In 1917, Jawlensky marked a new phase in his lifelong experimentation with the human face as he began his series of Mystical Heads and Savior's Faces. As an early example of the latter theme, the present work shares the large open eyes and frontal orientation of the exclusively female Mystical Heads, yet its strongly schematized, symmetrical composition manifests the strong, "sexless representation of human features" that Jawlensky associated with these "angel-like" faces of Christ (quoted in V. E. Barnett and J. Helfenstein, The Blue Four Collection: Feininger, Jawlensky, Kandinsky, and Klee in the New World, Cologne, 1998, p. 107). The artist had spent the early years of World War I painting landscape studies, but he eventually applied his new painterly vocabulary to his preferred subject matter, the female face, which he associated with inner vision. "It became necessary for me to find a form for the face," he wrote in a letter of 1938, "I realized that great art should only be painted with religious feeling. And that was something I could bring only to the human face. I understood that the artist must express through his art, in forms and colors, the divine inside him" (quoted in C. Weiler, Jawlensky: Heads Faces Meditations, New York, 1971, p. 11).
In the Savior's Faces, Jawlensky reduces the conventions of portraiture to abstract lines and flat planes of luminous color that delineate an elongated oval face. Whereas Jawlensky's pre-war portrait heads rely on expressive and symbolic color to convey the specific identity of the sitter, his anonymous faces express individuality through variations in color that resonate with the artist's spiritual aspirations. Fellow artist Paul Klee described this change as a transition "from the exemplary to the archetypal" (Paul Klee, Das bildnerische Denken, Basel, 1956, p. 93). Commenting on the diversity of these serial works, Clemens Weiler has written: "Jawlensky came to concentrate more and more on the human face as the bearer of emotion. Although his work has great depth and breadth of variation, he reduced his means of expression to a minimum" (Weiler, op. cit., p. 9).
Jawlensky gave the subtitle "Young Woman (Light Head)" to the present painting, which alludes to the haloed Madonna of traditional Christian iconography but also reflects the artist's quest to express the spiritual element of his work through modern, introspective means. Jawlensky expresses divine energy by infusing a closely cropped picture surface with vibrant color and carefully balanced, purified forms. The format of these meditative variations on the human face also evokes the Russian Orthodox icons of his youth. Specifically, it recalls the mandylion, a Byzantine holy relic consisting of a cloth square with the image of the face of Christ (fig. 1). Paintings of this first "true icon" of Christ are exceedingly popular in traditional Orthodox iconography, since the original is thought to have been created by the actual imprint of Christ's face. Late in his career, Jawlensky commented on this influence and declared: "I am Russian-born. As such my heart and soul have always felt close to old Russian art, to Russian icons, the art of Byzantium, the mosaics of Ravenna, Venice and Rome and the art of the Romanesque period. All these arts would set up a holy vibration in my soul, for they spoke to me in a language of deep spirituality. It was this art that gave me my tradition" (quoted in ibid., p. 11).
(fig. 1) School of Novgorod, Mandylion, 12th century. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. BARCODE 26007144