Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts

Thrilled to at least see the exhibition of Helene Schjerfbeck’s works at the Royal Academy. I have been admiring this Finnish artist from afar for several years. Her works frequently pop up at auction and I have often been tempted. But her name, huge in Finland is known by few in the U.K. Hopefully this exhibition will help change that.

Helene Schjerfbeck was born and grew up in Helsinki. She didn’t have an easy childhood; falling down the stairs at home, she broke her hip at the age of three. The injury was not treated properly and caused her trouble throughout her life, giving her a permanent limp.

A gifted child, Schjerfbeck won a scholarship to attend the Finnish Art Society’s drawing school at the age of eleven, the school’s youngest ever pupil. Schjerfbeck’s love of drawing remained with her throughout her life and there were few days when she did not put pen to paper.

Helene Schjerfbeck, Costume Picture II, 1909, oil on canvas, Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

As a young woman, Schjerfbeck travelled extensively, spending pockets of time in London and at artists’ Mecca, St.Ives in Cornwall as well as visting Paris, Vienna, Florence and St.Petersburgh. The exhibition includes landscapes and portraits painted in the 1880s and 90s, bearing the clear influences of French Impressionism. But Schjerfbeck found her own style: inspired by frescoes she saw in Florence, Schjerfbeck developed a scrapping technique, that she continued to use throughout her life, creating the effect of a deteriorating fresco as in the glorious profile of a girl, in Fragment, 1904.

Helene Schjerfbeck, Fragment, 1904, Villa Gyllenburg, Helsinki.

One room in the exhibition is devoted to Schjerfbeck’s self portraits, beginning with a drawing that she produced as a teenager and ending in a charcoal sketch drawn in 1945, the year before her death. It is mesmerising to see this series of portraits, beginning with youth and expectation and becoming a deep meditation on old age and impending death.

Helene, Schjerfbeck, Self Portrait, a Study, 1915, pencil, watercolour and silver leaf on paper, Turku Art Museum.

One thing that struck me is the purity of Schjerfbeck’s style; there is little that is extraneous to the subject matter. This felt characteristically Finnish to me (a nation who tend not to like fuss).

Helene Schjerfbeck is on at the Royal Academy of Arts, London until 27 October and then at Ateneum Museum, Finnish National Gallery, 15 November 2019-26 January 2020.

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Sorolla at the National Gallery

Yesterday Sotheby’s invited me to the National Gallery to a breakfast and private view of Sorolla, Spanish Master of Light, which opened on Monday. It’s a beautiful exhibition and indeed Sorolla’s use of light was phenomenal.

Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923) was extraordinarily prolific, producing around 3,000 paintings in his life time (that’s more than Picasso). Many of the paintings felt distinctly Spanish and the influences of Valazquez and Goya were evident but I also noted strong Scandinavian influences in some of the later works.

Two works in particular remind me of the Danish Skagen painter, Peder Severin Krøyer: Young Fisherman, Valencia (1904) and Strolling along the Shoreline (1901). Krøyer exhibited three beach scenes at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889 where he won the Grand Prix of which Sorolla would certainly have been aware. Six years later, in 1895, Sorolla and Krøyer both exhibited at the Exposition Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and again in the Exposition Universelle of 1900 where Sorolla admired Krøyer’s work.

Joaquin Sorolla, Young Fisherman, Valencia (1904)

Peder Severin Kroyer, Boys bathing on the beach, Skagen, 1892, Hirschsprung Collection
Joaquin Sorolla, Strolling along the Shoreline (1909)
Peder Severin Krøyer, A summer evening on the South Beach at Skagen, 1893.

The two Sorolla paintings in the National Gallery exhibition clearly show the influence of Krøyer not only in subject matter but also in his brush strokes and treatment of light. I enjoyed all of this exhibition but the beach scenes were my personal favourites.

Sorolla, Spanish Master of Light is on at the National Gallery, London until 7th July.

