“Imagine the life of Frida Kahlo yoked to the eye of Edvard Munch, and you’ll begin to get the measure of this oeuvre…” (The Independent, London, 2003)
This spring the Gemeentemuseum presents the first retrospective exhibition of the work of Helene Schjerfbeck (1862 – 1946), a Finnish national icon, ever held outside Scandinavia. Sensitive landscapes, still lifes and penetrating portraits and self-portraits testify to the extraordinary talent of this unique modern artist. Schjerfbeck’s work shows a highly individual development, transforming gradually from melancholy, late 19th-century academic Realism to her own very personal style tending towards abstract Expressionism.
Schjerfbeck was enrolled in the Finnish Art Society drawing school at the age of eleven. As a woman choosing to devote her life to art, she received little financial assistance from her parents, though they were supportive of her choice. In 1887, however, one of her teachers, recognising her talent, paid for her tuition at a private academy where she learnt French oil painting techniques. Success was not slow in coming; she achieved artistic recognition at quite a young age. Periods of study in Paris gave her the chance to discover the work of Impressionists like Eduard Manet and Berthe Morisot. She also travelled to Florence, St Petersburg, Vienna and Great Britain.
At the Paris Exhibition of 1889, the 27-year old artist was awarded a bronze medal for her painting ‘Le Convalescent’, which shows Impressionist influence. Even by this early stage she displayed a highly individual artistic identity, and one which was much more international in focus than that of artists like Akseli Gallen-Kallela, who chose to paint typically Finnish scenes. Beset by health problems, Schjerfbeck was forced to return to Finland for good at the age of 28, where she went to live with her mother in Hyvinkää, an isolated district. During this period, her work was dominated by domestic scenes, featuring women and children engaged in reading or embroidery. As details gradually disappeared from her paintings, they gained increasing depth, approaching an abstract technique which was far ahead of her time. After this interval of semi-obscurity, Schjerfbeck made a second breakthrough in 1917 with her first solo exhibition, mounted by the art dealer Gösta Stenman in Helsinki.
Besides early works, it included recent paintings which, like works of earlier artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, were clearly inspired by Japanese Masters. Schjerfbeck painted self-portraits throughout her career. The older she became, the more isolated she became; for lack of models she painted herself. Her later portraits reveal a confrontational self-analysis. Between 1939 and 1945, not long before her death, she produced her most impressive series of portraits, in which she records her own physical deterioration with shocking honesty. Her features become increasingly hollow, until only the ghost of a skull remains. This uncompromising series of portraits is intensely harrowing.
Following its presentation at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, the exhibition will transfer to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris. Two of Schjerfbeck’s works were included in the Gemeentemuseum’s 2005 exhibition of Finnish Art around 1900.