Gauguin Portraits

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Self Portrait, 1885

This winter (2019) in an exhibition sponsored by Credit Suisse, the National Gallery is providing visitors with the opportunity to view the portraits of Paul Gauguin. Never exhibited together before, the portraits illustrate the artist’s life from his early years in France to his last in French Polynesia. Fifty paintings have been sourced from collections all over the world that demonstrate Gauguin’s experimental use of colour and Synthetist style that, whilst unappreciated during his lifetime, have made him an important figure in art history.

The exhibition begins with a selection of Gauguin’s self-portraits. Described as self-obsessed, Gauguin painted himself many times throughout his career, believing that the world could only be understood from his point of view. He thought art could only exist in relation to memory, dreams, heritage and emotions, therefore, many of his paintings reflect the way he saw the world.

Often, Gauguin used himself as a model for paintings that were not necessarily intended to be self-portraits. By adopting other personas, Gauguin placed himself in histories and mythologies, showing the world how he interpreted the stories.

On more than one occasion, Gauguin painted himself as Christ. He is not the only artist to have done this; Dürer (1471-1528), for instance, had used himself as a model for Christ centuries before. Gauguin’s features are highly recognisable in his paintings of Christ and his facial expressions demonstrate Christ’s anguish and distress. He found a parallel between himself and Christ, feeling that he too was misunderstood.

In Christ in the Garden of Olives, the red-haired Gauguin depicts himself as Christ on the eve of his betrayal. When he painted this, Gauguin was struggling to sell his work and felt isolated and persecuted by the art world. By using himself as the model for this Biblical event, Gauguin communicated his own sense of suffering.

There is less emotion in Self Portrait (Near Golgotha), which was painted in front of Gauguin’s impression of the hill on which Christ was crucified. To the left of Christ – or Gauguin – is the head of a Polynesian idol. To understand this reference, the viewer needs to know a little about Gauguin’s life, particularly his later years.

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Paul Gauguin, 1981

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris on 7th June 1848 to Clovis Gauguin and Aline Chazal. Both parents were rather radical; his father was a journalist and his mother was the daughter of the political and feminist activist, Flora Tristan (1803-44).

Gauguin’s mother was of Spanish-Peruvian descent and the family decided to move to Peru in 1849 shortly after the Revolution in France. Clovis hoped the move would help his journalistic career, however, he died of a heart attack en route. Aline arrived in Peru a widow with 18-month-old Paul and his 212 year-old sister, Marie. They were welcomed by Aline’s great-uncle whose son-in-law was soon to become the president of Peru. Due to the prestige of his mother’s family, Gauguin grew up attended by nursemaids and servants.

Unfortunately, Gauguin’s family fell from political power during Peruvian civil conflicts in 1854 and returned to France. Gauguin and his sister were left in the care of his paternal grandfather in Orléans while his mother worked as a dressmaker in Paris. Despite this unconventional life, Gauguin received a prestigious Catholic education at Petit Séminaire de La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, a boarding school in the north of France. This was followed by a couple of years at the Loriol Institute, a naval school preparatory in Paris, and a final year at the Lycée Jeanne D’Arc in Orléans.

On finishing school, Gauguin enlisted as a pilot’s assistant in the merchant marine and later served in the French Navy for two years. Unbeknownst to him, his mother died on 7th July 1867 whilst he was at sea and he did not learn of the death until his sister found him in India. Although he had enjoyed sailing around the world, Gauguin returned to Paris where family friend Gustave Arosa acted as his legal guardian.

With Arosa’s help, Gauguin got a job as a stockbroker at the Paris Bourse when he was twenty-three years old. Over the next decade, Gauguin became a successful businessman earning 30,000 francs a year. During this time, he met a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad (1850–1920) who he married in 1873. Around the same time, he began painting in his free time and became friends with the French-Danish painter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) who encouraged Gauguin’s love of art.