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Stockholm’s renovated National Museum

Stockholm’s National Gallery re-opened in October after a huge renovation supervised by Swedish architects, Gert Wingard and Erik Wikerstal; the gallery had been closed to the public since 2013 and the cost of the refurb was 1.2 billion Swedish crowns around £100 million sterling. I was fond of the old gallery but it was definitely starting to look a little dated and tired around the edges and I was curious to see what had been  done.   I was in Stockholm last month for a weekend visit and popped in.

Wow, what a breath of fresh air!    The sweeping staircase, with the Carl Larsson memorials, leading to the entrance hall, looks much the same but fresher but otherwise what a change.  The ground floor has evolved with the introduction of a new lecture hall and a sculpture garden reminiscent of that at the Louvre (albeit a little smaller); light pours in through the new ceiling comprised of small glass pyramids.

Upstairs, the walls in many of the exhibition rooms are brightly painted with vibrant blues, yellows and reds but this works well set against the elegant whitish greys of the marble columns and the vaulted ceilings.  The hanging is chronological but also thematic- so you have Swedish National Romantic painters in area and Napoleonic art in another.  Furniture and objets d’art art effectively mixed with paintings.

The first floor exhibition space

After or before your museum visit you can relax an exceptionally beautifully designed restaurant with sleek wooden dining tables, exquisite parquet floors and fabulous lighting (10 designers designed glass globes for a splendid chandelier)- a great place to have an open sandwich and a coffee in the morning or a glass of wine in the evening.  

The Atelje restuarant

The museum can now exhibit 5,200 objects around three times as many as they could before the renovation.  It is lighter, more spacious and airy, beautifully designed and is a museum of the twenty first century to compete on a world scale.  I will be back and soon.

Carl Larsson ‘Ett Hem’ watercolours exhibited with furniture of the same period.
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Rasmussen Auction

Went to the Danish Embassy in London for a talk on Scandinavian design combined with a viewing of highlights of Danish auction house, Rasmussen‘s autumn sale.  The talk was mainly about chairs (this may sound weird but the Danes are famous for their beautiful furniture design and Danish mid twentieth century furniture is now highly collectable); it is fascinating how the politics of the twentieth century influenced art- Sweden who had a Socialist government from the 1930s right up until 1976 were producing industrial produced furniture for the masses, Denmark by contrast were creating exquisite hand crafted chairs that were expensive but made to last.  Finland, independent from Russia since 1917, were creating wonderful free-flowing curved designs in their furniture (think of Alvaro Aalto).

Rasmussen had a few items of furniture and several paintings on display including quite a few abstract oil paintings by artists belonging to the Danish CoBrA movement founded after World War II.  I  however, leaned towards the earlier works particularly one beautiful eighteenth century drawing.  Maybe it will be a Christmas present to myself….

Finn Juel ‘Spade Chair’


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I am just back from a couple of days visiting Copenhagen.  The weather was bleak and dreary; the skies the colour of Hammershøi’s paintings but the city was anything but dull.  I crammed in lots of art galleries revisiting the enchanting Hirschsprung Collection,  crammed with works by the Skagen painters, who, at the close of the nineteenth century, congregated at Skagen, on the tip of Jutland, the northern most point of continental Europe, creating an artists’ colony.  The painters went to Skagen for the exceptional light; it is worth visiting the Hirschsprung just to see the works of Peder Severin Krøyer who captures the light and beauty of the Skagen beaches exquisitely.

Peder Severin Krøyer, Boys bathing, sunshine, Skagen.

Another highlight was the David Collection, an elegant eighteenth century townhouse, formally the home of the prolific collector and wealthy and successful lawyer, Christian Ludvig David.  He began collecting Danish Golden Age paintings and branched out first to European porcelain and furniture and then Islamic art.  The Islamic Collection is world class and contains some exquisite jewellery and porcelain.  The highlight for me was a room devoted to the work of Denmarks arguably most famous painter, Vilhelm Hammershøi.  I love the calm quiet interiors, the clean lines and the soft grey palette that is so very northern.

