Painted circa 1912, Bauer is one of Alexej von Jawlensky's highly-keyed expressionist portraits. This is one of the 'pre-war works' dating from the period between his spring at Prerow in 1911 and the beginning of the First World War, when Jawlensky himself believed he created his 'most powerful work' (Jawlensky, quoted in 'Memoir dictated to Lisa Kümmel, Wiesbaden, 1937', pp. 25-33 in M. Jawlensky, L. Peroni-Jawlensky and A. Jawlensky, ed., op. cit., London, 1991, p. 31). Among the vivid portrait heads that he created during this period, rendering his subjects' features with incredibly bold applications of colour that sing with a searing spirituality, that are electric and incandescent in their appearance, Jawlensky's images of men such as the farmer in Bauer are relatively rare. Alongside this image, the pictures with men as their subject mainly comprise several self-portraits, some paintings of old men and gardeners, and others showing his friend, the avant garde dancer Alexander Sacharoff, usually presented as an androgynous presence. Bauer is therefore a rare example of male portraiture from within the esteemed 'pre-war works'; this rarity and the sheer quality of this explosive colourism help to explain the distinguished provanance of Bauer, which has passed through the hands of the renowned Berlin dealer Ferdinand Möller, as well as belonging to Serge Sabarsky, before entering the famous collection of Charles Tabachnick, a Canadian who accumulated a string of Expressionist masterpieces.
Bauer appears to show the head of a man who appeared in another work, cited as lost in the catalogue raisonné of Jawlensky's paintings, entitled Männlicher Kopf and dated to the same period. That work has been lost since 1937: it was given by the Gesellschaft der Freunde junger Kunst, Brunswick to the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in 1933 in the seemingly vain hope that it would avoid confiscation (see ibid., p. 396). Männlicher Kopf showed a bearded head which recalls that of Bauer, with similar tilting eyes. In Bauer, Jawlensky has filled the picture with turquoise and blue streaks, be it in the raking brushstrokes that make up his vestments, the rich background so reminiscent of the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, or the flame-like curls of his hair and beard.
This rich expressionist palette reveals the change that had occurred in Prerow the previous year, and which had opened an avenue Jawlensky continued to explore in the years leading up to the First World War. Now he was depicting people using, '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' (Jawlensky, quoted in ibid., p. 31). In some ways, this heightened palette recalls the incredible influence that Van Gogh's works had had on a generation of artists, who saw his break with conventional representation and his intensely-felt compositions opening a path that allowed expression through colour. Jawlensky's image of this humble farmer in this way recalls the portraits that Van Gogh created of the postman Joseph Roulin who showed such support to him during the troubled years towards the end of his life. At the same time, Bauer, with its blue background and the beard, may also indicate an interest in the self-portraiture of Paul Cézanne, whose influence in Parisian circles in particular had been vast since his death six years earlier, spawning a variety of movements including Cubism.
The heightened colourism of Bauer was the result of a steady development upon the foundations of Jawlensky's experiments from the previous spring. As he recalled, 'during 1912 I continued to develop what I had begun at Prerow, painting many powerful works which are now almost all in museums and private collections' (Jawlensky, quoted in ibid., p. 31). This had been an important period for Jawlensky, who had enjoyed some acclaim at his first one-man exhibition in Barmen during 1911 and was gaining an increasingly public following, having already been a crucial figurehead for the avant garde in Germany, and especially in Munich. It was during 1912 that he abandoned the Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munich, the avant garde group which he had initially founded alongside several other artists, including his friend and fellow native Russian, Wassily Kandinsky. The NKVM had been sabotaged by increasingly conservative elements from within; now, Jawlensky joined Kandinsky and their young supporter Franz Marc among others in the influential group, Der Blaue Reiter.
This marked the culmination of a process of artistic evolution that had gestated over the years. Jawlensky had first turned to art while serving in the army in Russia. While spending an increasing amount of time at the Academy, he had befriended Marianne von Werefkin, the daughter of a general in the army, and spent a great amount of time with her. Indeed, she would become one of his great companions, staying in his orbit until the beginning of the 1920s. In the late nineteenth century, both artists had stayed at Werefkin's family estate in Russia, where they had made studies of the local peasants (see ibid., p. 29). The local sourcing of subjects for his painting appears to have continued in Bauer and the pictures of gardeners and old men such as that in the Milwaukee Art Museum from the same period: Jawlensky was seeking authenticity among the rural population around him, recalling his fascination with folk art and his incredibly generous spirituality.
After leaving Russia in the late nineteenth century, Jawlensky had become increasingly involved in avant garde activities, both in his adoptive home, Munich, and abroad. His paintings from 1904 already showed an increasingly vivid and bold use of luminous colour, and it appears as no coincidence that some of these were exhibited in the famous Salon d'Automne of 1905, when the uproar surrounding the room of pictures by the Fauves broke. It was during this time that Jawlensky came to know Henri Matisse, whom he would spent a great deal of time with over the years, not least in 1911, the year before Bauer appears to have been painted, when the Russian artist had visited Paris. It was during that occasion that Jawlensky also came into contact with Kees van Dongen, 'who was then not so well known,' Jawlensky would recall. Tellingly, he continued: 'I saw a number of extremely fine paintings at his place, and one in particular which appealed to me very much. I told him so. All he said was, "That's pour épater le bourgeois"' (Jawlensky, quoted in ibid., p. 31).
Van Dongen's expressionistic handling of paint may have inspired the tumultuous brushwork in Bauer and some of its sister-pictures. Meanwhile, over the years, both Matisse's support and the legacy of Paul Gauguin, whose pictures Jawlensky came to know, had given him an increasing assurance regarding his path, and his determination to use pure colour as a means of expression of the spiritual dimension, as well as that of mere appearance. This is the driving force behind the colourism of Bauer, in which Jawlensky has deliberately taken a humble toiler of the earth and revealed him as an apostolic presence, glowing with spirituality. This is a secular saint, as indeed is every person according to Jawlensky: 'It became necessary for me to find a form for the face, for I realized that great art was only to be painted with religious feeling,' Jawlensky said. 'And that was something I could bring only to the human face' (Jawlensky, quoted in C. Weiler, Jawlensky: Heads, Faces, Meditations, London, 1971, p. 30). This was a development that would be increasingly accentuated over the years, as Jawlensky began his serial explorations of the human face in the Abstract Heads that would emerge towards the end of the First World War.