Los Angeles

Jawlensky and the Serial Image

Art Gallery, University Of California At Irvine

Though most of these paintings were seen as recently as 1964 (in the Pasadena Art Museum’s Jawlensky Centennial exhibition, in the installation of which, by the way, the thesis of the current show was implied) two of Jawlensky’s grandest masterpieces Blossoming Girl and Blonde (both 1911) are re-viewed with the greatest of pleasure. Painted at the apex of his bitter and heavily personal Fauve style, they are constructed of unformalized, knitted, and intensely contrasting color patches and isolating dark lines. Barely restrained power emanates from this pair of completely particularized amazonian clownesses. They are brazen icons of sensual reproach.

The burden of proof for this display’s basic premise is amply demonstrated by samples of three sets of serially developed images: the landscape “Variations” (examples from 1914 to 1919), the Constructivist Heads (1921–1928), and the final Meditation Heads (1936–37). Jawlensky is presented as the first to raise the critical issue of “art as manipulative production without climactic development.” Setting the conditions, Monet is seen as having captured one effect at a time, each as an individual statement, and Mondrian begins with a theme and continuously subdivides to the smallest module unit. But the “Variations” are viewed as the true precursors of such series as those created by Albers, Noland, and Warhol.

The outbreak of World War I forced Jawlensky to find refuge in Switzerland and his emotional state caused a radically profound crisis in his art, confirmed by his quest for “a more spiritual language.” The two hundred odd “inventions”—abstractions from a window view—may more obviously represent a sustaining, assertive activity, a metronome-like marking of time through a period of great personal stress. The color of the landscape is tinted and toned in shapes which echo the oval formations of the previous heads. They are directly painted and balanced area to area. The dark leading-like line is absent but summed up in a tall black tree form, always repeated and dominating the left side like a guarding sentinel. It is about this awkward controlling factor that sad and palely lyric pastels are juggled and manipulated through an open-ended sequence of mutations. Attention may be directed to Jawlensky’s preference for linen-finished board or paper, more easily transported, but also integrally related to his concentration upon a processed uniform size of format, his lack of interest in “the masterpiece,” and the grouping of his last works into portfolio form.

Melancholic and bittersweet tendencies are turned inward upon his return to familiar yet unstable post-war Germany. Contacts established with the Bauhaus group influenced the development of highly ritualized, stylized, symbolic, and geometric “Constructivist Heads.” Highly structured mask-like configurations equal, in different terms, the intensity of his work of two decades previous. His paint application here is tidy and at its tenderest, a velvety impasto subtly depicting a Cubist space of graphic marks, flat fuzzy-edged color, and spatial transition on blended receding planes. Again color, line and form are welded into individualized though similar visages. Several, Life and DeathInner Vision, and Moonlight imply a growing religious element by recalling certain visionary, early Renaissance iconography in which the Crucifix is surmounted on either side by the crescent moon and a flaming sun.

The final resonant affirmation occurs in the Meditations (the brush controlled only by both hands) in a single-minded devotion to duty and a search for deeper, more mysterious levels of religious experience. A career which began as a celebration of earthly indulgence ended in the offering of glowing ex-votos.

Fidel A. Danieli