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Finland's Gem Helene Schjerfbeck Lands at the RA

  • Left Helene Schjerfbeck - Self-Portrait Right Left Helene Schjerfbeck - The Family Heirloom
July 18, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

The modernity in European art space was expressed in the practices of various artists, yet while some of them are saluted as masters of painting and prolific pioneers, others were left behind. The trick to such a division is related to the fact art history has been written in a rather patriarchal manner for a long time, meaning that largely male artists were celebrated and only a handful of women.

In the 21st century, it would seem that the historical painting made by women is being treated differently and in favor of gender equality, so a large number of exhibitions are now often organized. Such is the case with famous Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck (1862 – 1946) whose work is rarely known outside her native country; she fiercely painted throughout her entire life in a specific manner saturated with isolation, poetry, tragedy and Nordic darkness.

The Royal Academy is hosting a major retrospective of Helene Schjerfbeck for the first time in the UK by showing a fine selection of sixty-five portraits, landscapes and still lifes made by the artist throughout her career.

Left Helene Schjerfbeck - Self-portrait Right Helene Schjerfbeck - Self-portrait with red spot
Left: Helene Schjerfbeck – Self-portrait, 1884-85. Oil on canvas, 50 x 41 cm. Friends of Ateneum Collection. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum; photo: Hannu Aaltonen / Right: Helene Schjerfbeck – Self-Portrait with Red Spot, 1944. Oil on canvas. 45 x 37 cm. Gösta and Bertha Stenman Donation. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum; photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen.

The Exhibition Concept

The curatorial team led by independent art historian Jeremy Lewison, with Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, Chief Curator at the Ateneum Art Museum, Désirée de Chair and Sarah Lea, Curators at the Royal Academy of Arts decided to examine Schjerfbeck’s practice and map her radicalism in an international art context to which she certainly belonged.

Namely, the exhibition will show the artist’s development from early works inspired by French Salon painters in the early 1880s to her plunge into abstraction from the early twentieth century onward.

Left Helene Schjerfbeck - My Mother Right Helene Schjerfbeck - Girl from
Right: Helene Schjerfbeck – My Mother, 1909. Oil on canvas, 81 x 83 cm. Private collection; photo: Finnish National Gallery / Yehia Eweis / Left: Helene Schjerfbeck – Girl from Eydtkuhne II, 1927. Oil on canvas. 70 x 54.5 cm. Yrjö and Nanny Kaunisto Collection. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum; photo: Hannu Aaltonen.

The Installment

Through five thematic sections the audience will be able to trace the continuity and the compelling shifts the artist passed through her rich career. The first section titled Paris, Pont Aven and St Ives will show Schjerfbeck’s early works apparently influenced by the naturalistic painting of Jules Bastien-Lepage, as well as paintings made during the artists’ colony in St Ives, Cornwall in the late 1880s.

The second section, Moments of Silence, will feature larger, more intimate canvases, made by Schjerfbeck after she returned for good to Finland in 1896 (the works made during the teaching years spent at the Finnish Art Society’s drawing school, as well as the ones made after the artist moved with her mother to the rural town of Hyvinkää in 1902). The production shown in this section will reflect Schjerfbeck’s deliberation of the latest modernist tendencies.

The Self-portraits section will encompass seventeen abstracted depictions of herself made throughout the artist’s life, from the age of 22 to 83, that reveal her occupation with aging and the physical deterioration of the self, while following section titled The Modern Look will bring a selection of portraits of family, friends, and models made between 1909 and 1944.

The final section simply called Still Life will show a group of paintings which somehow extend her self-portraits; again at stake will be Schjerfbeck’s constant existential articulation of passing of time, life and death.

Left Helene Schjerfbeck - Still Life with Blackening Apples Right Helene Schjerfbeck - Shadow on the wall
Left: Helene Schjerfbeck – Still Life with Blackening Apples, 1944. Oil on canvas, 46 x 51 cm. Didrichsen Art Museum; photo: Jussi Pakkala / Right: Helene Schjerfbeck – Shadow on the Wall (Breton Landscape), 1883. Oil on canvas mounted on wood, 45 x 38 cm. Niemistö Collection; photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

Helene Schjerfbeck at The Royal Academy

The upcoming exhibition will definitely unravel the outstanding domains with the astonishing Finnish artist often compared with Munch. Her oeuvre reflects an important layer of women’s emancipation in the society which passed through various social and political changes and has enabled women to equally participate in public life.

A fully illustrated catalog consisting of essays written by the curatorial team will accompany the exhibition.

Helene Schjerfbeck will be on display at The Royal Academy in London, The Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries from 20 July until 27 October 2019, and afterwards it will travel to the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki.

Featured images: Left: Helene Schjerfbeck – Self-Portrait, Black Background,1915. Oil on canvas. 45.5 x 36 cm. Herman and Elisabeth Hallonblad Collection. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum; photo: Finnish National Gallery / Yehia Eweis / Right: Helene Schjerfbeck – The Family Heirloom, 1915-16. Oil on canvas, 63 x 44.5 cm. August and Lydia Keirkner Fine Arts Collection. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum; photo: Yehia Eweis. All images courtesy the Royal Academy.