The Face of a Stranger

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Last exhibited in London almost 130 years ago, the Royal Academy of Arts have reintroduced Helene Schjerfbeck to UK audiences. Virtually a stranger in Britain, Schjerfbeck is a Finnish national icon known for her abstract self-portraits, landscapes and still lifes. The exhibition, due to end next week (27th October 2019), highlights the evolution of Schjerfbeck’s art, demonstrating her fascination with superficial appearance and what lies beneath.

Helena Sofia Schjerfbeck was born in Helsinki on 10th July 1862, the third child of office manager Svante Schjerfbeck and Olga Johanna (née Printz). At the time, Finland was an autonomous Grand-Duchy within the Russian Empire and the Schjerfbeck children were brought up speaking Swedish. By the end of her life, Helene Schjerfbeck could speak Swedish, French, English and German but not, ironically, Finnish.

When Schjerfbeck was four years old, she broke her hip after falling down some stairs. As a result, she would always walk with a limp and was unable to attend school. To cheer her up, her father gave his daughter drawing materials to keep her occupied during hours of immobility. Little did anyone know that this act would have such an impact on her destiny.

By the age of 11, Schjerfbeck was producing remarkable drawings for someone so young. After the drawings had been shown to the Finnish genre painter Adolf von Becker (1831-1901), Schjerfbeck was enrolled as the youngest ever member of the Finnish Art Society in Helsinki. Becker, who was a tutor at the school, paid for her tuition.

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Portrait of Helena Westermarck, 1884

The school taught its students to draw by copying other artworks and sketching sculptures or, occasionally, life models. Copying famous artists was something that would play a huge role in Schjerfbeck’s future. During her four years of study, Schjerfbeck won many awards and began to spell her name as Helene to distinguish herself from her newfound friend and future artist and writer, Helena Westermarck (1857-1938). The selection of Schjerfbeck’s early work at the exhibition includes a portrait of Helena.

Sadly, Schjerfbeck’s father died after a bout of tuberculosis in 1876 and never saw his daughter graduate from the Finnish Art Society, which she achieved the following year. Had Becker not been paying for Schjerbeck’s education, the working-class family would not have been able to afford the fees. Schjerfbeck’s mother began taking in boarders to get by.

After graduation, Schjerfbeck began studying at Westermarck, von Becker’s private academy in Helsinki. Again, her tuition was paid for, allowing her to study for two years under von Becker’s guidance. During this time she learnt how to work with oils and paint from memory. She continued to win many prizes and had some of her work displayed in the Finnish Art Society’s annual exhibition in 1880.

Schjerfbeck continued winning prizes after graduating, including a prize awarded by the Senate of Finland for her painting Wounded Soldier in the Snow. With the prize money, she was able to travel abroad to continue her studies. Along with Helena Westermarck, Schjerfbeck moved to Paris to study at Mme Trélat de Vigny’s studio. The following year, they both enrolled at the Académie Colarossi, where they studied for a short time before returning to Finland.

In 1883, the Imperial Senate presented Schjerfbeck with a scholarship that allowed her to return to the French capital and exhibit at the Salon for the first time. She also spent time in the emerging artist’s colony Pont-Aven in Brittany. Whilst there, Schjerfbeck developed a new, expressive style that can be seen in her painting Clothes Drying and The Door. The latter is a small, modest painting showing light spilling from under a closed door. Produced while sitting in Tremalo Chapel, Pont-Aven, Schjerfbeck ignored the altars and sculptures that attracted other artists in favour of the unassuming door. The only evidence that she is in a church is the stone archway to the right of the door.
Allegedly, Schjerfbeck became engaged whilst in either Brittany or Paris, however, her unknown fiancé wrote to her breaking off the engagement. All correspondence between the pair was destroyed by her friends and Schjerfbeck returned to Finland in 1884.

Schjerfbeck did not remain home long before she was awarded another grant from the Finnish Art Society. In 1887, she returned to Paris but spent the summer in St Ives, Cornwall at the invitation of her friend Marianne Preindlesberger (1885-1927), who she had befriended during her studies. The summer soon became autumn, winter and then spring before Schjerfbeck returned to Paris. In 1889, she repeated the trip once more.

