Alexej von Jawlensky painted Mädchenkopf during his three-year exile from Germany during World War I. Fleeing from Munich to Switzerland in August of 1914, the Russian-born painter and his family settled in the secluded town of Saint-Prex on Lake Geneva. "It was very tiny, our house," stated Jawlensky in his memoirs, "and I had no room of my own, only a window which I could call mine. But I was so gloomy and unhappy in my soul after all those dreadful experiences that I was quite content just to sit at that window and quietly collect my thoughts and feelings" (quoted in C. Weiler, Jawlensky: Heads Faces Meditations, New York, 1971, p. 11). Jawlensky spent most of his time at Saint-Prex painting landscape studies known as variations from the constant frame of this window, but he later summarized the artistic import of exile in different terms: "It became necessary for me to find a form for the face, for I realized that great art should only be painted with religious feeling. And that was something I could bring only to the human face" (quoted in ibid.).
Jawlensky regarded painting as a means to express his innermost self, and it is not surprising that the experience of displacement instigated a rupture in his approach. "In the beginning at Saint-Prex I tried to continue painting as I had in Munich," he wrote, "but something inside me would not allow me to go on with those colorful, powerful, sensual works. I realized that my soul had undergone a change as a result of so much suffering and that I had therefore to discover different forms and colors to express what my soul felt" (quoted in ibid., p. 101).
In 1915, Jawlensky applied this new painterly vocabulary to his preferred subject, the female face, and produced eleven heads of girls or women before his move to Zurich in 1917. The painter used expressive and symbolic color in his pre-war heads to emphasize the specific identity of the sitter and convey his own state of mind, reflecting his exposure to a wide range of artists including van Gogh, the Fauves, and Expressionists such as Emil Nolde and Wassily Kandinsky. In contrast, the anonymous heads express individuality through variations in color. Despite this formal change, the new works upheld the artistic convictions that Jawlensky embraced as a member of the Neue Kunstler vereinigung in Munich. Kandinsky captured the spiritualist agenda of this group in the catalogue to its inaugural exhibition in 1909 when he declared: "We proceed from the belief that the artist, apart from the impressions he receives from the external world, Nature, continually collects experience within an inner world. We search for artistic forms that reveal the penetration of these collected experiences, for forms that must be freed from all irrelevance, in order to forcefully express that which is essential, in short, for artistic synthesis" (quoted in R.-C. Washton Long, German Expressionism, New York, 1993, p. 39).
In the present picture, the composition of disrupted planes of flat color doubles as the subject matter and stucturing agent of the image; traces of the thick black outlines that order Jawlensky's pre-war portraits and heads are visible in the schematic eyes and frame of black curls. The sitter's dark hair may also be an allusion to Emmy Scheyer, a painter from Brussels who gave up her own work to promote Jawlensky in Europe and America. Jawlensky met Scheyer in 1916 and gave her the nickname "Galka" ("Jackdaw" in Russian) because of her jet-black hair. However, the actual sitter for this work need not have had black hair at all. As Jawlensky stated, "Human faces are for me only suggestions to see something else in them--the life of color, seized with a lover's passion" (quoted in C. Weiler, op. cit., p. 12).