till 27th October 2019 @ The Royal Academy of Arts, London


Helene Schjerfbeck is described by the Royal Academy of Arts, where her work is on display in the first major UK exhibition of her work, as “one of Finland’s best kept secrets”. This exhibition, of around 65 paintings, is a welcome introduction to an artist who is well-loved in Finland. The exhibition may be relatively small, but Schjerfbeck’s output was prodigious, and she made over 1,000 works of art over her long career.

The stillness and quiet intensity of Schjerfbeck’s work has drawn comparisons with the work of one of my favourite artists, the wonderful Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, who was active at a similar time, although to my mind her work doesn’t match the standard of his.

Schjerfbeck’s precocious talent was acknowledged by the age of 11, when she became the youngest ever student to be admitted to the drawing school of the Finnish art society. Although she travelled, living in Paris, and spending time in St Ives in the UK with artist friends (the gorgeous realist painting below, Portrait of a Girl was produced there in or around 1889), Schjerfbeck spent the greater part of her life in Finland.

Schjerfbeck’s life does not appear to have been chock-filled with happiness. She spent some years caring for her elderly mother, though they are understood to have had a bumpy relationship. Her own health suffered from the legacy of a childhood accident, which left her with chronic pain. She never married although she evidently wanted to – she was briefly engaged to a Parisian man who devastatingly left her; and seems to have had a massive crush on her 34-year-old friend Einar Reuter, whom she met at the age of 53. Schjerfbeck painted a sensuous portrait of Reuter as a bare-chested sailor (he wasn’t a sailor). Unfortunately her feelings weren’t reciprocated, or if they were, not for long, and Reuter married someone else, the news of which Schjerfbeck feared might kill her.

Schjerfbeck’s style varied widely. She enjoyed painting portraits, and she was very interested in fashion, subscribing to Parisian sartorial publications. As exemplified by the nautical painting of Reuter, she liked to paint her subjects in roles that they did not inhabit in real life. Her painting The Motorist, depicts her nephew as a debonair young man about town – although he didn’t drive a car.

Perhaps the most affecting room in the exhibition is filled with self-portraits, the first painted at the age of 22, and the last at the age of 83. An early self-portrait, from 1895, appears at the top of this post. The self-portrait below was painted in 1944. As she aged, Schjerkbeck’s self-portraits became more abstracted, revealing, the RA tells us, her “fascination with the physical and psychological effects of ageing”. As she ages, her form becomes blurred, her features hazy: a pictorial representation of breath becoming air. Or maybe her eyes were going.

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