‘Every artist works in a tradition. Some take their tradition from the art of the Greeks, others from that of the Renaissance. I am Russian born. As such my heart and soul have always felt close to old Russian art, to Russian icons, the art of the Byzantium, the mosaics of Ravenna, Venice and Rome, and the art of the Romanesque period… It was this art that gave me my tradition.’
(Jawlensky, quoted in C. Weiler, Jawlensky: Heads, Faces, Meditations, London, 1971, p. 11)
Mädchen dates from 1912, a key period in Alexej von Jawlensky’s career, which he later described as ‘the turning point’ in his art (Jawlensky, quoted in ‘Memoir dictated to Lisa Kümmel, Wiesbaden 1937,’ in M. Jawlensky, L. Pieroni-Jawlensky & A. Jawlensky, Alexej von Jawlensky: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, vol. I, 1890-1914, London, 1991, p. 31). Beginning in 1911 during a sojourn to the Baltic Coast and continuing up to the outbreak of the First World War three years later, Jawlensky believed that the works he produced between 1911 and 1914 were among the most powerful of all his artistic achievements. Focusing almost exclusively on portraits of female sitters, the paintings of these years are characterised by simplified forms, juxtapositions of vibrant, complementary colours, gestural brushstrokes and stark black outlines. Mädchen was painted at the height of this period of extreme creativity and encapsulates Jawlensky’s innovative style, which sought to emancipate the artistic image from its resemblance to nature, free colour from its descriptive role in painting and synthesise views of the external world with his inner subjective perception of it. In order to achieve this, Jawlensky anonymises the figure of Mädchen, removing details of her identity and character to allow the figure to become an icon-like conduit, through which the spiritual concerns of his art could be expressed.
Jawlensky’s use of non-naturalistic colours in Mädchen showcases his aim to push the boundaries of established art at this time, and to free this element of his painting from its descriptive function. His experiments in this area owe a clear debt to the art of Henri Matisse and the Fauves, with whom he first became acquainted during a visit to Paris in 1905, when several of his paintings were exhibited at the Salon d’Automne. It was at this exhibition that Matisse and André Derain shocked the Parisian art world with their vibrantly coloured canvases and violently expressive brushwork. Jawlensky was particularly inspired by Matisse’s colouristic vocabulary, which would prove an important foundation for his artistic development in subsequent years. Further visits to Paris in 1907 and 1911 allowed Jawlensky to spend time with Matisse in his studio, and helped him to develop a uniquely personal approach to colour in his art. Unlike Matisse, Jawlensky was interested in the expressive strength of colour more than its decorative qualities. In freeing colour from its traditionally descriptive role, Jawlensky allows this element to become a channel for personal expression, enabling him to reveal new dimensions of emotional and spiritual depth in his painting.
As with Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, the pursuit of the spiritual became a defining theme in Jawlensky’s painting, and would consume much of his artistic output across his career. Jawlensky was one of a number of artists living and working in Munich, who believed in the capacity of art to convey a spiritual message - Kandinsky, Marc, August Macke, and Gabriele Münter, all spoke with missionary zeal regarding their aims to render visible a sense of the spiritual truths of the universe in their art, which they believed could counteract the corruption and materialism of the age. It was this central concern which tied these artists together in such associations as the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (NKVM) and Der Blaue Reiter, and which set them apart from their contemporaries in Cubism, Futurism and Die Brücke. Each individual pursued these concerns in divergent ways, proposing highly personal routes through which to explore the question of spirituality in a twentieth-century context. Jawlensky looked to the art of his homeland, to the traditions of religious icon painting and folk art in Russia, as a pathway to personal reflection on the mysteries of the universe. From the frontally posed female figure at the heart of Mädchen, to the elongated almond-shaped eyes that dominate her visage, the painting echoes images of the Madonna from the Russian Orthodox Church, whilst still maintaining a sense of the figure’s modernity in her style of dress and appearance.
Jawlensky was particularly interested in the human face as a medium for the experience of transcendence, and the ways in which prolonged contemplation of the face could elicit a spiritual experience. As a result, portraits such as Mädchen focus very strongly on the subject’s head and facial features, with the sitter’s physiognomy dominating the composition. The artist’s memoirs would recall the summer of 1912 being spent in Oberstdorf where he would portray a new model, Katharina Konstantinowka, to whom Jawlensky was introduced by the Russian composer and fellow NKVM member Thomas Alexandrowitsch von Hartmann. While Konstantinowka’s dark features and hair style would certainly support this ascription, having been photographed with Jawlensky a year later, the artist has deliberately reduced traces of his sitter’s individuality in Mädchen, expunging the idiosyncrasies of her appearance in pursuit of a more generalised character. The model’s heavily stylised and geometric facial features appear mask-like, which depersonalises the figure and conceals her identity. This ensures that the viewer does not become distracted by the personality of the sitter, allowing Jawlensky to use this figure as a vehicle for his own experimentations with expressing an inner, subjective vision of the world. As Kandinsky explained in the foreword to the catalogue of the first exhibition staged by the NKVM, ‘We take as our starting point the notion that an artist is constantly collecting experiences in an inner world, apart from the impressions that he receives from the outside world of nature; and that the search for artistic forms by which to lend expression to all these interacting and mutually permeating experiences...appears to us to be a solution that currently unites an increasing number of artists intellectually and spiritually’ (Kandinsky, quoted in H. Friedel & A. Hoberg, The Blue Rider in the Lenbachhaus, Munich, Munich, London & New York, 2000, pp. 33-4). Jawlensky’s search for such an artistic form is evident in the present work, as he experiments with the concept of abstracting the general from the individual, rendering the female at the heart of Mädchen as an archetypal character rather than an identifiable person. As a result, Jawlensky frees himself from the need to slavishly reproduce an accurate representation of her appearance, creating a blank canvas upon which he can project his own personal view of the world.