The atmosphere and quality of light in St Ives inspired many artworks. She rented a tower and attended art classes led by Preindlesberger’s husband Aidan Scott Stokes (1854-1935). Her paintings took on a plein-air style, which was well received and included landscapes and portraits, such as, View of St Ives and Woman with a Child. She also paid a small fee to set up her easel in a local bakery, where she painted the stone kitchen, capturing the warmth of the room and bread.

Between 1887 and 1890, Schjerfbeck exhibited several times in London at the Institute of Painters in Oil Colours in Picadilly. During this time, she painted The Convalescent, which won the bronze medal at the 1889 Paris World Fair. The painting was later purchased by the Finnish Art Society.

Schjerfbeck’s grant ran out at the end of the decade and she returned to Finland in 1890. Again, she did not remain in Finland for long before being commissioned by the Finnish Art Society to travel to St Petersburg to make copies of paintings in the Hermitage Museum. These included works by Frans Hals (1582-1666) and Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). After this, she travelled to Vienna to make more copies of paintings in the Kunsthistorische Museum, followed by Florence to do the same in the Uffizi Gallery.

When in Finland, Schjerfbeck worked as a drawing teacher at the Finnish Art Society. Whilst she was an excellent instructor, she felt it hindered her artistic flow. She felt cut off from fellow Finnish artists who were embracing new techniques and styles. She also found the demands of teaching physically taxing and fell ill in 1895.

Schjerfbeck recovered her health at a Norwegian sanatorium and quickly returned to work. Unfortunately, she had to take another year off in 1900 when she fell ill again. As a result, she decided to resign from her position at the Finnish Art Society and move in with her mother in the town of Hyvinkää.

Whilst taking care of her mother, Schjerfbeck continued to paint and exhibit her work. She used her mother as well as local women and children as her models then sent final pieces to be shown at the Turku Art Society, an association for professional visual artists. Many of her works during this period were influenced by artists she had seen on her travels. As well as masters from the past, she was also inspired by artists of her era, for instance, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906).

During her visit to Vienna, Schjerfbeck encountered artworks by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), whose influence can be seen in her painting, Maria. Her choice of colour recalls the blue-green backgrounds of Holbein’s portraits of royalty. She also included the word “Maria” in a gold serif typeface, which again is similar to Holbein and his contemporaries.

Inspiration was also taken from the early Renaissance frescoes Schjerfbeck had seen in Italy. She produced her painting Fragment imagining it to be a section of a much larger scene. Using several layers of oil paint, Schjerfbeck scraped sections of the top layer to reveal the colours hidden beneath. In doing this, she produced what looked like a fragment of a deteriorating Renaissance fresco.

Caring for her mother meant Schjerfbeck did not get many opportunites to leave the town of Hyvinkää. Her growing fame, however, did not prevent her from receiving a number of visitors. In 1913, a young art dealer Gösta Stenman (1888-1947) met with her in person to purchase several of her paintings. He also encouraged her to exhibit more widely and eventually became her principal dealer.

Another visitor was the artist and writer Einar Reuter (1881-1968). Although much younger than her, Schjerfbeck hoped a romantic relationship could be sparked between the two, however, it was not to be. Nonetheless, Reuter became a good friend and featured in a handful of her paintings. In 1919, Reuter sat for his portrait, however, the year before, he had sat for her in the guise of a sailor. This is a demonstration of Schjerfbeck’s fascination with superficial and true appearances.

Despite being thirty miles north of Helsinki, the Finnish Art Society commissioned Schjerfbeck to paint a self-portrait. In 1914, no other female artist had been invited to do the same and she felt vindicated by this commission, having been estranged from the society for so long. She submitted the result, Self-Portrait, Black Background, in September 1915.

Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits are evidence of her changing style and technique. She produced her first self-portrait at the age of 22, which demonstrated the methods she had been taught whilst leaning slightly towards impressionism. By 1915, however, her style had completely altered. No longer did she delicately paint her facial features, preferring to use flat shapes and colour instead. Her face has barely any sense of depth and her body is angular and flat.

