Posted on June 12, 2020
Collection Connection: Niobe
Liz Paris, Collections Manager
One of my favorite objects in the collection is a small yet compelling painting by Alexey von Jawlensky entitled Mystical Heads: Niobe. Jawlensky frequently emphasized the “spiritual language” of painting, and here he has depicted Niobe, a prototype for mourning in Greek mythology. After her children were slayed by the deities Artemis and Apollo, it is said that Niobe, in her grief, turned to stone, yet endlessly weeps a stream of tears.
Jawlensky used thick, black, angular lines in his composition, channeling Russian icon figures and the regional folk art of his youth. Instead of using oil or acrylic paint, he employed a process called encaustic, in which pigment is added to hot wax and then applied to a surface, usually a board. This technique dates to antiquity and was favored by Greeks and Romans for the luminous quality it gave to portraits, which is observable in Jawlensky’s painting.
Alexey von Jawlensky, Mystical Heads: Niobe, 1917. Encaustic on board. Mary and Sylvan Lang Collection.
At the McNay, I am responsible for the care, maintenance, and documentation of the museum’s permanent collection. Working remotely is challenging, as I am used to being hands-on with our collection, but time away has afforded me the opportunity to continue ongoing research for some of our objects. The detective work keeps things interesting!