Pissarro introduced Gauguin to other artists, including Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922). He was encouraged to take part in three Impressionist exhibitions, however, the reviews he received were rather dismissive in comparison to the highly regarded opinions today.

Gauguin and Mette had five children: Émile (1874–1955); Aline (1877–97); Clovis (1879–1900); Jean René (1881–1961); and Paul Rollon (1883–1961), who were frequent subjects of Gauguin’s paintings. Initially, the Gauguin family were fairly well off, however, in 1882 the Paris stock market crashed causing Gauguin’s earnings to diminish almost entirely. As a result, he decided to become a full-time painter.

The family moved to Rouen on the River Seine where they could live more cheaply. Gauguin hoped he would be able to earn a living from his paintings, however, the venture proved unsuccessful. As he was unable to provide for them, Mette and the children moved to Copenhagen, presumably to stay with her family. Gauguin and his art collection joined them in 1884, however, the Danish city proved to be as equally difficult to establish himself as an artist. He was soon urged to return to Paris along with his six-year-old son Clovis.

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Still Life with Profile of Laval, 1886

Gauguin found it hard to get back into the Parisian art world and was virtually living in poverty. He took on menial jobs to earn a bit of money but it was not enough to live on and his son Clovis fell ill. This prompted Gauguin’s sister to pay for Clovis to attend boarding school.

Without Clovis to look after, Gauguin was able to focus on his art. Although he did not produce many paintings during this time, he tried to sell artworks he had produced in Rouen and Copenhagen. He exhibited in the final Impressionist exhibition in May 1886, which had a similar outcome to the previous three, however, he did sell one painting to the French painter Félix Bracquemond (1833-1914).

Attracted by the affordable living conditions, Gauguin spent the summer of 1886 in the artist’s colony of Pont-Aven in Brittany. Many art students visited the area, including Charles Laval (1861-94) who became an admirer and follower of Gauguin. In a still-life resembling the work of Cézanne, Gauguin included a side profile of Laval at the edge of the picture looking at the fruit displayed on the table.

The following year, Laval accompanied Gaugain to Panama and Martinique in the Caribbean. Despite suffering from dysentery and marsh fever, he produced a dozen paintings. On his return to France, these were displayed in a gallery where they were admired by Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) and the art dealer Theo van Gogh (1857-91). Theo purchased three of Gauguin’s paintings for 900 francs and arranged for them to be hung in his art gallery.

Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh became close friends and in 1888 Gauguin was invited to spend nine weeks at his Yellow House in Arles. They spent the time painting together, often producing the same scenes. On more than one occasion, they set their easels up side by side to paint portraits, for example, Augustine Roulin (1851-1930), the postman’s wife. Whilst Van Gogh rapidly completely his painting with large brushstrokes, Gauguin took his time using washes of flat, bold colours that almost resemble Japanese woodblock prints. Another portrait they both produced was of Marie Ginous (1848-1911), the owner of the Café de la Gare near Van Gogh’s home. Once again, Van Gogh immediately attacked his canvas with paint, whereas, Gauguin spent at least an hour making a detailed charcoal sketch before moving on to paint.

Whilst in Arles, Gauguin experimented with Van Gogh’s technique of completing a painting in one sitting. This was very different from his usual approach, which involved working over many sessions, however, the result is a pleasing, more energetic, freer portrait. The rapid brushstrokes of Old Man with a Stick emphasise the roughened skin of the sitter, particularly his red-raw hands from years of manual work.

Unfortunately, Gauguin’s close relationship with Van Gogh was not to last. The Dutch painter’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating and Gauguin decided he ought to leave. Distraught, Van Gogh, who worship Gauguin, confronted him with a razor blade, however, Gauguin still left and never saw Van Gogh again. Reportedly, later that evening, Van Gogh cut off his ear and gave it to a woman in a brothel saying, “keep this object carefully, in remembrance of me.”

