'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'
(Jawlensky, letter to Pater Willibrord Verkade, Wiesbaden, 12 June 1938, quoted in M. Jawlensky, L. Peroni-Jawlensky & A. Jawlensky, ed., Alexej von Jawlensky: Catalogue raisonné of the Oil Paintings: volume I, 1890-1914, London, 1991, p. 34).
This painting has been requested for the major Alexei Jawlensky retrospective exhibition curated by Vivian Endicott Barnett which will take place at the Neue Galerie, New York from 16 February to 29 May 2017 and at the Frye Art Museum, Seattle from 23 June to 1 October 2017.
‘You are the painter of the human soul. I know of no other modern painter of the human soul’
(Galka Scheyer in a letter to Jawlensky after 1927).
In his Abstrakter Kopf series, Jawlensky managed to harness his intense sense of spirituality while embracing his virtuoso colourism.
In the present work, Abstrakter Kopf: Blau - Rot, fields of colour comprise the face, with only a handful of geometrical lines and arcs as
delineations. This is an intensely modern image, and the title is clearly accurate in its reference to ‘Abstraction’, for this painting has a purity that has more to do with Mondrian or Malevich than with religious painting.
Jawlensky wrote, only a handful of years after painting this work: ‘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 sat in my studio and painted, and did not need Nature as a prompter. I only had to immerse myself in myself, pray, and prepare my soul to a state of religious awareness’ (Jawlensky, quoted in op.cit, 1991, p. 34).
Jawlensky’s artistic career entered a distinct phase when he began his series paintings. From 1919 especially, when he commenced his Variations landscapes, Jawlensky found that the act of creating a work of art took on a mystical power of its own. Painting became a ritual for him. When he turned to depictions of the human face for inspiration, he opened a new path. Abstrakter Kopf: Blau - Rot dates from the very apogee of the Abstrakter Kopf series, in which he had honed down the language of shape and colour to a simple, pure and absorbing extreme. In Abstrakter Kopf: Blau - Rot the unusually dark, absorbing black and more sombre mauves giving way to bands of radiant red and petrol blue express the quieter, contemplative spirituality with which the artist has imbued it. We see the truth of Jawlensky’s own statement that, ‘My art is simply a meditation or prayer in colour’ (Jawlensky, quoted in C. Weiler, Jawlensky: Heads, Faces, Meditations, London, 1971, p. 64).
The innovation of Jawlensky’s philosophy and techniques during this period attracted him a strong and extremely devoted following.
Through the encouragement of the first owner of the present work Emmy ‘Galka’ Scheyer, Jawlensky and his friends Feininger, Klee and Kandinsky formed the ‘Blue Four’ group. Scheyer promoted their works in the United States especially, a fact that was to have great ramifications on the development of avant-garde painting there, exposing these trailblazing visionaries to the American artists and the American market alike.