Painted in 1909, Blaue Schürze emerged during one of the most intensively creative and boldly experimental periods of Alexej von Jawlensky’s artistic career, as he reached a high point in his endeavours to translate his visions of the external world through a unique, inner subjective spirit. Jawlensky had made a crucial breakthrough in his painting the previous summer, while sojourning in the small, sleepy Bavarian market town of Murnau alongside his close friends Wassily Kandinsky, Marianne von Werefkin and Gabrielle Münter. Here, the four artists spent their days working in a communal manner, painting en plein air so as to fully immerse themselves in the dramatic Alpine landscapes that surrounded the town, often rendering the same view from slightly different angles and experimenting with one another’s techniques. Their excursions were underpinned by stimulating theoretical discussions into the nature of painting, in which they exchanged ideas regarding not only the technical aspects of their art, but also the spiritual power of their subject matter. In this highly creative atmosphere, Jawlensky took the lead in guiding the group’s artistic evolution, sharing his extensive knowledge of the French avant-garde with his comrades, and influencing them with his own ground-breaking views on the expressive potential of colour.
For Jawlensky, French art had been an important influence on his painting for a number of years – he had experienced an epiphany during a pivotal visit to Paris in the autumn of 1905, where he first encountered the vibrantly pigmented canvases and expressive brushwork of Henri Matisse and the Fauves. Jawlensky had travelled to the city from his home in Munich to exhibit several paintings in the Russian section of the Salon d’Automne, and was immediately struck by the highly experimental works on view in the notorious Salle VII. The paintings of Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck and their fellow Fauves opened Jawlensky’s eyes to a form of art which was no longer tied to the visible world, in which colour could become a powerful force for personal expression. As he explained, it was during this trip that he came to understand ‘how to translate nature into colour according to the fire in my soul…’ (Jawlensky, ‘Memoir dictated to Lisa Kümmel, Wiesbaden, 1937,’ reproduced in M. Jawlensky, L. Pieroni-Jawlensky, & A. Jawlensky, Alexej von Jawlensky: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, vol. I, 1890 - 1914, p. 30). It was this aspect of Jawlensky’s teachings which had such a lasting impact on his compatriots in Murnau, encouraging Kandinsky and Münter to liberate themselves from the constraints of the perceptible world, and reach for a form of artistic expression that could render visible a sense of the spiritual truths of the universe.
In freeing colour from its traditionally descriptive role, Jawlensky allowed this element of his painting to become a channel for personal expression, a development which enabled him to reach new dimensions of emotional and spiritual depth in his art. In Blaue Schürze, this is enhanced by the manner in which Jawlensky anonymises the sitter, rendering her features with a geometric simplification that conceals the idiosyncrasies of her appearance, giving her a more generalised figure. 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 experimentation alone. A further visit to Paris in 1907 allowed Jawlensky to spend time with Matisse in his studio, an experience that further contributed to the development of a highly personal approach to colour in his oeuvre. In Blaue Schürze, Jawlensky’s use of delicate green shadows and touches of pink to highlight the sitter’s complexion, appears to directly echo the colouristic vocabulary of Matisse’s Portrait de Madame Matisse and the personality of the sitter, allowing Jawlensky to use this figure as a vehicle for experimentation alone. A further visit to Paris in 1907 allowed Jawlensky to spend time with Matisse in his studio, an experience that further contributed to the development of a highly personal approach to colour in his oeuvre. In Blaue Schürze, Jawlensky’s use of delicate green shadows and touches of pink to highlight the sitter’s complexion, appears to directly echo the colouristic vocabulary of Matisse’s Portrait de Madame Matisse and Femme au Chapeau, which incorporated bold swathes of complementary colours to contour the sitter’s face.
The wild, bold colours which dance across the entire surface of Blaue Schürze are contained by the strong dark contours which delineate the figure, a feature which had begun to emerge in Jawlensky’s style following his journey to France in 1907. At this time, the artist was also looking to the art of Paul Gauguin, Paul Sérusier and the School of Pont Aven for inspiration alongside the Fauves, and soon began to incorporate their extreme simplification of form and cloisonné technique of contouring in his work. In Blaue Schürze, this influence is evident in the manner in which the young woman’s form is distilled down to a series of flat coloured planes, bound by thick black outlines that boldly demarcate her form. These lines correspond directly to the preliminary drawing which underpins the portrait, the strong, sinuous lines of blue reinforced by a darker black paint in places where the vibrant strokes of green, blue, yellow or red threaten to overwhelm their mark. A second portrait visible on the reverse of the board illustrates the inherent spontaneity of these under-drawings, with each line re-worked several times over to achieve the correct structure, angle or form. There is a fluidity to the long brushstrokes as they dance sinuously across the board, with each slight amendment in the contour capturing an impression of the speed and skill with which the artist has recorded the sitter’s likeness. Indeed, the entire composition is imbued with the confidence of Jawlensky’s technique, the powerful and quick paint application capturing a startling likeness and inherent elegance with the briefest of marks.
