THE TRIUMPH OF COLOR: IMPORTANT WORKS FROM A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Alexej von Jawlensky
Painted circa 1912, Blaue Kappe is a highly expressive example of Jawlensky’s early portraiture, a genre that was to occupy a central position in his oeuvre. Jawlensky returned to the subject of the human face throughout his career, rendering it in various degrees of abstraction. The present work belongs to an important series of heads and busts created in the years leading up to the First World War, which reflect his fundamental debt to Fauve art, while showing fully developed features of Jawlensky’s unique Expressionist style.
Looking back at the pre-war years, the artist himself identified this phase in his career as crucial: "I painted my finest… figure paintings in powerful, glowing colors and 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… It was a turning point in my art" (quoted in M. Jawlensky, L. Pieroni-Jawlensky & A. Jawlensky, op. cit., p. 31). This range of bright, vivid colors is present in Blaue Kappe: the strong palette used for the woman’s blouse and hat and the almost shocking pink tonality of her skin are further amplified by the bright red background and a deep blue-green tonality of what appears to be an armchair she is seated on. In a composition dominated by broad, free brushstrokes the woman’s facial features—elegantly contoured in black—stand out, emphasizing the beauty of her lips and her large almond-shaped eyes.
Created during the most innovative period of his career, Blaue Kappe is a distillation of the varied stylistic concerns that preoccupied Jawlensky and the avant-garde during the early part of the twentieth century. In 1912 Jawlensky was living in Munich and working closely with the fellow Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, with whom he had founded Der Blaue Reiter the previous year. Like Kandinsky, Jawlensky greatly admired both Russian and Bavarian folk art and customs, reflected in the clothing and headdress that the sitter in the present portrait is wearing. Furthermore, he was also influenced by the mannerism of Russian Orthodox icons which he encountered in his youth. The artist commented on this influence and remarked: "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 C. Weiler, Jawlensky: Heads, Faces, Meditations, London, 1971, p. 11).
In both its choice of theme and style of execution, the present work draws on a rich tradition of modernist painting, including the art of, among others, Van Gogh, Matisse and van Dongen. The short, thick brush strokes and the juxtaposition of brighter and cooler tones reflect the influence of van Gogh and Cézanne. In 1905 Jawlensky’s works were exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in Paris alongside those of the Fauve artists, who were to play the most important role in the development of Jawlensky’s style in the following years. His abandonment of representational function of color in favor of a more spontaneous, expressive one is strongly reminiscent of Matisse’s portraits at the height of his Fauve period.
Volker Rattemeyer wrote about the influences of Fauve artists visible in Jawlensky’s portraits executed around this time: "The manner in which the vivid colors and blue/black contours begin to focus on specific features—eyes, nose and mouth—seems to have been inspired by van Dongen. In contrast to the overt sensuality of van Dongen’s female portraits, Jawlensky’s are dominated by an introspective seriousness" (V. Rattemeyer, Alexej von Jawlensky (exhibition catalogue), Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1994, p. 77). Not only are van Dongen’s models often depicted nude or semi-nude, but are also frequently adorned with elegant, elaborate hats that emphasize their seductive character, as in his Femme au grand chapeau from 1906. While they offer a colorful treatment of their sitters’ facial feature, Jawlensky’s figure appears more demure, and her clothing suggests a local flavor rather than a lady from high society or a cabaret performer.
Another important influence on Jawlensky’s form of abstraction was the multi-dimensional approach of the Cubists, whose fragmented and highly abstracted compositions he had seen in Paris. As Clemens Weiler has noted: "Cubism, with which he became acquainted in 1910, supplied Jawlensky with the means of simplifying, condensing and stylizing the facial form even further, and this simplified and reduced shape he counterbalanced by means of even more intense and brilliant colouring. This enabled him to give these comparatively small heads a monumentality and expressive power that were quite independent of their actual size" (C. Weiler, op. cit., p. 14).
During the period in which Blaue Kappe was painted, Jawlensky was able to distill all these disparate sources of inspiration into a highly original style for which he is now best known. "During the years around 1912, Jawlensky devoted himself increasingly to the treatment of a single theme, that of the female face…. Conventional portraiture is abandoned in favor of what are in essence representations of a type…. Like so many Expressionist artists, he was not interested in capturing a precise physical likeness…. Rather, his paintings draw attention to the abstract, expressive character of the face, the representation of which is raised to a level of the utmost stylization" (P. Vergo, The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Twentieth-Century German Painting, London, 1992, pp. 148-51). In Blaue Kappe this stylization results in a portrait that is wonderfully vibrant and bold, the epitome of Jawlensky’s most daring avant-garde work.
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