Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Through My Travels I Found Myself: Helene Schjerfbeck (exhibition)

Helene Schjerfbeck: Girl from Barösund (1885–1890). Oil on canvas. 58 x 65. Private collection. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jenni Nurminen. Please click on the images to enlarge them.

Helene Schjerfbeck: Mother and child (1886). Oil on canvas. 72,5 x 92. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, Montgomery Collection. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen.

Helene Schjerfbeck: Dance Shoes (1882). Oil on canvas. 58 x 65. Private collection. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jenni Nurminen.

Helene Schjerfbeck: The Door (1884). Oil on canvas. 40,5 x 32,5. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Yehia Eweis.

Helene Schjerfbeck: Self-Portrait with Red Spot, 1944. Oil on canvas, 45 x 37. Gösta and Bertha Stenman Donation. A IV 3744. The red spot is brighter in the original. Ateneum Art Museum / Finnish National Gallery. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Henri Tuomi.

Through My Travels I Found Myself – Helene Schjerfbeck.
Maailmalta löysin itseni.
Resorna ledde till mig själv
    The exhibition started at Royal Academy of Arts, London, 20.7.–27.10.2019.
Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, 15.11.2019–26.1.2020.
Curated by Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, chief curator at the Ateneum
with freelance curator Jeremy Lewison
and curators Sarah Lea and Désirée de Chair from the Royal Academy.
Exhibition architect: Maara Kinnermä.

Book to the exhibition:
Helene Schjerfbeck.
Foreword: Christopher Le Brun, Marja Sakari.
Essays: Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, Jeremy Lewison, Désirée de Chair.
Catalogue: Jeremy Lewison.
– Paris, Pont-Aven and St Ives
– Moments of Silence
– The Modern Look
– Still-Life
– Self-Portraits.
In English, hard cover, 165 pages, 67 catalogue reproductions, 68 other illustrations, etc.
ISBN 978-1-912520-03-09
London: Royal Academy of the Arts, 2019.

Official introduction by Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff: "All in all Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946) spent some six years in France during her career. She studied in Paris and spent shorter periods in Brittany, where she created her first boldly reductive works such as The Door (1884). This period provided her with inspiration throughout the rest of her life. Schjerfbeck also twice visited St Ives in Cornwall and participated in exhibitions in England in 1889 and 1890. Although this was a short period, it had a major impact on her career. One of Schjerfbeck's most paintings, The Convalescent (1888), was created in St Ives."

"This exhibition exploress the trajectory of a talented art student on her journey to becoming one of the most formidable artists in the history of Finnish art. It focuses above all on her travels in the late 1800s to Paris and to Pont-Aven in northern France, Fiesole in Italy and St Ives in Great Britain. The exhibition highlights the importance of travel and place for Schjerfbeck's paintings, as well as practice - and, more specifically, how they later affected her work in Finland."

"The main thematic areas in the exhibition are landscapes, still lifes and important people in the artist's life. The innermost core of Schjerfbeck's work is an extraordinary series of self-portraits in which the artist examines the process of ageing, from youth to old age and death. The show features a selection of Schjerfbeck's self-portraits from 1884 to 1945, presented in chronological order. Altogether the exhibition includes over 130 paintings, drawings and sketchbooks, which demonstrate Schjerfbeck's independent and powerful artistic contribution as a pioneer of modern art."

"In recent years, Schjerfbeck's art has featured in many exhibitions in Europe and Japan. The show at the Royal Academy of Arts was the first of its art in Britain. This exhibition is a collaborative effort by the Royal Academy of Arts and the Ateneum." (Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff)

The structure of the exhibition:
– Gallery 31: – Family – Art Studies – Paris
– Gallery 30: – Brittany – St Ives – Italy
– Gallery 29: – Hyvinkää
– Gallery 28: – The Modern World – Still Life
– Gallery 27: – Self-Portraits

AA: Helene Schjerfbeck has been revered in Nordic countries for over a century, and since the last 12 years she has been prominently recognized internationally – in Hamburg, Paris and The Hague in 2007, in Frankfurt in 2014, in Japan in 2016, and this year in London where she had been exhibited for the first time already in the 1880s. A major Schjerfbeck exhibition was planned in the U.S. in 1939 but the Second World War interrupted the project.

As for Helsinki, Helene Schjerfbeck 150 was the biggest exhibition ever with some 300 works on display in 2012 at Ateneum. A magnificent, definitive catalogue raisonné (also in English) was edited by Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse, the curator of the exhibition. This year's exhibition is a co-production with Royal Academy of Arts. It has been intelligently curated by Anna-Maria Bonsdorff with Jeremy Lewison, Sarah Lea and Désirée de Chair, combining a fresh foreign look with our native expertise. (Schjerfbeck's work is on permanent display at Ateneum and other museums in Finland).

During her Wanderjahre in 1880–1894 Schjerfbeck's main stronghold was Paris, but she also worked in Brittany, Cornwall and Tuscany and visited St Petersburg to work at the Hermitage and Vienna to copy masterpieces at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. She gained experiences and influences for a lifetime.

