24 Mar 2020

The story of the lifelong friendship between collector Karl Im Obersteg and Alexej von Jawlensky is just one of the stories that is told in the catalogue to the exhibition "Picasso, Chagall, Jawlensky".

Ascona shortly after World War I: Nearby Monte Verità, on which reformists had already experimented with alternative forms of art and living around the turn of the century, had become a powerful magnet for an intellectual and artistic avant-garde. Art-loving members of the bourgeoisie like Karl Im Obersteg were also drawn to this artists’ haven. In 1919, Im Obersteg spent time in Ascona to regain his strength after a bout of Spanish flu, and it was here that he met Russian artists from Munich in exile. It was to be the start of a life-long friendship with Alexej von Jawlensky, Marianne von Werefkin, Robert Genin, and the dancer couple Alexander and Clotilde Sakharoff-von Derp.

The outbreak of the First World War had drastically changed the life of Alexei von Jawlensky. Practically overnight he had to leave Munich, where he had spent the last 18 years. Russian citizens were henceforth considered enemy foreigners in Germany and were regarded as potential spies. As a former Russian officer, Jawlensky in particular had to fear being deported to Russia. He first went to Zurich and then moved to the south, to Ascona in April 1918. There Cuno Amiet, who had known Jawlensky since 1909, is said to have brought the Im Obersteg couple together with the Russian avant-garde artist. Not only did a lifelong friendship develop, but Karl Im Obersteg also assumed an important patronage function.

Alexej von Jawlensky's "Abstract Head: Mysterium"

Alexej von Jawlensky began working on his series of Abstract Heads from 1918 onwards and created around 300 works in this group. In them the artist moved further and further away from the model of nature and rendered the individual facial features in a precise geometric vocabulary. The face thus appears stylized as a mask. The head forms a U-shape, into which mouth, nose, eyebrows and hair are inscribed as horizontal, vertical and slightly slanted lines and bars, as well as circular segments. A horizontal line in the area of the cheek continues outside of the U-shape and connects the face to the horizon, which suggests an expanse.

Jawlensky created a basic formula for the face, which he did not repeat rigorously but varied as subtly as he did the colors, which make up different geometric fields in each piece. Despite advancing the geometric partitioning to such a great extent the artist was not actually interested in pure abstraction. Rather, he was searching for an artistic form that would lend expression to his longing for God. And so in Abstract Head: Mysterium, as in many works of the series, the eyes are closed and the gaze is turned inward. In this way the heads give the impression of being deep in mediation. They have often been interpreted as modern images of Christ or the saints and have been connected to the tradition of Russian icon painting.

In 1934, Jawlensky participated in the exhibition Neue deutsche Malerei held at Kunsthaus Zürich, where Karl Im Obersteg acquired the piece together with Abstract Head: Gold and Pink (1931). After the end of the exhibition Jawlensky asked the collector for permission to store the rest of the paintings with him in Switzerland until a further opportunity for presenting them arose, as he was no longer able to show in Germany under the Nazis.

Suggested reading: This and other stories about Karl Im Obersteg as well as numerous detailed picture descriptions can be found in the catalogue of the exhibition "Picasso, Chagall, Jawlensky", available in our Online Shop.