Important Art by Marianne von Werefkin
This self-portrait, painted at the age of 33, is an example of Werefkin's early, Russian Realist-influenced work. She portrays herself in a sailor's blouse, holding her long brushes and engaging the viewer with easy assurance. Werefkin is probably at her family's Blagodat Estate, in modern-day Lithuania, where her studio was located until her emigration to Germany with Alexej von Jawlensky in 1896.
After a series of successful exhibitions, in 1893 Werefkin seemed to be at the start of a prestigious artistic career in her native Russia. Her body of work from this time mainly consists of portraiture, influenced by her tutor Ilya Repin's work in this genre, and by the emphasis which Repin and other Realist painters placed on depicting contemporary Russian life. But whereas Werefkin's earliest paintings, such as Portrait of A Girl in Russian Costume (1883-88) and Portrait of Vera Repin (1881), match the photographic precision of her teacher's work - see Repin's famous Barge Haulers on The Volga (1870-73), for example - this slightly later piece uses a more painterly, expressive style, perhaps reflecting Repin's engagement with French Impressionism during the 1870s. Werefkin was dubbed the 'Russian Rembrandt' for her mastery of oil, and for her capacity to capture both the outer appearance and inner essence of her subject.
Early works such as Self-Portrait in a Sailor's Blouse show the depth of the artistic heritage from which Werefkin's mature, Expressionist persona emerged. Like the great Russian Realist novelists of the nineteenth century - Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky - Ilya Repin and his Realist comrades saw their work as serving not only a sociological function but also a deep spiritual purpose, a sense of purpose which Werefkin seems to have imbibed, and which emerges again in her statements on the spiritual value of abstract and Expressionist aesthetics.
This small painting, showing a half-naked woman in high heels, knee-length stockings and hat, is one of the earliest works created by Werefkin after her return to painting in 1906. Depicting an unknown sitter, the impressionistic quality of the piece reflects Werefkin 's search for a new expressive vocabulary, after the abandonment of her early, Realist style, and following her extensive interactions with painters on the Munich art scene, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Gabrielle Münter, and Franz Marc.
During her hiatus from painting, Werefkin had immersed herself in art history, and had filled countless notebooks with writings and drawings, creating over 400 sketches in a fluid, expressive style. When she began painting again she adapted this style to the canvas, becoming increasingly concerned with capturing the inner life of her subjects in a way that might rupture, or exaggerate, aspects of their outer appearance, combining the visible and invisible qualities of her sitters. At the same time, the sexual frisson of the subject-matter seems to owe something to the depiction of seamy Parisian night-life by Post-Impressionist painters such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. A few years before creating the piece, during 1903-05, Werefkin had travelled to France with Jawlensky, taking in the stylistic advances of artists attached to the Nabi, synthetist and cloisonnist movements, who were attempting to use color and form to convey the emotional and spiritual content of their subjects.
Portrait of Helene can be seen as an important transitional work. It indicates Werefkin's departure from the Realist and Post-Impressionist styles of her early work, while not yet conveying the full scope of her Expressionist idiom.
This painting shows a group of women walking down a street at night in an urban setting, carrying parcels and babies, in a slow-paced, heavily-loaded procession. Buildings line the road, while the dull glow of the lamplight creates a melancholy mood. The work depicts the city of Kovno in Russia - modern-day Lithuania - where Werefkin was staying with her brother in 1909 while recovering from a leg injury.
Werefkin found the city of Kovno visually captivating, writing in her journal of the gloomy violets and dimness of the light, calling it "a treasure-trove for artists". But it was also the suffering of the city's inhabitants that preoccupied her, as she emphasized in her diary: "All that is here is suffering and this horror of beauty and this horrible life". To better express the inner life of her subjects, she turned to techniques reminiscent of French Cloissonism or Synthetism, the use of heavily outlined, flat blocks of color, from which light seems to emanate as through panels of stained glass. The somber mood of the piece is typical of much European art at this time, owing much to the Post-Impressionist style of Vincent van Gogh, who had depicted peasant women at work - in the fields, by the hearth - in similarly melancholic fashion.
The marriage of a Post-Impressionist, expressive use of color with a somber, anxious mood is in a sense the basis of Expressionism, which was emerging simultaneously across various Northern-European cities around this time. This is also one of the first pieces in which we find the figure of the stooped or hunched woman in black, a recurring motif in Werefkin's work. In various respects, then, Return Home can be considered an important early painting of her mature period.