I also visited the Renaissance Castle, Rosenborg- beautiful but dark, and I found the collection of Royal treasures slightly overwhelming.  The rooms were a chronology of the riches of Danish kings- I realised don’t know my Frederiks and Christians well enough.  Someone told me to read Rose Tremain’s novel, Music and Silence, to get a real feeling for the court of Christian IV.

I stayed in a relatively new hotel, 71, Nyhavn: a large warehouse that has been converted to a substantial sized hotel.  The service and food were good and the design sleek and minimal although I missed out on a room with a view. The harbour at Nyhavn is very pretty-lined with colourful eighteenth century houses, all now listed buildings.  Hans Christian Andersen lived at number 20.  The Nyhavn of today, is alive with restaurants, bars and stalls selling souvenirs, food and mulled wine: a delightful place to wander down.


The Opera House, Copenhagen.

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Elmgreen and Dragset, Whitechapel Gallery

‘Wow did there used to be a public swimming pool here?’ my friend asked. A whiff of chlorine hit us as we entered the spacious white room with stained walls and tiled floors- an abandoned swimming pool stood before us, empty aside from bits of dust and debris. On the wall is a sign relating the history of the pool, beginning with its founding in 1901 thanks to generous funding from a Victorian philanthropist, through to its closing during Thatcher’s time and ultimately  its sale for ‘luxury redevelopment.’ The pool was apparently where David Hockney got the inspiration for his first drawings of swimming pools and it had even featured in a novel.  It all sounded fascinating (perhaps a little too fascinating).  Indeed it was all fiction.  The pool is the creation of Danish/Norwegian art duo, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, most well known in the UK for their sculpture of the Boy on the Rocking Horse for the forth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

The Whitechapel Pool

Their swimming pool, in common with many exhibits in the exhibition is a social commentary.  This is not the glamorous, inviting pool of Hockney’s work but a pool that used to be for the people but has been closed down and privatised.  Rising gentrification has led to a loss of public places of enjoyment and indeed general welfare.  Lying by the side of the pool is the abandoned carseat of a luxury car (the work is beautifully cast in bronze- it is very tactile and hard to believe that it is not covered in soft leather).

Pregnant White Maid, Aluminium, stainless steel, clothes.

Other works in the exhibition include a sculpture of a young boy staring at a gun and even more eerily one of a boy in school uniform sitting crouched by the fireplace; nearby stands a maid hands behind her back and heavily pregnant.  The viewer can weave a whole story here.  Not all is misery and sadness though-there are touches of humour throughout, notably in the double pair of Levi jeans and Calvin Klein underpants left hurriedly on the floor.  There is plenty to explore and think about here and the craftsmanship is highly skilled and beautiful.

This is How we Bite Our Tongue is at Whitechapel Art Gallery until 13th January 2019.

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Strindberg at Aquavit

Headed to Aquavit last night, the recently opened, very on the pulse Scandinavian restaurant in St.James’s.  I was there for a private viewing of highlights from Scandinavian auction house, Bukowski’s spring sale.  The piece de resistance was a Strindberg storm at sea scene-  absolutely stunning and extremely atmospheric.  It was oil painted on zinc, Strindberg was a bit of an alchemist and experimented with all sorts of mediums.  The estimate was 10 to 12 million Swedish crowns (roughly a million pounds). The painting was the perfect size to fit in one of the catalogue bags they were giving away at the end of the evening; I thought about popping it in a bag…

The viewing was held in the ‘Stockholm room’ of Aquavit.  The wallpaper was Josef Frank and there was a Svenskt Tenn cabinet full of Scandinavian books and modern design vases.  I noticed lots more Svenskt Tenn downstairs in the main restaurant in addition to Georg Jensen silver and a huge textile by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson (he who did the incredible ‘Weather Project’ installation at Tate Modern several years ago).  I will have to return to try the food (the original  Aquavit in New York has 2 Michelin stars).  The canapés were in any case delicious particularly the mini Toast Skagens. I’ll be back!

