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Helene Schjerfbeck

Royal Academy – until 27th October 2019

If the name Helene Schjerfbeck doesn’t ring a bell, you are not alone, but by now you probably have been intrigued by the haunting portrait in the poster advertising the RA exhibition, and wonder why such a distinctive artist is not more familiar. Unless, of course, you are Finnish. Born in Helsinki in 1862, and died in Sweden in 1946, Schjerfbeck had a long and extremely productive career. Her talent was recognised very early on, at the age of eleven, and she was given the opportunity by her teachers, mentors and employers to travel and study extensively abroad. Aware of all the artistic movements of the time, Schjerfbeck marched on her independent path for seven decades, and created more than a thousand works. With 65 portraits, landscapes and still lifes, this is the first solo – and greatly overdue – exhibition in the UK, of an artist who is an icon in her home country. Upon looking at her work, artist Jules Bastien-Lepage said, “these paintings have fine things and fierce things”. When you enter room 1, which shows the work she did in Paris, Pont-Aven and St Ives in the 1880s, you may at first mainly notice the ‘fine things’, pastel colour palettes, dreamy portraits and peaceful scenes. The ‘fierce things’ will become evident later, although some of them are already hinted at. Only one of the portraits in this room is frontal, the others are profiles, or three-quarter from the back. In Woman with a Child (1887) the back of the head and neck of the woman almost completely covers the child she’s holding, leaving only one eye visible. The Convalescent (1888) portrays a child, wrapped in sheets and propped up at a table, weakly playing with a cup, hair unkempt, glazed eyes. Landscapes are often devoid of people. The Door (1884) and The Bakery (1887), convey atmosphere only through colour, composition and light – light that makes you explore the darkness. During the 1890s, Schjerfbeck worked as tutor for the Finnish Art Society, and was sent to various destinations in Europe to make replicas of the old masters. This exercise enriched her painterly vocabulary and directly inspired some of the works shown in Room 2, entitled Moments of Silence. But, true to her character, Schjerfbeck carried on evolving an independent and ground-breaking style. After giving up teaching, in 1902, she moved with her mother to Hyvinkää, a town some thirty miles from Helsinki, where she could find the quiet and space to experiment. Here she approached bigger canvasses and developed the technique of applying and then scraping paint to obtain hazy contours and a luminous, otherworldly effect. Tapestry (1914-17) shows a fashionable couple facing what looks like a strange landscape, but is, in fact, a huge tapestry, as is revealed by the presence of furniture. A similar ambiguity is present in most of Schjerfbeck’s portraits. The expressions are quiet, meditative, but also seem to suggest an inner, isolated world. The sitters are somewhat self-contained, devoid of outer communication. Yet, Schjerfbeck is not cold and emotionless. She can express so much in the simple strokes depicting her mother’s hands in the splendid My Mother series. Room 3 groups together, in chronological order, a number of Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits, including the first, at age 22, and the last, age 83. Here we can see not only how she captured her ageing process, her view of self through the years, but also the constant evolving of her style. Perhaps, one of the ‘fierce things’ is how she transformed her own image from a sweet pink pastel girl to a mask, more and more stylised, erased, scraped, faded. Schjerfbeck didn't want her pictures to be “people hanging on a wall”, she wasn’t interested in reproducing features, it was atmosphere, ambiguity and intrigue she was after. She also had an interest in fashion and sometimes dressed her sitters in Vogue-like clothes. Masks, both ritual and theatrical, also play an important symbolic role. Parallels have been drawn with Edvard Munch, but although there are some similarities, Schjerfbeck’s work remains even more mysterious and impenetrable. After seeing this exhibition, one wonders why she is not more known worldwide and whether the philosophy behind her work has been thoroughly examined. There is hunger for more.

First published in the East Finchley Open Artists September 2019 Newsletter - Click HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

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