Among the initial observations prompted by “Alexei Jawlensky” at the Neue Gallery—the first U.S. retrospective devoted to the Russian-born Expressionist—is that Jawlensky was a better Van Gogh than Van Gogh himself. Toward the beginning of the exhibition, viewers encounter Portrait of Marie Castell (1906), a canvas that could be mistaken for the real thing. The thickly applied brushstrokes, acidic colors, stiffly rendered contour, flattened composition, and prole-ish character of Castell—poor Vincent couldn’t have done as well. And, in significant ways, he didn’t. Sure, Jawlensky followed on the heels of Post-Impressionism; pictorial tics that were revolutionary ten to fifteen years earlier were, if not outmoded, then accepted by advanced painters. Still, it’s worth noting how adept Jawlensky is at navigating space,...


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