The haunting paintings of Helene Schjerfbeck, on show in the final leg of a travelling tour that has already attracted thousands of visitors in Hamburg and The Hague, may come as a surprise to many. Few outside the Nordic world would recognise the work of this Finnish artist who died in 1946. More people should.
The 120 works have at their core 20 self-portraits, half the number she painted in all. The first, dated 1880, is of a wide-eyed teenager eager to absorb everything. The last is a sighting of the artist's ghost-to-be; Schjerfbeck died the year after it was made. Together this series is among the most moving and accomplished autobiographies-in-paint.
Precociously gifted, Schjerfbeck was 11 when she entered the Finnish Art Society's drawing school. “The Wounded Warrior in the Snow”, a history painting, was bought by a private collector and won her a state travel grant when she was 17. Schjerfbeck studied in Paris, went on to Pont-Aven, Brittany, where she painted for a year, then to Tuscany, Cornwall and St Petersburg.
During her 1887 visit to St Ives, Cornwall, Schjerfbeck painted “The Convalescent”. A child wrapped in a blanket sits propped up in a large wicker chair, toying with a sprig. The picture won a bronze medal at the 1889 Paris World Fair and was bought by the Finnish Art Society. To a modern eye it seems almost sentimental and is redeemed only by the somewhat stunned, melancholy expression on the child's face, which may have been inspired by Schjerfbeck's early experiences. At four, she fell down a flight of steps and never fully recovered.
In 1890, Schjerfbeck settled in Finland. Teaching exhausted her, she did not like the work of other local painters, and she was further isolated when she took on the care of her mother (who lived until 1923). “If I allow myself the freedom to live a secluded life”, she wrote, “then it is because it has to be that way.” In 1902, Schjerfbeck and her mother settled in the small, industrial town of Hyvinkaa, 50 kilometres north of Helsinki.
Isolation had one desired effect for it was there that Schjerfbeck became a modern painter. She produced still lives and landscapes but above all moody yet incisive portraits of her mother, local school girls, women workers in town (profiles of a pensive, aristocratic looking seamstress dressed in black stand out). And of course she painted herself. Comparisons have been made with James McNeill Whistler and Edvard Munch. But from 1905, her pictures became pure Schjerfbeck.
“I have always searched for the dense depths of the soul, that have not yet discovered themselves”, she wrote, “where everything is still unconscious—there one can make the greatest discoveries.” She experimented with different kinds of underpainting, scraped and rubbed, made bright rosy red spots; doing whatever had to be done to capture the subconscious—her own and that of her models.
In 1913, Schjerfbeck was rediscovered by an art dealer and journalist, Gosta Stenman. Once again she was a success. Retrospectives, touring exhibitions and a biography followed, yet Schjerfbeck remained little known outside Scandinavia. That may have had something to do with her indifference to her renown. “I am nothing, absolutely nothing”, she wrote. “All I want to do is paint”. Schjerfbeck was possessed of a unique vision, and it is time the world recognised that.
Text and image by The Economist Newspaper, UK