Towards the end of her life, Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits became gradually more abstract, less human, and more alien or death-like. Her mother had died in 1923 and her health was deteriorating rapidly twenty years later. The Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939, sparking the Winter War and the fighting impacted heavily on her life. Evacuated several times to various sanatoriums, eventually ending up in Sweden, Schjerfbeck was anxious, lonely and unwell. With old age and her impending death on her mind, her self-portraits expressed her fears and depression rather than her true likeness.

Fortunately, life during the 1910s was generally good for Schjerfbeck. In 1917, she organised her first solo exhibition in Helsinki, bringing together 159 paintings. From this success, her first biography was published by Reuter under the alias H. Ahtela. Unfortuntely, it was only published in Finnish, therefore Schjerfbeck could not read it.

Whilst Schjerfbeck was celebrating her success, the Russian Revolution was in progress, which allowed Finland to declare independence. In order to establish a cultural identity, the new sovereign began to promote Finnish artists. In 1920, the state awarded Schjerfbeck the Order of the White Rose of Finland and a state pension. This marked her as one of the country’s best artists.

Shortly after her mother’s death, Schjerfbeck was taken seriously ill, moved to the town of Tammisaari and hired home help. Despite her health, she enjoyed living in the town, continuing to paint local women and children. She also painted relatives who came to visit, for instance, her nephew Måns Schjerfbeck (1897-1973). Once again, Schjerfbeck explored the fine line between superficial and real, painting a portrait of Måns in an imaginary role of The Driver. She also based paintings on her favourite works, such as El Greco’s (1541-1614) profile of the Madonna.

There was no chance of Schjerfbeck being lonely in Tammisaari; she was so famous that on her 70th birthday she had to hide to avoid all the well-wishers. None of this prevented her artistic success and she continued to receive an annual salary from her principal dealer Stenman. Her fame was also spreading on the continent with solo exhibitions in Sweden, Germany and France. The Royal Swedish Academy of Fine arts invited her to enrol as a foreign member in 1942, along with Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).

As well as portraits, Schjerfbeck produced many still-life paintings, taking inspiration from Cézanne. Many of these are abstract and focus intently on the relationship between space, tone and colour. Whilst she had produced still-lifes in the past, they became a predominant feature of her final years. Sent from place to place to avoid the war, Schjerfbeck painted the things around her, particularly fruit. Her final painting was Three Pears on a Plate, which is full of the sense of death and decay, similar to her self-portraits.

On 23rd January 1946, while staying at the Grand Hotel Saltsjöbaden in Sweden, Helene Schjerfbeck passed away at the age of 83, her easel by her bedside. Her ashes were buried alongside those of her parents in Helsinki and, later in the year, an exhibition toured Sweden and Finland in her memory. Ten years later, Schjerfbeck was posthumously selected to represent Finland at the 1956 Venice Biennale. To date, she remains Finland’s best known and most admired artist.

“Dreaming does not suit me. To work, to live through work, that is my path.”
– Helene Schjerfbeck

If Helene Schjerfbeck is Finland’s greatest artist, why is she not better known in the UK? Unlike on the continent, Schjerfbeck did not exhibit in the UK as often and, being a woman, tended to be overlooked. A planned exhibition in the USA was prevented by the war, diminishing her chances of becoming well-known on another continent.

Another reason for her lack of popularity is her work is not easy to categorise. Whilst her earlier work falls into the impressionist bracket, her mature work is a blend of cubism, post-impressionism and abstract expressionism. As a result, she gets omitted from exhibitions about individual art movements.

With the assistance of the Royal Academy, Helene Schjerfbeck has returned to the UK where a new generation has learnt her name and admired her work. Seventy-three years after her death, Schjerfbeck finally gets the chance to earn fame in other countries. But how long will it be before the whole world recognises her face?

The Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition can be viewed at the Royal Academy of Arts until 27th October 2019. Tickets are £14 and concessions are available. Under 16s are free when accompanied by a fee-paying adult.