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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