Soulmates. Jawlensky, Werefkin and Ascona

An artist who promoted the international intellectual and artistic avant-garde, and who, together with Ernst Kempter, founded the Museo Comunale d’Arte, the Russian painter Marianne Werefkin is still a very important figure in Ascona. The Marianne Werefkin Foundation, founded in 1939, today holds the artist's most extensive and important patrimony, displayed in a permanent exhibition at Ascona's Museo Comunale d’Arte Moderna. But how did Marianne Werefkin come to Ascona? Here is her story.

Soulmates. Jawlensky, Werefkin and Ascona
  • “The bond that tied me to her completely changed my life

  • I became the companion of this gentle and sweet lady, gifted with an extraordinary talent” was how Jawlensky described his first meeting with Werefkin. The year was 1892 and Ilya Repin introduced an emerging and talented young artist to his favourite pupil. There was an immediate spark between the pair. From that moment on, they would spend years painting together, united by shared passions, interests and ideals, as well as a deep and complicated love. They would never get married. They were not husband and wife. They were Lebensmenschen. Soulmates.

  • Marianne Werefkin was an extremely emancipated woman in a male-dominated world. With a military father and an artist mother, heir to a family with close links to the tsar, Marianne was a cultured woman with a strong personality and a revolutionary spirit who knew how to polarise the attention of others. As far as she was concerned, her father’s blessing of her bond with Jawlensky was far more significant than any marriage.

In the autumn of 1896, the two artists moved to Munich, settling in Schwabing, the artists’ quarter. It was here that Werefkin decided to give up painting to dedicate herself body and soul to promoting Jawlensky’s talent, convinced that, in a male milieu like art, only a man could bring about change: “What could I achieve by working, albeit in an admirable way? Some art that might not be too bad. I love my art too much to reduce it to so little. But if I dedicate myself entirely to what I believe in instead of painting, the only true work will see the light, the expression of artistic faith, and this will be a great achievement for art”. In January 1902 the situation became complicated: a son Andreas was born from Jawlensky’s relationship with Helene Neznakomova – Werefkin’s maid who had followed them to Munich from Russia – and the balance of the couple’s family was turned upside down. It was to be the start of a long journey that Werefkin explored in her Lettres à un Inconnu.

Werefkin would not start painting again until 1906

Werefkin would not start painting again until 1906. Perhaps she realised that she and Jawlensky differed in their ideas on how to revolutionise art. In 1914, the outbreak of the First World War forced to them to take refuge in Switzerland, firstly on Lake Geneva, then in Zurich and finally in Ascona. She found a new life on Lake Maggiore. “Ascona taught me not to scorn anything that is human, to love the immense fortune of creativity and the misery of material existence in the same way, and to carry them with me as a treasure of the soul”.

After exile in Switzerland, the artist couple reached Zurich in 1916, where they began to mix with a cultural and artistic circle, meeting friends old and new. It was thanks to these friendships and under the still powerful influence of Monte Verità, which would become a crucible of artists, that they moved to Ascona in 1918. Two years later Jawlensky moved to Wiesbaden with Helen and Andreas, leaving Werefkin in Ascona after almost thirty years together. Deprived of her soulmate and the significant inheritance of her father’s pension – due to the revolution – Werefkin experienced loneliness and poverty for the first time in her life. 

But on the shores of Lake Maggiore she also found a new life, home and family. She integrated perfectly into the life of the Borgo, founding the Museo Comunale with Ernst Kempter, learning forgiveness and becoming the “grandmother of Ascona”, in her own words. She not only found a new place to call home, but a new love and renewed artistic inspiration. Thanks to the power and beauty of its nature, warm-hearted inhabitants and rich history, Ascona allowed this extraordinary painter to find exactly what she was looking for within herself.

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