Aquavit restaurant, London

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Josef Frank exhibition

Currently showing at the quirky and colourful Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, South London is an engaging exhibition of the textiles and watercolours of the Austrian architect and designer Josef Frank (1885-1967).

Josef Frank, who married a Swede and became a Swedish citizen in 1939, is something of an icon in Sweden.  His bold and colourful textile patterns produced for the Swedish design firm Svenskt Tenn have become modern design classics and can be spotted in numerous homes across Sweden and beyond.

The textiles are beautifully displayed at the Fashion and Textile Museum- hanging on their own rather than as part of an armchair or curtain, as one usually sees them, giving  the opportunity to truly see the designs of the prints themselves.  In marked contrast to the unstable and fearful times of the interwar period and the Second World War that Frank was experiencing, the prints are full of the joy of nature: colourful birds, butterflies and flowers are abundant, a paradise world is created.  A Jew, living in exile in Sweden, New York and then Sweden again, Frank chose to escape to nature, colour and visual beauty.

Gröna fåglar textile, Svenskt Tenn,

At the beginning of the exhibition, a drawing room is recreated, filled with Svenskt Tenn furniture, vases and fabrics including Frank cushions, curtain and carpet.  The space is small and full of contrasting colour and pattern yet it does not appear overwhelming; Scandinavian design at its best.

Upstairs is an exhibition of Frank’s watercolours, largely painted in the 1950s in the South of France.  They are perfectly pleasing but unlike his textile designs, are nothing remarkable.  Turn a corner and there is a William Morris armchair, whose work inspired and influenced Frank.  Admirer of Morris as I am, the armchair appeared rather dowdy and dated after the wonderful vibrancy of the Svenskt Tenn fabrics.

Josef Frank, Patterns-Furniture-Painting is at the Fashion and Textile Museum until 7th May 2017.

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A beautiful day out on the Stockholm Archipelego today after a few rather chilly ones.  It has not been a great summer in Sweden and I have managed one ocean dip (with a wet suit); I usually have a daily swim when I am out here.  It’s a great time for picking chanterelle mushrooms though, thanks to the damp.  And the wild strawberries are utterly delicious and sweet.

The weather has allowed for a trip to Artipelag, the creation of Baby Björn inventor, Björn Jacobsson, and a short drive from Stockholm.  This impressive  and harmonious building built into the rocks, in a stunning setting amongst pinewoods with spectacular views of the sea, is a great cultural hub with design and art exhibitions, restaurants and entertainment.  The current exhibition ‘Land meets Water’ on nature photography is worth seeing if in the area, and the building is definitely worth a visit.



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Livstycket (The Bodice)

On Wednesday, I attended a really inspiring event at the Swedish Ambassador’s elegant Adam residence; the evening was promoting Livstycket, a not for profit organisation helping Swedish female immigrants, many from war torn countries. The organisation was founded in 1992 by Birgitta Notlöf- a vivacious, energetic and lively lady who gave an impassioned speech at the Residence.

Livstycket is literally translated as ‘bodice’- the garment worn by women throughout the ages both to provide them with warmth and support.  The organisation gives women, who arrive in Sweden help with learning the Swedish language, IT skills and general assistance with integration (a serious problem in Sweden for immigrants).  The women draw images of their experiences and their sketches and designs are made into patterns by a professional designer.  The patterns are printed onto high quality fabrics, made into cushions, tea towels, bags, clothes, you name it- many of which were on display at the Residence, and are available to buy on the Livstycket website.  There are some really gorgeous prints and designs- I particularly liked the quirky map of Stockholm with Tensta, a suburb of the city with a high concentration of immigrants, appearing in the heart of Stockholm where frankly very few immigrants live and where Livstycket is based.

Stockholm by Livstycket

Stockholm by Livstycket


Birgitta Notlöf has done some fantastic work and I hope that Livstycket continues to flourish.


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