Helene Schjerfbeck at the Royal Academy

Helene Schjerfbeck at the Royal Academy


The RA seem to have an extraordinary knack of conjuring up exhibitions of ‘neglected’ artists, as though from a cupboard under the stairs. The last ‘overlooked’ artist was Felix Vallotton, still in the Sackler Galleries until 25 September, which exposed the Swiss to a wider audience. Helene Schjerfbeck’s name does not exactly skip off the tongue, and she is not particularly well-known in the UK, although she had great success in the Nordic countries, particularly her native Finland, and across mainland Europe, from the late 1800s until well into the twentieth century. She was precociously talented from the age of eleven, and she was ‘discovered’ by a fellow Finn and genre painter Adolf von Becker. He shoed her into the Finnish Arts Society in Helsinki, even though the minimum age of enrolment was twelve. She studied there for four years, being taught the academic side of painting and drawing through copying, and then spent a further two at Von Becker’s private academy in Helsinki, learning how to paint in oils. She won a scholarship from the Senate of Finland with her naturalistic painting of Wounded Soldier in the Snow, which attracted a great deal of attention. Later she moved to Paris, where she she studied at the Académies Trélat and Colarossi, where she met a number of Nordic students, with whom she made friends, including Marianne Preindisberger and Maria Wilk, with whom she went to an artists’ colony at Pont-Aven in Brittany. After a further stint in Paris, she went to the artists’ colony in St Ives, where she stayed with Marianne and her husband Adrian Stokes RA, an accomplished landscape painter. During this period she met and fell for an unknown artist, described variously as English, or French, but he broke it off under the pretext that he did not think she was strong enough to bear children. On her return to Paris for the last time, as she was running out of funds, she exhibited The Convalescent at the Paris Salon, an insightful and touching scene of a sick child engaged in some distraction at the kitchen table, whilst wrapped in a sheet. It was purchased by the Finnish Art Society, but she would soon turn away from that style of painting.

Her return to Finland, to live with her mother, with a reputaion as a skilled academic artist, led her to be sent to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersberg to make copies of paintings by Franz Hals, Diego Velázquez and Gerard ter Borch for the the Society’s collection, and then to Vienna and Florence to make further copies of Holbein, Fra’ Angelica, Filippo Lippi and Georgione. Between these trips, she taught at the Society’s drawing school, but sorely missed painting her own work, which she found frustrating and stifling artistically. The exhibition is arraged in five stylistic sections, with the first displaying early portraiture, and landscapes done in Brittant and St Ives, with the unusual Shadow on the Wall, painted in Pont Aven. Moments of Silence contains larger canvases, including portraits of her mother done seven years apart. There is a definite influence of Whistler, not just because they are painted in profile, and of a mother, dressed in black, but because she had started to simplify her application of paint and use of flat space. The most fascinating gallery conains 17 self-portraits, painted from the age of 22 to the age of 83, the year before she died. They depict an extraordinary journey from rosy-cheeked manequin, to ever-abstracted cadavers, with faces resembling three kicks in a mud wall. The haunted eyes blindly stare out at the viewer, the mouth a mere slit and the skin tones dissolving into flattened smudges. They are powerful and raw evocations of mortality, tinged with a mixture of resignation, regret and resolution. Self-portrait (Black Background) was commissioned by the Society in 1914, and, for her, was an acceptance by the art establishment after years in the wilderness, and this is exemplified by the self-confident and defiant pose, with just the possibilty that she might just smile. When her mother or friends were not available as subjects, she turned to the mirror, saying, ‘This way the model is always available, although it isn’t at all pleasant to see oneself.’ She subscribed to European fashion magazines and would incorporate the latest hairstyle, headgear or dress into her paintings, sometimes with audacious effect, as in Circus Girl and Girl from Eydtkuhne II. 

The Modern Look includes family, friends and models, with mask-like faces, including the two mentioned above, and The Skier (English Girl) or The Motorist, based on her nephew Måns, but he was merely masquerading, as he had neither a driving license nor a car. Her still-life, Blackening Apples, painted in 1944, has the same morbid fascination with death and decay as her self-portraits, although, in this case the apples really are blacker than black, although Three Pears on a Plate, the last work she did, is another vanitas painting, where, at least, the pears might still be edible. 

Royal Academy: The Garrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries

Until 27 October 2019

Admission £14



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