She started as a master of 19th century realism, but early on (see the image above of The Door, 1884, painted at the Chapel of Trémalo in Pont-Aven, Finistère, Brittany) she had a penchant for a stark reduction of the expression. Because the response was not encouraging, she kept this preference underdeveloped for a long time.

There is a strangely withdrawn atmosphere in Schjerfbeck's family portraits, a hidden sorrow and a sense of mystery. Helene's mother's portraits have been understandably compared with Whistler, but Schjerfbeck's mood is different and startling. The mother rejects her daughter who becomes her caregiver.

During the years of wandering there is a breath of fresh air into Schjerfbeck's art. She finds ideal and inspiring conditions for work in Brittany and Cornwall and becomes a member of supportive communities. In love she is disappointed and walks a lonely lane as a single woman artist. Women were discriminated, but there were prominent artist couples in Finland. Riitta Konttinen has put women painters of the period in context in several exhibitions and books, for instance in the exhibition Helene Schjerfbeck and Sisters in Art in Retretti in 2010.

Having returned to Helsinki, Schjerfbeck worked as a teacher at the Finnish Art Society until 1902 when she moved to the little town of Hyvinkää to care for her mother. The "Moments of Silence" theme is dedicated to this period with powerful works such as Silence (1907) and Maria (1909). The composition is stark, the brushstrokes are refined, and there is a special luminosity in the paintings. On the other hand, Jeremy Lewison writes: "The models appear withdrawn, suffering from ennui and the hardships of dreary, industrial work. They are the epitome of the modern, working-class woman, their blankness a condition of the age".

Schjerfbeck was aware of the many new trends and isms of modern art but did not follow any of them. She pursued her own path. In The Skier (1909) she painted her interpretation of the theme of the clown / Pierrot that had inspired Seurat, Cézanne and Picasso, as Lewison reminds us. A girl's protective ski lotion and the red glow on her cheeks make her look like a clown. The influence of the clown image stays with Schjerfbeck. The greatest hit film of this autumn is Joker (2019) written and directed by Todd Phillips. The coexistence of laughter and desolation is also relevant in Schjerfbeck, as is the coexistence of life and death in the painted, mask-like visage.

Modern life and also modern fashion interested Schjerfbeck, and she even took motifs directly from fashion magazines. The paintings in this section may look less fascinating when examined from a distance. The impression changes completely when they are studied more closely. Their liveliness and uniqueness is in their vibrant brushstroke. The generic subjects of the paintings are merely  excuses for painterly journeys of discovery. A similar thing happens with still lifes. In paintings such as Red Apples (1915) Schjerfbeck is at her most coloristic. The pictures are figurative but border on the abstract.

Self-portraits are the heart of any Helene Schjerfbeck exbition. As Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff stated in her introduction, there may be no other artist who has such a long continuity in self-portraits – 65 years, from 1880 until 1945. In this exhibition we see a selection of 16 self-portraits collected in Gallery 27.

Jeremy Lewison in his essay recalls self-portraits by Rembrandt, Titian, Goya, Delacroix, van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Kollwitz, Redon, Carrière, Corinth, Bonnard and Munch, whom Schjerfbeck may have known and of whom Munch and Bonnard were contemporaries. He also reminds us of Alice Neel, Maria Lassnig, Stanley Spencer and Lucian Freud.

The French art historian Laurent Fiévet has had the intuition that Alfred Hitchcock must have been inspired by Helene Schjerfbeck's self-portraits while directing Psycho and The Birds. The architect Juhani Pallasmaa is able to document how and where the acquaintance took place. It is up to him to publish his findings in writing, but he already told the story in our Film and Psyche 12: The Look symposium last spring.

The shock impact of Schjerbeck's last self-portraits from 1944–1945 is similar with the one caused by Mummy Bates in Psycho, the eyeless corpses of the farmers in the Birds, as well as the paralyzing fear of death experienced by Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) in the same film.

The connection is not trivial. Psycho and The Birds were made at the intersection between traditional and modern American cinema. Alfred Hitchcock broke a tacit agreement between the viewer and the film-maker: he shattered (to speak with Erik H. Eriksson) the basic trust of the viewer in the classical identification system of Hollywood entertainment.

Helene Schjerfbeck in her self-portraits traversed the mirror like Jean Cocteau in his Orphic trilogy, paying visits to the land of death. And she went through the looking glass like Alice in Lewis Carroll's fairy-tale. Schjerfbeck reached beyond identity and life itself.

Schjerfbeck painted her late self-portraits during the years when the Allied armies liberated Auschwitz and other concentration camps. I agree with Jeremy Lewison that Schjerfbeck's self-portraits are relevant as reflections of the Holocaust. Lewison also suggests that Schjerfbeck may have inspired the Slovenian Holocaust survivor Anton Zoran Mušič in his series We Are Not the Last; Mušič would have seen her self-portraits at the Venice Biennale in 1956. As for Hitchcock, he was an advisor in Holocaust film documentation, and already Robin Wood in the first serious English-language monograph on Hitchcock detected a Holocaust undercurrent in Psycho.

In the beginning Schjerfbeck was a traditionalist, but her late self-portraits anticipate undercurrents in the work of Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.

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