Sometimes I am amazed at the abysmal lack of depth when it comes to recognizing American artists from the past. Asked to name some American artists, most people don't get far past Rockwell, Wyeth, Gilbert Stuart, Grandma Moses, maybe Jackson Pollock, and Thomas Kinkade. Now THERE'S a mixture. Not much depth but breadth as wide as the whole continent. Actually, I think maybe we Americans are more familiar with artists of WORLD renown than those from our own shores. From that list we might rattle off Picasso, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt, Turner, Van Gogh, Monet--the list is longer but still not much depth. Okay, how about Russian artists? Blank stares. Marc Chagall? Okay, if you say so...
Well, if you'd like a similar list of breadth rather than depth, you might add to Chagall, Kandinsky, Gorky, Malevich, and Jawlensky. This is about the one you never heard of, the last one, Alexei Jawlensky (pronounced yaw-LEN-skee, not nearly as hard to say as it looks). He was from roughly the same time period as the others. He was born in 1864, died in 1941, and it's a fair bet they all knew one another. Jawlensky was the son of a Russian army officer. He first exhibited an interest in art in 1880 when he visited an international art exhibition in Moscow and saw for the first time the work of the French Impressionists. He was sixteen at the time. Kandinsky and others recall seeing the same show and the profound effect it had upon them. This breath of French fresh air (and color) really shook up Russian art.
At the age of twenty-five, Jawlensky began studying at the St. Petersburg Academy under the realist painter, Ilja Rjepin (now THERE'S a name you can forget about pronouncing). One of Rjepin's students was the wealthy Marianne von Werefkin whom Jawlensky fell in love with. Rather than Realism though, his painting style veered toward French Symbolism (what we call Post-Impressionism) and German romanticism. In 1896 Jawlensky and Werefkin, along with her housemaid, Helene Nesnakomoff, moved to a suburb of Munich where Jawlensky flirted with German Expressionism, French Fauvism, and behind Werefkin's back, her housemaid, Helene. And while Werefkin gave up her own painting career to promote Jawlensky's, he repaid her dedication by fathering a son, with Helene. And though this Menage-a-trois must have been a strain after the birth of Andreas, the four of them continued living together for another nineteen years before he finally married the boy's mother.
Jawlensky was associated with any number of Expressionist movements of the time, including Der Blaue Reiter, and the Berlin Secession, but he never actually joined any of them, preferring, some might say, to be a movement unto himself. He must have had quite a way with women, for by 1916, even before marrying Helene, another mistress, Emmy Scheyer, also gave up a career in art to support his. In fact, by 1927, he had a whole association of female artists who formed a foundation called "The Association of Friends of the Art of Alexei von Jawlensky" led by Lisa Kummel and the painter/art patroness, Hanna Becker von Rath. Despite his popularity, it didn't keep the Nazi's from banning the display of his increasingly abstract work in 1933, nor from including three of his paintings in the infamous traveling exhibition of "Degenerate Art" which they organized. Eventually seventy-two of his paintings were confiscated and destroyed by the German government before the war.
Though he painted landscapes and still-lifes, Jawlensky's great love (besides his various female admirers) was portraiture. His greatest works (many not seen until after the war), his very modernistic, highly simplified "Abstract Heads" and the "Meditations" series, were to have a profound influence on any number of postwar artists who never even knew him, just as they had on his student, the young Franz Marc. The last three years of his life were spent in intense arthritic pain which prevented him from painting. But it didn't prevent his work, and that of those who blindly supported him, from making a dramatic impact on Western European art; and later the American New York School where Chagall, Gorky, and Kandinsky managed to migrate, taking his images with them.