Alexej von Jawlensky’s search for a pure means of expressing the spiritual aspect of the world reached a new maturity in his series of Abstrakter Kopf (Abstract Head) paintings. For Jawlensky, working in series offered an important means of exploring the meditative, introspective aspects of his subject matter. ‘I am not so much searching for new forms,’ he explained, ‘but I want to go deeper; not to progress in breadth but in depth’ (Jawlensky quoted in C. Weiler, Jawlensky: Heads Faces Meditations, New York, 1971, p. 17). Indeed, the artist declared on several occasions that before he started painting he would meditate, immersing himself in a religious frame of mind in order to approach the human visage from a new, spiritual dimension. The resulting works, which occupied Jawlensky for over a decade, are characterised by an intensely pared-back aesthetic, in which a near-abstract collection of geometric forms and free-floating lines, filled with soft, effervescent touches of colour, coalesce to form ethereal, enigmatic human faces.
Painted in 1920, Abstrakter Kopf: Stilles Leuchten is a quintessential example of the series, its delicate features, inscrutable expression and rainbow-like variety of colours radiating a mysterious, quiet intensity that captivates the eye and draws the viewer in. Jawlensky believed that the human visage could act as a medium for the experience of transcendence, with prolonged contemplation of the face eliciting a spiritual experience in both the artist and the viewer. In a letter written to the painter, monk and member of the Nabis, Pater Willibrod Verkade, Jawlensky explained: ‘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’ (Jawlensky, letter to Pater Willlibrord Verkade, quoted in Jawlensky, Pieroni-Jawlensky & Jawlensky, Alexej von Jawlensky: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings Volume One 1890-1914, London, 1991, p. 34).