Even the individualist Paul Klee would never have become the outstanding painter that we know today without his artist friends. In this respect his friendship with Alexej von Jawlensky was particularly significant.
The two painters met in 1912 in the milieu of the Blaue Reiter in Munich, and each held the other’s work in high esteem. Klee swapped more paintings with Jawlensky than with any other artist. Although the two artists only met again once after 1925, they went on giving each other paintings, and expressed an interest in each other’s fortunes in their correspondence.
This will be the first exhibition to show the many top-class works by Alexej von Jawlensky held in the collection of the Zentrum Paul Klee. Some of these are works from Paul Klee’s estate, donated by Livia Klee to the ZPK, and others are valuable permanent loans from private collections to enrich our Klee holdings.
Jawlensky and Klee’s early work is shaped as much by their artistic education in the latter years of the 19th century as it is by their determination as artists to overcome overly schematic approaches. Thus the portrait and representations of people are classical genres that occupy an important place in the early work of both artists. Friends and family members often sat as models for them. This, along with their shared desire for self-expression contributed to the individual character of the portrait studies. For Jawlensky, the representation of people, and particularly the human face, remained a dominant pictorial theme throughout his career, while in Klee’s work it remained one motif among many.
Self-portraits are means of artistic self-representation and self-reflection. While Jawlensky, who was already highly successful in the 1910s, radiates a confident presence in his 1912 self-portrait, Klee’s self-portraits from those years have a reticent detachment. In some self-portraits Klee stylises himself into an unworldly, introverted artist, who generates his pictorial worlds entirely out of his inner world. In doing this, he is quite deliberately referring to his image as constructed by the press and in his own written testimony.
Picture-swapping – a sign of friendship
Between 1914 and 1935, as a sign of their mutual esteem and friendship, the two artists gave each other 30 works (15 paintings by Klee, 15 by Jawlensky). This exchange, in which Jawlensky’s partner, the artist Marianne von Werefkin, was sometimes involved, began even before the outbreak of the First World War. For Klee, these paintings were “the most valuable and most personal presents” of all.
Still life – seen anew
Both Jawlensky and Klee took an interest in traditional painting genres such as the still life, which fired their love of pictorial experiment. Taking the Impressionists and the Dachau painting school as influences, both artists sought to “enliven” their pictorial subjects through the use of glowing colours, the choice of unusual angles and perspectives and the dynamic depiction of outlines and volumes. Both artists’ painterly engagement with the still life fades into the background after 1914. But even after that, Jawlensky painted floral still lifes, which look like a break from his almost exclusive preoccupation with the human face. Klee too worked in the genre in his late period, although usually with an ironic twist.
In the area of landscape painting, a profound artistic change can be seen to take place in the work of both artists over a period of about ten years. At first their painting in this genre was also shaped by 19th-century models. Jawlensky moved entirely towards abstraction in his Swiss exile in St. Prex and Ascona with the so-called “Variations” from 1915 and 1916. Under the influence of Robert Delaunay’s colour field painting Klee found abstract pictorial solutions which he often introduced into imaginary landscapes.
Architecture and space
The depiction of architecture and space was a central aspect of Paul Klee’s work, both literally and figuratively. In Jawlensky’s work the subject appears only in its most abstract sense, in terms of the painting’s colour structure. As a result, depictions of architecture in his works are limited to individual city views, while Klee investigated the spatial dimension of real and virtual spaces, above all while teaching at the Bauhaus.
Mystical heads – Meditations
The depiction of the human face became the supreme artistic task for Jawlensky, and one to which he devoted himself almost exclusively from 1916 onwards. The first works in his series of “Mystical Heads” as well as the “Head of Christ” were produced in 1917. These are characterised by the reduction of the representation to simple marks for eyes, nose and mouth as well as the outlines of head and neck. Out of these, from 1926 onwards, he developed the motif of the “Abstract Heads”, always portrayed frontally, with a heraldic U-shape and closed eyes. Suffering from arthritis that left him increasingly paralysed, from 1934 he often lost all the strength in his hands. As a result he was forced to rely on his left hand when painting. It was under these conditions that from 1937 onwards he produced the group of “Meditations” whose spiritual presence is reminiscent of Byzantine icon painting.
Play of faces
Klee’s interested in the human face was focused upon the diverse characteristics of human features. In order to convey this he drew on a vast range of formal possibilities and, his approach towards his imaginary faces, generally intended as ironic, is playful and associative. By contrast, Jawlensky’s heads were based on a selection of severely reduced formal styles enriched by a diverse palette.