside a range of the avant-garde artists of the Wassily Kandinsky, Alfred Kubin and Jawlensky's close friend and long-term companion, Marianne von Werefkin. Tragically, this impressive feat of organisation within the ranks of the trailblazing artists of the day had, by 1911, been scuppered; many of Jawlensky's friends abandoned the movement then, some of them going on to form the famous Blaue Reiter group, and he himself followed them during the year that Tanz mit gelbem Fächer was painted.
The lively, vivid palette of Tanz mit gelbem Fächer and its swirling forms, which add such an apt, dance-like visual rhythm to the picture, all speak of the boldness of Jawlensky's ideas, the result of a long search for an art that would express all that he wished to communicate of the spiritual. For in a sense, the almost codified manner in which this dancer's body, features and fan have been captured echoes the deceptive traditional simplicity of the icons that had so struck him during his youth. He would later recall the reverence and fanfare that surrounded a celebrated icon in a Polish church:
'This icon had three precious coats, one of gold, one of coral and one with pearls and diamonds. When we arrived the picture was concealed behind a gold curtain. Many peasant men and women were lying prostrate on the floor as if crucified, with their arms outstretched. It was very quiet. Suddenly a great blare of trumpets shattered the silence. Terribly frightened, I saw the gold curtain open and the Madonna appear wearing a gold robe' (Jawlensky, quoted in op. cit., p. 25).
Jawlensky's own paintings seek to capture, through secular imagery that recalls nonetheless the Madonna of tradition, some of this drama, some of the truth, some of the importance that the icons had so long inspired in people. During his vacations in Murnau with Wassily Kandinsky and Gabrielle Munter, Jawlensky had honed a bold, expressionistic colourist aesthetic that combined an increasing simplicity of form, granting the figure greater impact, with vivid oils, often thrust into relief by tracery-like outlines. He was trying to add an extra dimension to his motifs, following the example of Gauguin, whose Rider on the Beach in Tahiti had provided an epiphany for him when he had seen it at the home of his friend Vom Rath. Symbolism, apparent in Gauguin's aesthetic, which featured the combination of the visual appearance of the motif with emotional, subjective and spiritual content, helped to show Jawlensky a new path. It was in Prerow that all these influences finally combined, resulting in those few years of self-proclaimed masterpieces such as Tanz mit gelbem Fächer and Dunkle Augen, as well as a host of pictures which are now in museum collections throughout the world.