Inspired by the sense of community that underpinned their collective working practices at Murnau, Jawlensky, Kandinsky, Werefkin and Münter began to search for a means of exhibiting as a group in the months following their summer sojourn in the Bavarian Alps. Together, the quartet formed the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (NKVM) in January 1909, alongside Adolf Erbslöh, Oscar Wittenstein, Alexander Kanoldt, Alfred Kubin, Karl Hofer, and a number of other visionary artists based in Munich at the time. The association’s founding circular, drawn up in the Spring of that year, boldly announced the collective aims of the group: ‘Esteemed reader! Allow us to draw your attention to an alliance of artists founded in January 1909 which hopes, by exhibiting serious works of art, to contribute to the best of their ability to the promotion of artistic culture. 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... in short, the quest for artistic synthesis, appears to us to be a solution that currently unites an increasing number of artists intellectually and spiritually. By founding this association, we hope to lend material form to this meeting of minds, and to create the opportunity of addressing the public with united energy’ (Kandinsky, quoted in H. Friedel & A. Hoberg, The Blue Rider in the Lenbachhaus, Munich, Munich, London & New York, 2000, pp. 33-4).
When the first NKVM exhibition opened in December 1909 at the galleries of Heinrich Thannhauser, featuring works by each of the organisation’s founding members, it was met by scathing reviews in the local press. Kandinsky and Jawlensky were both derided for their ‘orgies of colour,’ while Münter suffered mockery for the deliberate simplicity of her compositions. Kandinsky, writing about the event in his memoirs two decades later, recalled the shock the exhibitors felt at the criticism and vitriol they received from the press and general public alike. ‘We were already standing with both feet in the realms of awakened art,’ he explained, ‘and were living in that spirit with body and soul. We were rather surprised that in Munich, the “city of art”, no one but [Hugo von] Tschudi had a good word to say about us’ (Kandinsky, quoted in ibid, p. 37). Unbowed by the criticism, the organisation boldly forged ahead with their activities, sending the inaugural exhibition on an extensive tour throughout Germany, cultivating relationships with other European avant-garde artists, and launching the second NKVM exhibition in September 1914.
Unlike the first event, the second NKVM exhibition was expanded to feature a number of guest artists, including Georges Braque, André Derain, Kees van Dongen, Pablo Picasso and Maurice de Vlaminck, as well as the brothers David and Vladimir Burlyuk, Wassily Denisov and Eugen von Kahler, making it one of the most extensive showings of the various strands of modern art active in Europe during the opening decade of the 20th century up to this point. It was among the works of such renowned artists that Jawlensky chose to exhibit Blaue Schürze, selecting it from amongst his recently completed paintings to represent his unique painterly style at the exhibition. In comparison to the paintings he chose to feature in the first NKVM exhibition, Jawlensky’s selection of works for the second show represented the full breadth of his development over the preceding five years, with each work charting the various leaps he had made throughout this pivotal period. Although the 1910 exhibition was again a target for narrow minded critics, it drew an important supporter into the NKVM fold – Franz Marc, who wrote a stirring letter to Thannhauser in defence and praise of the show, complementing those involved for their ‘extremely valuable examples of spatial structure, rhythm and colour theory, as well as a highly spiritualised significance’ in their work (Marc, quoted in ibid, p. 40). It was this letter which brought Marc to the attention of Kandinsky, planting the seeds not only for the stimulating and fruitful friendship that would come to exist between the two artists, but also the foundation of the Blaue Reiter movement.
Not seen at public exhibition since the 1920s, Blaue Schürze was acquired directly from the artist by the collector Paul Bachrach, father of celebrated modern dancer and choreographer Charlotte Bara, who had previously studied under Jawlensky’s close friend Alexander Sakharoff. The artist had first met Bara in Zurich in 1917, and following the Jawlensky family’s move to Ascona a year later, her family became important members of the close circle of friends which surrounded the artists in this Swiss haven. A specialist in Medieval and Renaissance dances inspired by the Christian faith, Bara must have felt a deep affinity to the highly spiritual nature of Jawlensky’s art, and her family purchased several paintings from the artist during their acquaintance. Blaue Schürze subsequently entered the collection of Madame Daisy Thorel (née Matossian), and it has remained with her family for the past sixty years.