Through Van Gogh’s brother Theo, Gauguin met the Dutch artist Meijer de Haan (1852-95). Together, Gauguin and De Haan visited Brittany where Gauguin produced many portraits of the artist. The National Gallery displays a couple of drawings Gauguin produced, presumably studies for larger paintings, and a wooden carving.

As well as painting, Gauguin produced sculptures from a variety of materials. In this instance, Gauguin produced a wooden sculpture of De Haan in the style of the religious sculptures they saw in Brittany. Originally decorated with brightly painted ambiguous symbols, De Haan’s face rises out of a block of oak wood. On his head is a winged creature that some believe to be a rooster, which would be a play on the English translation of De Haan’s name.

In 1891, Gauguin saw his family for the last time in Copenhagen. Gauguin and Mette’s marriage had fallen apart when he chose painting over his family and the rift was irreparable. His wife asked him to leave and Gauguin decided to leave European civilisation altogether.

After a successful auction of his paintings, Gauguin used the money to pay for his voyage to the Pacific island of Tahiti where he hoped to find a culture unspoilt by the West. He was fed up with the “artificial and conventional” European culture, however, when he reached Tahiti he was dismayed to discover that the island had been taken over by missionaries and French colonialists. He settled in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, but was upset at the lack of the primitive idyll he had visualised.

Missionaries distrusted the traditional Tahitian way of life and forced the women to wear modest clothing based on the styles worn in Europe. Outraged by this, Gauguin soon moved to Papeari in the south of the Island where he hoped to discover a more authentic lifestyle. Examples of the clothing the Tahitian women were forced to wear can be seen in many of Gauguin’s paintings produced on the Island. In Melancholic, a young Tahitian woman wears a bright pink missionary dress, however, her melancholic demeanour implies she is less than happy about the gradual disappearance of her culture in the wake of colonial contact.

While in Papeari, Gauguin was involved in many sexual relations with young Tahitian girls. He supposedly married two of them, although the term “marry” is rather loose, after all, he still had a European wife. His first Tahitian “wife” Tehamana (1878-1918) was only 13 or 14 years old when they met and, although it was customary for women to marry young, Gauguin may have exploited his privilege as a Westerner to claim her.
Tehamana features in many of Gauguin’s portraits, for example, Woman with a Mango, which was later purchased by Edgar Degas (1834-1917) in 1895. In the majority of these paintings, Tehamana is an anonymous model, however, on one occasion, Gauguin names her in the title. The Ancestors of Tehamana shows Tehamana in a typical missionary dress, however, she is surrounded by spiritual references from her past, or at least Gauguin’s interpretation of traditional Tahitian beliefs. Symbols include glyphs similar to those found on ancient tablets, a female figure and spirits of the dead.

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Arii matamoe (The Royal End), 1892

In an attempt to console himself from his disappointment at the lack of authentic culture, Gauguin often added fictional elements to his paintings. Gauguin wanted to paint local customs but found they were remarkably similar to those back home. After witnessing the funeral of Pōmare V (1839-91), a Tahitian king, Gauguin painted an imagined version of events, which included the disembodied head of the deceased being displayed and mourned over.

Gauguin sent many of his Tahitian paintings to France where his patron, George-Daniel de Monfreid (1856-1929) arranged for them to be displayed in a couple of exhibitions. Unfortunately, not many sold and Gauguin was getting dangerously low on funds. He was also suffering from a suspected heart problem, which in hindsight may have been early signs of cardiovascular syphilis, so Gauguin decided to return to France, leaving his “wife” and newborn child behind.

Gauguin arrived in Marseille on 30th August 1893. Although he was back in France, his work was still focused on Tahitian life. He began writing an account of his time on the island in a book called Noa Noa, however, critics claim it to be highly fictionalised and, on occasion, plagiarised.

Tahiti’s influence can be seen in Gauguin’s self-portrait from 1893. Although he wears typical Breton clothing, a sculpture of a Polynesian goddess can be seen in the background. Interestingly, Gauguin did not produce any pictures of himself while in Tahiti, yet immediately returned to the topic on his return to France.

