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Exhibition draws on Russian artist's treasures

Nude 1912

Russian expressionist – and one time Swiss resident - Alexey von Jawlensky is famed for his bold colour paintings, rather than for his drawings.

An exhibition in Lugano is hoping to change this with an extensive display of the artist's sketches – the first time so many Jawlensky drawings have gone on show in Switzerland.

Jawlensky (1864-1941), a contemporary of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, had a great interest in drawing throughout his life, but this aspect of his work was largely overshadowed by the success of his paintings.

The exhibition, entitled "The Significance of the Line", at the Cantonal Art Museum in Italian-speaking Lugano, brings together around 60 Jawlensky sketches from international museums and private collections.

It places them alongside 40 similar works by Henri Matisse, Ferdinand Hodler and Wilhelm Lehmbruck to allow comparisons between the four artists. Among the main themes are nudes, dancing and portraits.

Some of Jawlensky's painted works are also on display, which were all chosen to show how the line – Jawlensky used bold, dark strokes – was important in his paintings as well.

"The temptation to include more paintings and sculptures was strong," said the museum's director Marco Franciolli. "But in the end the curator and I decided that it was preferable to be coherent, to keep strictly to the theme of drawing and highlight that."

"Drawing is after all a complete artistic form in itself, which has always been at the centre of art history. It would be a mistake to reduce it to the status of a preparatory sketch," added Franciolli.

Jawlensky Archive

One of the main contributors to the exhibition has been the Jawlensky Archive, which is based in nearby Locarno. Its curator is the artist's granddaughter, Angelica Jawlensky Bianconi, whose father, Andreas, was the painter's only child.

"I didn't get to know my grandfather because I was born after he died," explained Jawlensky Bianconi. "But because of this I probably have the right emotional distance to be able to look after the documents he left and treat them from an academic point of view."

The archive is the most important one in Europe devoted to Jawlensky, and contains many private documents such as letters and photos.

Some of them date from the years of the First World War, when the artist, who had made his name in Germany, fled to Switzerland, staying first near Geneva, then in Zurich and finally in Ascona, a village neighbouring Locarno.

The Lugano exhibition shows Jawlensky's artistic development, from his first drawings made at the St Petersburg Academy in Russia in around 1900, to a series of female nudes done in 1912, a year widely acknowledged to be a turning point for the artist's drawings. At this point Jawlensky was working in Munich and his career was starting to blossom.

Distinctive use of lines

The broken lines used by Jawlensky start to give the female form an almost painting-like quality. This can also be seen in the expressive way the artist depicts heads – now considered one of his trademarks.

His move towards a more expressionist style, with pure, bold colours, spread over large areas and outlined with simple, thickened contours, had the effect of giving his works a strong emotional component.

The artist, despite being ill and suffering from arthritis, continued to draw until his death in Wiesbaden in Germany in 1941.

The exhibition, which runs until January next year, also devotes a room to books on the artist and the expressionist movement.

In addition, visitors can hear some of Jawlensky's favourite music from his own collection, such as Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin, as well as some works by Debussy, Busoni and Schönberg, which evoke the dramatic era in which the artist lived.

swissinfo, based on an Italian article by Alessandra Zumthor in Lugano

Key Facts

The exhibition runs until January 6, 2008.
It is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10am-5pm.
It will be closed on December 24, 25 and 31.
The Cantonal Art Museum in Lugano is 20 years old this year.

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Alexey von Jawlensky

Jawlensky was born in Russia in 1864. He gave up a career in the Russian Imperial Guard to study painting.

In 1896, he moved to Munich where he met the painter Wassily Kandinsky, who remained a strong influence. While in France he worked with Henri Matisse, whose use of colour also influenced his work.

Back in Munich, Jawlensky joined the New Artist's Movement of expressionist artists, but he was more sympathetic to its splinter group, The Blue Rider, led by Kandinsky.

During the First World War, while in Switzerland, Jawlensky's style started to change and culminated in abstract faces, which appear in 1917. His later paintings of faces have a more mystical tone.

He died in 1941.

(Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica 2007)

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