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 Alexei von Jawlensky  (1864 - 1941)

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Lived/Active: Russian Federation      Known for: mod painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Alexei Jawlensky was born in 1864, the son of a Russian Imperial Army colonel; he was sent to military school and commissioned as a lieutenant, but his mind was never far from art.  In 1896, after studying at the Imperial Art Academy in St. Petersburg, he resigned his commission and set off to study art in Munich with fellow artist Marianne von Werefkin.  So began a peripatetic existence in Germany, France, Russia, Italy and Switzerland that ended in 1922 when he finally settled in Wiesbaden, Germany.

He met Kandinsky and was greatly influenced by his use of color as form.  Jawlensky became affiliated with the German Expressionists.  He traveled in Germany and France before World War II.  He soaked up the work of the Post-Impressionists and the Fauves, as well as early Picasso and Matisse.  He was an important part of an international circle of modernists who collectively changed the face of art in the early 20th century.   

In 1921, Jawlensky joined with Feininger, Kandinsky and Klee to become the Blue Four. They formed a movement even though their work was very divergent. Jawlensky had moved back to Germany and settled in Wiesbaden.  He struggled with arthritis and the hostile political environment.  He continued to paint until the late 1930s, but his work grew increasingly dark and morose.  He died in 1941. 

Written and compiled by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.

Sources include:   
Suzanne Muchnic in LA Times, August 8, 1990 and on Sunday, November 13, 1994   
Calendar section of the LA Times, June 30, 2002.


Biography from Jeffrey Morseburg:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Alexei von Jawlensky was a Russian-born Expressionist painter who forged his career in Germany in the years leading up to the Great War (1914-1918).   His work was colorful, masculine and expressive.  Jawlensky used bold strokes of unbroken color to paint the portraits – only heads really – and the still lives that make up the largest part of his artistic oeuvre.  His work shows the clear influence of the early modernists he was influenced by - Henri Mattise, Paul Cezanne and Vassily Kadinsky - but it is instantly recognizable as his own.  Today, Jawlensky is one of the most sought-after painters from the Expressionist era and the values of his work can approach twenty million dollars.

Alexei von Jawlensky was born into a noble Russian family on March 13, 1864 (old Orthodox calendar).   He was born and grew up on the family estate in central Russia near the town of Torzhok, which is on the route from Moscow to St. Petersburg.  This beautiful little city on the banks of the Tversta River was known for its gold embroidery and has long been the location of Russian military garrisons.   Like many noble families, the Jawlenskys had a tradition of military service and despite young Alexey’s artistic preoccupation he entered the military academy in Moscow at the age of eighteen.  When he obtained a posting to St. Petersburg he was able to enter the atelier of Illya Repin, perhaps the foremost realist painter in Russia at the time and one of the leaders of the group known as “The Itinerants.” Under Repin he was instructed in the time-honored ideals and techniques of western European painting and became adept at figurative and still life work.  However, von Jawlensky was not destined to be a traditional painter. When he met the artist Marianna von Werefkin (1860-1938), another student from a noble family and the daughter of a general, he found another young artist who was curious about the new modern movements that were beginning to sweep Europe.  Marianna von Werefkin played a vital role in encouraging von Jawlensky to devote himself to his art and in 1896 he resigned his captaincy and left the Imperial service.

Together with Werefkin and her servant Helen Nesnakomoff and a pair of other young Russian painters, von Jawlensky struck out for Munich, then one of Europe’s major artistic capitals and the site of a great deal of artistic ferment. They studied in the studio of Anton Azbe (1862-1905) a Slovene painter who was a popular teacher with painters from the Slavic nations.  He met and studied with Wassily Kadinsky (1866-1944) in Munich and the work of the other Russian painter and his intellectual theories had a profound effect on Jawlensky and Werefkin, who had given up painting for a time in order to support and promote Jawlensky’s art.  At this time, Kandinsky was moving away from the realism of the time and experimenting with more expressive works.   The artists who studied with Kadinsky and gathered in Jawlensky’s studio pushed each other to take their art in new and more expressive directions.

Jawlensky and Werefkin traveled extensively in France, soaking up the influences of Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse.  He also met symbolist painters Paul Serusier and Jan Verkade and the bold Fauve painter Kees van Dongen.   In 1907, Jawlensky spent a period working in Matisse’s studio and the French painter’s bold and fearless use of color strongly influenced the direction of Jawlensky’s art.   Back in Munich, Kadinsky and acolytes began painting conventional scenes, but with the intense color of Russian folk art and with looser, more expressive brush work.   Jawlensky met Paul Klee and Franz Marc and along with Kadinsky, these young progenitors of the avant-garde formed the Neue Kunstler Vereinigung Munchen or New Artists Association Munich.  The Kadinsky circle was full of intellectual ferment, discussing religion, metaphysics, philosophy, music and art.  Like many painters of the day, Kadinsky was highly influenced by the operas of Wagner who he felt was pushing music past the limits of lyricism and melody as he sought to push art past its old traditions.   He was also an ardent exponent of Theosophy – which held that there was an evolutionary synergy of all religions - and he spread interest in his spiritual explorations to his circle of painters.

In 1911 Jawlensky, Kadinsky, Werefkin, Marc, founded a new group known as Der Blaue Reiter (or the Blue Rider) along with Auguste Macke, Albert Bloch and Lyonel Feininger.  The formation of this new artistic movement was in reaction to the rejection of one of Kadinsky’s paintings The Last Judgement from an exhibition.  The name of the group is thought to come from the title of a famous Kadinsky work of the same name from 1903.  According to Kadinsky’s artistic philosophy, the color blue expressed spirituality.  The artists in the group had a variety of artistic approaches but they all felt their art had to express greater spiritual truths.  As music was becoming more dissonant, less tethered to melody and harmony, the artists of Der Blaue Reiter felt art needed to become more expressive, spontaneous and that each painter needed to take his own intuitive approach.  They were highly influenced by folk and primitive art because they thought formal training had drained art of its essence.  Art should not focus on the representational but on the artist’s inner feelings.   Kadinsky and some of the artists of the movement moved toward abstraction, while Jawlensky painted recognizable forms but in an expressive manner and with an intense, clashing palette.  The Blaue Reiter organized circulating exhibitions and published an almanac.  It fell apart with the advent of the terrible conflagration of the Great War in 1914.  August Macke and Franz Marc were killed in combat with the German Army, Kadinsky, Werefkin and Jawlensky had to leave Germany because Russia was allied against Germany.  After the war, the remnants of the group – Kadinsky, Feininger, Jawlensky and Klee – formed Die Blaue Vier, the Blue Four and exhibited in the United States in 1924, including an exhibition in Los Angeles.

Jeffrey Morseburg
copyright 2008

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