After a moderately successful exhibition in November 1894, he moved to 6 rue Vercingétorix in the Montparnasse district of Paris where he hosted regular gatherings with artists, musicians and writers. He was known for his exotic dress sense which exuded the atmosphere of the South Seas. Unfortunately, sales of his paintings were either slow or non-existent, so he decided to try his luck in Brittany.

While in Brittany, Gauguin demonstrated the typical scenes he saw in colonised Tahiti. Armed with a bright yellow missionary dress he had brought with him, Gauguin commissioned a young Breton woman to pose as a model. Standing on the wayside praying, Gauguin’s representation of the woman combines traditional Breton lifestyle with missionary characteristics.

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Still Life with Apples, a Pear, and a Ceramic Portrait Jug, 1889

In 1895, after raising a tiny amount of money, Gauguin returned to Tahiti. For a time, he achieved a steady stream of sales and lived a comfortable life with other artists near Papeete. He took on another “wife” called Pau’ura, however, their daughter passed away shortly after birth. By this time he was also suffering from ill health and spent a short time in hospital during the summer of 1896.

The following year, Gauguin was able to send some of his artwork to France where they were exhibited in Paris as well as Brussels in Belgium. During this time, his book Noa Noa was being published in instalments. Yet, this brief period of positivity was not to last. In April 1897, Gauguin received the terrible news that his daughter Aline had died from pneumonia at the age of nineteen. Devastated, the news led him to attempt suicide.

Once again suffering financially, Gauguin was compelled to take a desk job at the Office of Public Works in Papeete. Meanwhile, the art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1886-1939) attempted to sell Gauguin’s paintings in France.

Gauguin began to play a role in Tahitian politics and contributed to the colonial government journal Les Guêpes (The Wasps). This encouraged him to establish his own monthly satirical journal Le Sourire: Journal sérieux (The Smile: A Serious Newspaper), later retitled Journal méchant (A Wicked Newspaper). In 1900, he also became the editor of Les Guêpes from which he received a salary.

Life on Tahiti was becoming increasingly westernised and Gauguin was frequently in hospital. Regardless of his health, Gauguin was determined to find somewhere more “authentic” and in September 1901 moved to the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa in Polynesia. There was no doctor on the island and Gauguin had to rely on the Protestant pastor Paul Vernier, who had a little medical training.

Gauguin and Vernier became friends, however, many of the missionaries on the island were not impressed with his studio called the “House of Pleasure” in which he conducted relationships with local women as well as painting. Gauguin was particularly averse to the bishop Monseigneur Joseph Martin whose likeness he carved from miro wood. Titled Père Paillard (Father Lecher), Gauguin included devil horns to show how he really felt about the bishop.

When he was well enough, Gauguin painted portraits of the locals in their native costume or lack of, such as in Barbarian Tales. Another caricature of the bishop can be seen behind the two semi-naked ladies in the foreground.

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Self Portrait, 1903

By 1903, Gauguin’s health was rapidly deteriorating. He painted his final self-portrait, which was much simpler and less exotic than his usual style, and gave it as a gift to the Vietnamese exile Nguyen Van Cam (Ky Dong) who, along with Vernier, helped to look after him in his ill-health.

On 8th May 1903, Gauguin was weak and in great pain. He sent for Pastor Vernier, complaining that he kept experiencing fainting fits. Vernier ensured he was stable, however, later that day he was found dead by a neighbour. An empty bottle of laudanum on the bedside suggested he may have been the victim of an overdose, however, the general consensus is that he had suffered a heart attack.

Like his old friend Van Gogh, Gauguin did not receive any accolades until after his death. Today, people flock to exhibitions to see his work and his paintings belong to collections all over the world. Whilst the National Gallery’s exhibition only focuses on portraits, it manages to tell the story of Gauguin’s life from birth through to his final days. A 15-minute video provides specific details and an analysis of his work.

