Friday, June 01, 2012

Helene Schjerfbeck (an exhibition)

Helene Schjerfbeck, exhibition 1.6.2012 - 14.10.2012. Curator: Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse. Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki. Viewed on 1 June, 2012 (the day of the opening to the public).

Exhibition catalogue: Helene Schjerfbeck 150 Years. Chief editor: Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse. Helsinki: Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, 2012. - There are three different language editions of the book: Finnish, Swedish, and English.

The official introduction: "This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of the most important and recognised artists in the entire Nordic region, Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946). To celebrate this anniversary, Ateneum Art Museum is presenting the largest ever exhibition of Schjerfbeck's art. Over three hundred works of art will be on display, covering all periods of Schjerfbeck's artistic output - from her historical paintings of the 1880s to her later examples of minimalistic modernism."  

"The new exhibition will present Schjerfbeck's well-known classics alongside previously unseen or seldom exhibited works of art from private collections. A central theme of the exhibition is Schjerfbeck's interaction with the masters of world art. For the first time, Schjerfbeck's paintings after El Greco will be displayed alongside two original works by the Spanish master."

"The curator of the Helene Schjerfbeck anniversary exhibition is Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse, Chief Curator at Ateneum Art Museum. A comprehensive catalogue raisonné of Schjerfbeck's art will be published in connection with the exhibition in which researchers shed new light on the artist and her work. The catalogue is edited by Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse and Anu Utriainen and will be available in Finnish, Swedish and English."

"The exhibition at Ateneum is part of the official programme marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Helene Schjerfbeck. The anniversary will be celebrated throughout Finland with special exhibitions and events. The patroness of the anniversary year is President Tarja Halonen."

Schjerfbeck in Ateneum's collections

"Ateneum Art Museum has the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of Helene Schjerfbeck's art. The collection comprises a total of 212 paintings, drawings and sketchbooks. The first acquisition dates back more than 130 years to 1880, when the painting Wounded Warrior in the Snow was acquired by the Finnish Art Society. Ateneum's unique Schjerfbeck collection has also expanded over the years thanks to numerous valuable donations, the most significant being those of Nanny and Yrjö Kaunisto and of Ester and Jalo Sihtola."

"The Friends of Ateneum association has also added to the collection over the years. The most recent donation was made in autumn 2011, when the association presented Ateneum with five of Schjerfbeck's sketchbooks, a hundred sketches as well as photographs and other archive material."

"You can study Schjerfbeck works from the Ateneum collection by following an on-line trail A Journey with Helene Schjerfbeck that covers her long career and includes key works and quotations from her letters. Along the trail you will find drawings from a sketchbook collection donated by the Friends of the Ateneum. The commentary is by art historian Siina Hälikkä."

"The importance of Ateneum's Schjerfbeck collection has grown in recent years together with increased international interest in the artist's production. Already during her lifetime Schjerfbeck's art was displayed throughout Europe in numerous exhibitions of Finnish art. Art dealer Gösta Stenman began organising Schjerfbeck exhibitions in Finland in the 1910s. The extensive solo exhibition at Stenman's gallery in Stockholm in 1937 received a rapturous reception. After this, solo exhibitions were held also elsewhere in Sweden almost on a yearly basis."

"Her broader international breakthrough came in 2007, when a major retrospective exhibition of Schjerfbeck's art was held in Paris, Hamburg and the Hague. Attracting over 350,000 visitors, the exhibition aroused interest among researchers, artists and the general public alike."

"The most recent international exhibition of Schjerfbeck's art was in Ordrupgaard, Denmark, last autumn. The museum presented around sixty works, of which close to forty were from Ateneum's collection."

"Swedes will have another chance to admire Schjerfbeck's art after the exhibition at Ateneum, when a selection of paintings will travel to Prince Eugen's Museum in Stockholm and the Gothenburg Museum of Art."

Helene Schjerfbeck's work belongs to the treasures of Finnish art. This exhibition with 300 artworks is the most extensive ever, and there are several works on display that have never been exhibited in public before.

The talent of the prodigy Helene Schjerbeck was instantly recognized, and already at the age of 17 she sold her historical painting A Wounded Soldier in the Snow to what is now the collection of the national gallery. She was immediately compared with the most prestigious artists of her age such as Albert Edelfelt. She never stopped painting, and the last works listed in the catalogue are from the year 1945 (she died in 1946). Schjerfbeck's public career lasted over 65 years. Schjerfbeck has always been highly regarded in Nordic countries, and during the last decade she has been receiving a much larger international recognition in Paris and elsewhere, and her works have commanded high prices in international auctions.

The Ateneum exhibition is a powerful experience. Some of Schjerfbeck's works are among the most familiar in Finnish culture, but they are always worth revisiting, and in such an exhibition they receive new contexts. Variations of favourite themes can be examined. Unknown works are hanged next to familiar ones. For the first time we can see side by side the original El Greco paintings and Schjerfbeck's hommages to them (she, herself, had never seen the originals, and studied them only in art books).

We follow the long journey from Helsinki to Paris, Bretagne, St. Ives, Italy, Hyvinkää, Tammisaari, and Saltsjöbaden in Sweden.

From the historical quality paintings of the 1870s Schjerfbeck moves towards early abstractions, and back to more realistic studies. She reacted to the trends of the 1920s, got involved in dialogues with selected past masters such as the Mannerist El Greco, and never stopped changing. She moved again towards abstraction, now more boldly.

Her series of self-portraits is among the most devastating in the history of art. Her final self-portraits, after the end of WWII, are images of death that can be compared with paintings of Lucian Freud and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. For me they seem to reflect the desolation of what happened in WWII.

I had not seen before the painting Fête juive (Sukkot) painted in Helsinki in 1883, and in this exhibition I also made a connection between it and the final death's heads Schjerfbeck made after WWII.

Mostly the works are oil paintings on canvas. I studied them at close range, and I was happy that the surface of most of the works was naked. Some works had a reflecting glass which makes it impossible to really know the painting. There were others, such as the first self-portrait, with a non-reflecting glass which is not so bad. Oil-painting is three-dimensional. Studying it at close range I can appreciate the depth of the brush strokes. In the middle period Schjerfbeck refuses depth, favours bleak colours, and there is a sense that the light and the fire have been extinguished. She flattens the surfaces intentionally. Towards the end she again accepts depth in her oil paintings.

The lighting of the exhibition is mostly fine, but some paintings have been sheltered from spotlights, and when there is reflecting glass, one cannot really see the work.

The paintings one can really only know by seeing them "live", but the huge catalogue is an excellent companion. It is expensive but worth buying. I read it in advance at the café to study the chronology, the titles, the subjects, and the locations, in order to focus on the paintings only in the actual exhibition, without having to read title cards. Ateneum's online services are an excellent way to go even deeper in the subject.

If I would make a film about Helene Schjerfbeck, I would do it in the fashion of Luciano Emmer and Alain Resnais (Van Gogh), never leaving the frames of the paintings, editing an inner journey with camera movements and dissolves. In the end there would be a montage of all her self-portraits, ending with the living dead skull.

This deeply moving exhibition alone is a good reason to visit Helsinki.
A Journey with Helene Schjerfbeck (an online art trail):
1. A Journey with Helene Schjerfbeck
2. Childhood Drawings
3. History Paintings
4. Naturalism
5. Simplification of the Subject
6. The Copies
7. New Versions
8. Pictures of Children
9. Stylization
10. Still-Lifes
11. Towards the Abstract
12. The Modern Portrait
13. Lithographs
14. Self-Portraits
15. Script and Sources

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