Life

Sunday 15 September 2019

What lies beneath: Portrait of Alexander Sakharoff by Alexej von Jawlensky

Portrait of Alexander Sakharoff by Alexej von Jawlensky

Oil on canvas Lenbachhaus, Munich

Portrait of Alexander Sakharoff by Alexej von Jawlensky
Portrait of Alexander Sakharoff by Alexej von Jawlensky

Niall MacMonagle

Alexej von Jawlensky, born near Torzhok, Russia, in 1864, was destined for army life but when his family moved to Moscow, where Alexej attended cadet school, he discovered Moscow's art galleries and, though he rose to the rank of lieutenant, he studied art in St Petersburg from 1889 to 1896 and moved to Munich.

Arty, not army, types became his world; the paintbrush replaced the gun. In Europe, he travelled widely and his meeting with other artists, their subject matter and techniques, meant von Jawlensky's earlier conventional style became more expressive.

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Line and colour became more and more important, as seen in this portrait of Ukrainian dancer and choreographer Alexander Sakharoff, painted in 1909, when von Jawlensky was 45 and Sakharoff was 23.

Sakharoff's androgynous, head-turning appearance, the hats, shoes, outfits, wigs of gold and silver meant artists were interested in painting his portrait.

Against a rough, brush-stroked, mild green background flecked with gold-brown, the tilted figure in bold red gazes at us. The black hair, the black-outlined eyes, the black gloves, those smiling lips, that eyes up, head down look, a look that Princess Diana perfected, all seek our attention.

The pinned large rose only confirms that he is no shrinking violet. This image has featured on book covers, postcards, posters, wristwatches, on a Munich underground station, and it was in Munich that Alexander Sakharoff was the first man ever to dance solo. He caused a sensation.

Though he believed that sexual identity and marriage were a masquerade, Sakharoff married Clotilde von der Planitz, a German dancer, in 1919 and they became a successful double act. Sakharoff said they did not dance "with music or accompanied by music, we danced music... We made the music visual... Nothing less than the states of the soul". The Sakharoffs lived in Paris between the wars, they performed in New York, Japan, China, Latin America, and when Germany invaded France, they returned to Buenos Aires until 1949. He died in Siena in 1963 and is buried in Rome.

Five years after painting this portrait, von Jawlensky was expelled from Germany because of the war. He moved to Switzerland where he painted, again and again, the landscape viewed from his window in St-Prex on Lake Geneva but it is for his portraits that he is best known. He returned to Germany, to Wiesbaden, in 1921 and married the mother of his child the following year.

From 1929, arthritis meant he had to hold a paintbrush with both hands and from 1937 until his death in 1941, he could not paint at all. Once denounced by the Nazis for his degenerate art, today his striking portrait of Alexander Sakharoff is proudly displayed in Munich's Lenbachhaus.

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