Paul Gauguin would be amazed to see the number of people purchasing tickets to see his work. He would never have thought that his work would sell for $210 million, as one piece did in 2014. He was also the inspiration for W. Somerset Maugham’s (1875-1965) novel The Moon and Sixpence.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition Gauguin Portraits can be seen at the National Gallery in London until 26th January 2020. Tickets are priced at £22-24, although various concessions apply.

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.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

For the first time ever, the possessions of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo have left Mexico and arrived at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to help tell her powerful, yet tragic story, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up. Beginning with an introduction to her family and ending with an impressive collection of clothing, Kahlo’s personal belongings, which were not discovered until 2004, reveal how she assembled her personal identity and coped with her many hardships.

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was born on 6th July 1907 and would grow up to become a painter of surrealism and folk art based on her strong opinions about identity, postcolonialism, gender, class, and race in Mexican society. Unfortunately, life was not going to be easy for Kahlo, particularly where her health was concerned.

Kahlo’s parents were the German photographer Guillermo Kahlo (1871–1941) and Matilde Calderón y González (1876–1932) of indigenous descent. Although she had three sisters and two step-sisters, it appears that Frida was the favourite. Whilst her siblings went to a convent school, her father insisted she was enrolled into a German school. The reason for her father’s favouritism was on account of her disabilities as a result of Polio, which she contracted when she was six years old. As a result, her right leg was much shorter and thinner than the left.

Unfortunately, children were no better than they are today and bullied Frida about her defects. Isolated from her peers, her father took it upon himself to teach her about literature, nature, and philosophy, which set her in good stead for her political future with the Communist party. Guillermo also taught his daughter about photography, thus introducing Frida into the world of art and composition.

Frida Kahlo’s childhood took place during a time when women were not given equal opportunities and were regarded as weaker and lesser than men. Therefore, Kahlo’s determination to go to school to train to be a doctor shows her strength of character. Unfortunately, this dream of hers was never to be fulfilled. On 17th September 1925, whilst on her way home from school, Kahlo suffered near-fatal injuries after the bus she was travelling on collided with a street car. Lucky to survive, unlike many of the other passengers, Kahlo suffered fractured ribs, leg and collarbone and an iron handrail impaled through her pelvis.

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Plaster corset painted and decorated by Frida Kahlo

Kahlo suffered from pain and illness for the rest of her life as a result of the crash, however, it opened up an entirely new career path for her. During her recovery, Kahlo spent the majority of time in bed, her back held up by uncomfortable plaster corsets, some of which can be seen in the exhibition. Lying on her back with a specially crafted table over her legs, Kahlo stared at herself in a mirror positioned above her bed and began to paint her self-portrait.

Self-portraits make up the majority of Kahlo’s paintings, using them as a means of exploring her identity and existence. Although she never painted the terrible traffic collision, Kahlo expressed her feelings and pain through her artwork. Many of these are made up of several surreal elements, commenting on different aspects of her life.

The V&A does not display many of her paintings, however, except for a still life at the beginning of the exhibition, the few that are shown are self-portraits. These are spread throughout the gallery in order to expand upon the personal objects and periods of her life.

Frida Kahlo can be recognised by her black hair and a striking monobrow, as well as the fine black hairs between her nose and lips – an element many female artists would choose to omit when painting their self-portrait. Although she utilised make-up and carefully styled her hair, Kahlo was not one to be oppressed by female stereotypes. Her strong facial hair was a part of her and she wore it with pride and never let it bother her, even when some young American boys heckled her in the street, asking where the circus was.

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Selection of cosmetics owned by Frida Kahlo

A few of the cosmetics and medications Kahlo frequently used are in display cases along with her sewing box, hairbrush and jewellery. Visitors can also see remnants of paint tubes and brushes personally used by Kahlo shortly before her death in 1954.

These belongings open a window into Kahlo’s life, which the symbolism in her paintings does not quite achieve. Whilst her self-portraits are a visual description of her appearance and cultural identity, the personal items reveal the true woman behind the paintbrush.

