Georgewitsch von Jawlensky, better known as Alexej von Jawlensky, was born on 13 March 1864 in the town of Torzhok, Russia. He was the son of Georgi von Jawlensky and Alexandra Jawlensky, and their fifth child.
Torzhok was famed for its tradition of folk art goldwork embroidery. With a proud artistic history, the young Alexej von Jawlensky soaked up the town’s creative focus.
Early life and social introductions
The family moved to Moscow in 1874. Alexej was initially enrolled in the military academy – but his love of art soon took over. He visited the Moscow World Exposition in 1880 and was instantly enthralled.
Luckily, the family had friends in high places. Alexej’s parents were able to secure introductions in St Petersburg. This allowed the young man to study art at the St Petersburg academy. He did this at the same time as his military duties – excelling in both.
Whilst he was studying in St Petersburg, Jawlensky met Ilya Repin. Ilya Repin was one of the most famed Russian artists of the nineteenth century. His work was pivotal in the development of the Russian Realist style.
Alexej von Jawlensky was welcomed into Repin’s close artistic circle. It was here that he also met Marianne von Werefkin. Marianne was well known for her expressionism paintings. She was so impressed by Jawlensky’s work that she devoted her energies to promoting his art. Marianne von Werefkin also provided the young artist with living expenses and further social introductions.
Alexej von Jawlensky and Der Blaue Reiter paintings
In 1894, Jawlensky moved to Munich with Marianne von Werefkin. He completed further studies with Anton Ažbe. Ažbe was a well-respected realist painter who trained the biggest names in impressionism and expressionism. This included Wassily Kandinsky; famed for his Der Blaue Reiter paintings.
Alexej von Jawlensky was deeply impressed by Wassily Kandinsky and his circle. Alongside Kandinsky and Marianne von Werefkin (amongst others), he played a crucial role in forming De Blaue Reiter group (the Blue Rider).
Together, the artists enjoyed spending summers in the Bavarian Alps. Accompanied by Gabriele Münter, they painted landscapes depicting their beautiful environment. The artists discussed each other’s techniques and artistic goals, sharing knowledge and approaches.
Alexej von Jawlensky artworks from this period include the Yellow Sound paintings of 1907 and 1908 and The Mountain. From these early works, it is possible to see the foundations of the Der Blaue Reiter paintings.
Der Blaue Reiter group was short-lived (lasting from 1911 to 1914). It was incredibly influential, however. Der Blaue Reiter oil paintings and artworks focused on freedom of expression. Each artist strove to express spiritual truth in their work. Vivid colors and expressive brushwork were common features.
Alexej von Jawlensky particularly adopted the emotional use of color in his own artworks. He worked with loose brushstrokes, piercing figural representations and flat forms. This is best seen in the two stunning Alexej von Jawlensky self-portraits painted in 1912. (Alexej von Jawlensky self-portrait 1912 – 1 and Alexej von Jawlensky self-portrait 1912 – 2).
Alexej von Jawlensky artworks and the First World War
With the outbreak of the First World War, Jawlensky moved back to Russia. The war signaled the break-up of Der Blaue Reiter group. Franz Marc and Auguste Macke (two leading artists in the group) died in active military service. Other artists were spread all over Europe.
Jawlensky’s artworks developed considerably during the war years. He experimented with abstraction in works such as Variation When the Lark is Singing. Despite such experiments, Jawlensky returned to his love of depicting the human form. His expressionism paintings really took shape during this period.
Jawlensky met Galka Scheyer (the German-American painter, teacher and art dealer) in 1916 who also championed his work.
It was during this period that Jawlensky created two of his most famous series of works. These were Mystical Heads (1917-19) and Saviour’s Faces (1918-20). These works harked back to Alexej von Jawlensky’s upbringing in the town of Torzhok. They reflected the town’s folk-art rituals, specifically the traditional Russian Orthodox religious icons common in the area.
Alexej von Jawlensky artworks of the Mystical Heads series include Mystical Head Opal, Mystical Head in Blue and Mystical Head Dreaming Woman. The later Saviour’s Faces series includes masterpieces such as Saviours Face Resurrection or The New Life II and Saviours Face Head of Christ.
Alexej von Jawlensky’s return to Germany
After the First World War ended, Alexej von Jawlensky returned to Germany. He continued his tireless work on expressionism paintings and settled in the town of Wiesbaden (Hesse).
In 1922, Alexej von Jawlensky married Hélène Nesnakomoff and together they had a son, Andreas, who was born in 1902.
Alexej von Jawlensky often painted Hélène. These subtle artworks display his deep love for her. They include works such as Helene in Red Waistcoat, Helene in Colored Turban and Helene with Her Hair Down.
Staying in Germany, Alexej von Jawlensky played a crucial role in forming the Blue Four. This group was set up in 1924 and consisted of Jawlensky, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Lyonel Feininger. Galka Scheyer was instrumental in bringing the artists together and promoting their work across Germany and America.
Later life and fitting tributes
From 1929 onwards, Jawlensky struggled with arthritis and his health deteriorated over the years. He had to gradually scale back his creation of expressionism paintings and his artistic output sadly came to an end in 1937.
Alexej von Jawlensky started dictating his life’s memoirs the following year. He remained in Wiesbaden for the rest of his life and died on 15 March 1941.
In a fitting tribute to the artist’s life and works, the “Jawlensky Award” was set up in 1991. This prestigious award is granted to a contemporary artist once every five years. It’s supported by Wiesbaden, Hesse and is also accompanied by an exhibition at the Museum Wiesbaden.
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