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Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941)
The Serge and Vally Sabarsky Collection
Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941)

Abstrakter Kopf: Wasser und Licht

Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941)
Abstrakter Kopf: Wasser und Licht
signed with initials 'A.J.' (lower left) and dated '8.28' (lower right); signed and dated again and inscribed 'A. Jawlensky 1928, Wasser und Licht' (on the reverse)
oil on board
17½ x 12¾ in. (44.5 x 32.4 cm.)
Painted August 1928
Paul Elnain, Wiesbaden (gift from the artist, 4 April 1931).
Anon. sale, Lempertz, Cologne, 1962, lot 288.
Private collection, USA.
I. Goldberg, "L'icône abstraite dans les séries de Jawlensky", in Revue d'Histoire des Arts, Paris, 1988, p. 88 (illustrated, fig. 7).
M. Jawlensky, L. Pieroni-Jawlensky, and A. Jawlensky, Alexei von Jawlensky: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Bonn, 1992, vol. II, p. 412, no. 1294 (illustrated; illustrated again in color, p. 445).
A. Jawlensky Bianconi, "Zu 'Abstrakter Kopf: Schweigen' von Alexej von Jawlensky," in Meistewerke I. 9 Gemälde des deutschen Expressionismus, Munich, 1995, p. 43 (illustrated in color, pl. 3).
Munich, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, and Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Alexej Jawlensky 1864-1941, February-June 1983, no. 181 (illustrated in color, p. 279).
Vienna, Österreichische Galerie Neues Belvedere, and Graz, Malerei des Deutschen Expressionismus, September-October 1987, p. 277 (illustrated in color).
Bari, Castello Svevo, Da Kandinsky a Dix. Dipinti dell'Espressionismo Tedesco, May-June 1989, no. 23 (illustrated in color, p. 77).
Roslyn Harbor, Nassau County Museum of Art, From Kandinsky to Dix, October 1989-January 1990, p. 103 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

Jawlensky painted his earliest Abstract heads in Ascona in 1918, while working concurrently on his series of Mystical heads and Savior's faces. This thematic group is also referred to as his Constructivist heads, and is characterized by a flatter and more geometrical stylization of the facial features seen in the other two series. Eyes that were formerly wide open have become horizontal lines or bars; the noses and upper part of the mouth have been similarly reduced. The most prominent curvilinear elements in these compositions are the semi-oval forms that mark the lower part of the face and mouth; shorter curved lines also delineate the forelock of hair and the descending strands on either side of the face.

While some of these Abstract heads are very nocturnal and somber, the present painting is notable for its radiant, high-keyed tonality. Jawlensky gave the subtitle Wasser und Licht ("Water and Light") to the present head, which was painted in August of 1928. The upper portion of the composition does indeed suggest the end of a warm summer's day; the sun is low in the sky, and the crescent moon is visible on the left-hand side. The blue sections to the lower left and right of the head appear to represent a watery expanse, as if the artist were looking out across a lake toward the setting sun.

The entire series of Abstract heads possesses a deeply introspective and contemplative character. During Jawlensky's last visit to Russia in 1914, before the outbreak of the First World War, his brother lent him some books on Indian philosophy and yoga, which probably contributed to the increasingly spiritual tendency evident in the various heads series. The artist wrote in 1938 to Dom Willibrord Verkade, a priest who in his youth had been affiliated with the Nabi movement during the 1890s:

"I had come to understand that great art can only be painted with religious feeling. And that I could only bring to the human face. I understood that the artist must express through his art, in forms and colours, the divine inside him. Therefore a work of art is God made visible, and art is 'a longing for God.' I have painted faces for many years. I have sat in my studio and painted, and have not needed Nature as a prompter. I have needed only to immerse myself, pray, and prepare my soul for a state of religious awareness" (quoted in M. Jawlensky et. al., op. cit., p. 14).

The radiant inner light that emanates from these heads, and the vivid colors seen in the present painting, seem especially poignant when one learns that artist's health deteriorated after 1927, when he was diagnosed with arthritis deformens, a condition that eventually led to total paralysis and caused his death. By 1934 his hands had become so arthritic that on most days he could work in only a very small format. The long series of Abstract heads came to an end at this time, and although the artist might occasionally paint flowers on less painful days, he turned to his final series of Meditations, in which the geometry of the Abstract heads was further reduced, de profundis, to the most austere essentials of a cruciform design.

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