Kahlo typically included Mexican components in her paintings as well as the occasional post-colonialism reference. The colours, style of clothing and atmosphere are the type she experienced growing up in Mexico, which she endeavoured to hold onto despite the rise in Americanisation. Kahlo often painted exotic plants native to the country in the backgrounds and foregrounds of her portraits and sometimes included likenesses of her pets, which were also endemic to Mexico, for instance, spider monkeys.

Whenever Kahlo was unwell, her paintings reflected the pain and frustration she was feeling. Kahlo represented herself as wounded and broken, or like a child, depending on how the circumstances affected her mentality. Toward the end of her life, expressing the pain she was in became a common theme for Kahlo.

In The Broken Column (1944), Kahlo paints herself in the nude, her stomach and torso split apart to reveal a broken column that could topple at any moment. Her arms and face are attacked by nails, which, although draw no blood, express the pain and distress she was under at the time. The metaphor of the broken column alludes to the state her spine was in by the 1940s. Her back had worsened to the point that she could no longer sit or stand for any length of time due to the pain and lack of strength in the bones. Despite undergoing several operations throughout her life, nothing had cured her spinal problems and she was soon due to undergo an operation to fuse a bone graft and a steel support to her spine in order to straighten it. Regrettably, this procedure was also unsuccessful.

Despite this, Frida remained mentally strong, as emphasised by her stoic facial expression in the painting and upright posture. The tears on her face represent how she is feeling inside, but the vacuous facial features do not give any of that away. Her eyes look straight ahead at the audience as though she is conveying her spiritual triumph through a glance, challenging herself and others to accept the situation as it is and learn to endure and live with it.

Whilst Kahlo was recovering from the bus crash, other people her age were finishing school and attending university. Although she had missed out on her chance to attend herself, once she was released from bed rest in 1927, she regained contact with her friends and joined them in their involvement with student politics. This quickly led to joining the Mexican Communist Party where Kahlo was introduced to many notable people, including the most successful Mexican painter at the time, Diego Rivera (1886-1957). As well as her politics, Rivera was interested in her artwork stating, “it was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.”

Despite the age gap, Rivera and Kahlo became a couple and were later married in 1929. Kahlo’s parents regarded the match as a “marriage between an elephant and a dove,” however, Kahlo’s father was pleased she had married a rich man who could support her expensive medical treatment. The pair moved to the state of Morelos where Rivera, as a mural painter, had been given a commission. Unfortunately, this meant Kahlo was exposed to the fighting of the Mexican civil war. It is believed this sparked her preference of traditional peasant clothing and Mexican style art, now that she was more aware of the importance of Mexican identity and history.

Rivera had to move around a lot depending on who commisioned him for a mural. In 1930, Kahlo went with him to San Francisco in the United States where she was introduced to a number of American painters. Whilst the trip was by no means horrible, Kahlo was unimpressed by American life, which she regarded as boring, and made her even more determined to express her own heritage in her artwork.

One of the paintings she produced at this time emphasises her longing for her home country. Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America (1932) shows the artist standing on an imaginary boundary stone between her country and the country in which she was currently residing. She paints herself in traditional clothing, holding a Mexican flag, indicating her loyalty to her country.

Facing towards Mexico, a handful of crops grow in the foreground, symbolising Mexico’s agricultural history, however, the background is the type of scene Kahlo saw whilst in America. Tall buildings obscure the sky and chimney stacks pollute the air with smoke. On the left, a pre-Columbian building lies partially ruined and being struck by lightning, suggesting that America has destroyed the indigenous origins of the country.

Kahlo’s marriage was not much of a happy one. A number of times, Kahlo fell pregnant but feeling unable to carry and care for a baby, had the pregnancies terminated. Later, she decided she would like to try to carry a baby to full term, however, in her weakened state, her body was unable to cope and resulted in miscarriages. Whilst the loss of an unborn baby can be hard upon a couple, it was Rivera’s womanising ways that caused the most strain. After he had an affair with Kahlo’s younger sister, she moved out and began affairs of her own, with both men and with women. This included Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) who was living in Kahlo’s house after seeking asylum in Mexico. Eventually, Kahlo and Rivera were granted a divorce in 1939, however, they remained on friendly terms.

The Two Fridas (1939) was painted shortly after the couple’s divorce. In this self-portrait, Kahlo has painted herself twice; on the right is Frida wearing traditional costume and on the left, she wears modern clothing. Both Frida’s are holding hands and their hearts, which are visible on top of their chests, are joined together by a single artery.

Kahlo admitted that the painting represents her broken heart and loneliness after her separation from her husband. Torn between her traditional Mexican values and the modern developments occurring throughout the country, she felt lost and unable to determine her own identity. Without Rivera, Kahlo had lost a little bit of herself.

Sadly, for Kahlo, divorce was soon to be the least of her worries. As previously mentioned, Kahlo’s spine was rapidly deteriorating during the 1940s, however, to make matters worse, in 1953 her right leg, already disfigured from Polio, developed gangrene and had to be amputated below the knee. She had a prosthetic leg made so that she could still move about, albeit slowly and in pain. The V&A displays her prosthetic wearing one of her bright red leather boots. Co-curator Circe Henestrosa declared, “this is my favourite object in the exhibition. It is really modern, and it symbolises her whole attitude. Far from letting herself be defined as an invalid, she intervened as a rebel act. She was comfortable uncovering her disabilities.”

On the night of 12th July 1954, Kahlo was in bed suffering from severe pain and a high fever. Having anticipated her death days before, Kahlo had produced a sketch of the Angel of Death annotated with the words, “I joyfully await the exit — and I hope never to return — Frida.” When Kahlo’s nurse came to check on her at 6am the next morning, she was dead.

According to Wikipedia, the Tate Modern has listed Kahlo as “one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century”, and art historian Elizabeth Bakewell concurs that Kahlo was “one of Mexico’s most important twentieth-century figures”. Kahlo’s fame has increased posthumously both as an artist and an unconventional personality. She is admired by feminists and people of the LGBT community on account of her bisexuality.

The V&A exhibition culminates with an extraordinary selection of Kahlo’s clothing, which was discovered in 2004 locked away in her personal bathroom of her house-cum-museum. All the outfits are full of bright colours and displayed on shop dummies created to look like Frida Kahlo, complete with her traditional braided hairstyle.

The style of dress is called Tehuana and comprises of several pieces. The blouses, or Huipile, were typical in Mexico and Central American countries and were usually made by hand. The embroidery is intricately beautiful and must have taken days or even weeks to produce; no doubt these items are one of a kind.

The skirts are floor length and equally delicately decorated. The material would have been perfect for Kahlo to cover up her disfigured leg and, later, the prosthetic leg. The skirt and Huipile were combined with various shawls or rezbos, which were wrapped around the shoulders. Although this was the traditional garb of Mexican peasants, the colours were fit for the elite.

“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”
-Frida Kahlo

The V&A has done a wonderful job, as always, with Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up. Rather than concentrating on her artwork, the museum looks at her entire life from birth to death. With only a limited selection of paintings available, visitors learn more about Kahlo as a person rather than a painter. They discover her passionate determination, her background, the future she paved for herself and, most importantly, the way she wished to be seen by the world.

Most people who visit the exhibition will likely have already heard of and know a little about Frida Kahlo. This is a great benefit because the museum does not elaborate much on certain events of her life. Another downside, as overheard whilst walking around the exhibition, is some of the information about certain paintings or photographs is far too low and small to read for many people, resulting in crowds bending over to get a closer look. Whilst there are booklets with large print available, there are not enough for everyone, especially as the tickets are usually sold out by mid-morning.

The V&A will be showing Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up until Sunday 4th November 2018. Tickets cost £15 and can be booked online, which is strongly advisable to limit disappointment.