Friday 8 November 2019

Helen Schjerfbeck

Helen Schjerfbeck at the Royal Academy of Arts.

This gem of an exhibition was far too short - we got to the end of room 3 and I could not believe this was the end of it, so much so that I asked one of the security people where the rest was. I wanted more and more and more.... Quiet people in silent rooms, tender yet incisive portraits,  paintings that are infused with a melancholic grace.

The highlight of the exhibition is the sequence of self-portraits, her most extraordinary achievement,  which she painted throughout her life. They are an inquiry into mortality. The ones she painted towards the end of her life, when she was dying of cancer in a sanatorium show an understanding that a person is made up of everything they have ever been. In Green Self-Portrait, you can see that dust will soon follow: the skull beneath the skin is visible, the shadow of death. Through the dissolution of precise features, she paints a ghost of her former self. The power in these paintings is the sense of coming to face with the interior of someone who is very ill and yet, at the same time has a continuing will to work.

Schjerfbeck started in the style of French naturalists before becoming an early modernist. The more her art slipped into modernism the more interesting it became.

The early years:

Two Profiles, 1881, (oil on wood)

Portrait of Helena Westermarck, 1884, (oil on canvas)

Portrait of a Woman, 1884, (oil on board)

Portrait of a Girl (St Ives), 1889 

Clothes Drying, 1883, (oil on canvas)

The Door, 1884, (oil on canvas)

As well as large Salon pieces, Schjerfbeck worked on smaller, experimental paintings, which she kept largely private. This modest subject - the light spilling under a door - is infused with atmospheric qualities, hinting at the unique turn that Schjerfbeck's work would later take. The scene was observed inside the Tremalo Chapel, Pont-Aven, which also contains the polychrome sculpture of the crucifixion that was to inspire Gauguin.

Chickens among Corn Stooks, 1887, (oil on panel)

View of St Ives, 1887, (oil on wood)

The Bakery, 1887, (oil on canvas)

During her time in St Ives, Schjerfback paid a small fee to set up an easel in the local bakery. The resulting painting is not a naturalistic depiction of the working kitchen. By removing all figures from the scene, Schjerfbeck captures the atmosphere through colour, light and composition. The glowing fire draws the eye deep into the dark space, a warm heart to the still room.

Woman with a Child, 1887, (oil on canvas)

The Convalescent, 1888, (oil on canvas)

Shadow on the Wall (Breton Landscape), 1883, (oil on canvas mounted on wood)

Head of a Girl Crocheting, 1904-5, (oil on canvas)

Fragment, 1904, (oil on canvas)

The School girl II (Girl in Black), 1908, (oil on canvas)

Moments of Silence:

Around 1902 Schjerfbeck's style started changing: oared down compositions reject detailed description in favour of flat areas of contrasting tones. Dry, rubbed paint creates hazy contours, and a restricted palette focuses attention on subtle colours and luminosity. Her works exude a sense of quiet and introspection.

The Seamstress (The Working Woman), 1905, (oil on canvas)

My Mother, 1902, (oil on canvas)

Silence, 1907, (oil and tempera on canvas)

Tapestry, 1914-17, (oil on canvas)

Seemingly caught in a moment of private contemplation, two luminous, fashionable figures stand in front of a mysterious landscape. Only the furniture reveals the background to be a large hanging tapestry rather than a natural location. This ambiguous setting gives the scene a dream-like quality, as if the viewer were joining the figures in a flight of fantasy or perhaps watching actors on set.

Maria, 1909, (oil on canvas)

My Mother, 1909, (oil on canvas)

At Home (Mother Sewing), 1903, (oil on canvas)


Schjerfbeck painted her first self-portrait at the age of 22 and her last at 83. By grouping the self-portraits it is possible to chart her ageing process as well as the extraordinary evolution of her style.

The pale palette and open brushwork of Self-Portrait (1895) reflect the influence of Impressionism. After the turn of the century, a shift towards a more expressive use of colour and gesture can be seen, as in Self-Portrait, Black Background (1915), which retains a spontaneous, convincing presence despite its bold stylisation. During the 1930s Schjerfbeck experimented with largely monochrome treatments, breaking the face into angular shapes, giving it a mask-like appearance, often punctured by a confrontational gaze.

Her technique involved applying paint and then scraping it off or rubbing it back. She repeated reworked surfaces with a brush, palette knife or cloth and even sandpaper. The layering and erasure emulate the effects of time in paint. In some cases, parts of the canvas are deliberately left bare, using this texture as part of the picture.

In her final years, Schjerfbeck executed around twenty abstracted self-portraits. These haunting images reveal her fascination with the physical and psychological effects of ageing.

Self-Portrait, 1884-85, (oil on canvas)

Self-Portrait, 1895, (oil on canvas)

Self-Portrait, 1912, (oil on canvas)

Self-Portrait, A Study, 1915, (pencil, watercolour, charcoal and silver leaf on paper)

Self-Portrait, Black Background, 1915, (oil on canvas)

Unfinished Self-Portrait, 1921, (oil on canvas)

Self-Portrait in Black Dress, 1934, (oil on canvas)

Self-Portrait in Black and Pink, 1945, (oil on canvas)

Self-Portrait En Face I, 1945, (oil on canvas)

Self-Portrait with Red Dot, 1944, (oil on canvas)

Self-Portrait with Palette, (oil on canvas)

Self-Portrait, 1935, (oil on canvas)

The Modern Look:

In this section we can see Schjerfbeck's unique approach to portraiture from 1909 onwards. Although her practice was to begin by painting from life, a realistic depiction was not the goal; as she often stated, she did not want her pictures to be 'people hanging on the wall'. In some ways, her sitters were a vehicle for experiments in colour, tone and composition, which capture an atmosphere or mood, rather than a simple likeness.

As with her self-portraits, faces often take on a mask-like appearance, and the notion of costume and masquerade is prevalent.

The Skier (English Girl), 1909, (oil on canvas)

The unusual appearance of the subject, with exaggeratedly red cheeks on flat white skin, points to Schjerfbeck's interest in a contemporary revival of 18th century Rococo style. The Rococo fashion for masquerade and masking relates to Schjerfbeck's approach to semi-fictional portraiture, in which identities become layered or confused.

Circus Girl, 1916, (oil on canvas)

The Sailor (Einar Reuter), 1918, (oil on canvas)

Costume Picture II, 1909, (oil on canvas)

Einar Reuter III, 1919-20, (oil on canvas)

Girl from California I, 1919, (oil on canvas)

Girl from Eydthuhne II, 1927, (oil on canvas)

The Family Heirloom, 1915-16, (oil on canvas)

Einar Reuter III, 1919-20, (oil on canvas)

Gift from the Islands, 1929, (oil on canvas)

With her cloche hat and unfussy clothing, this young woman typifies the androgynous 'garcon' look of the interwar period. This is likely to be of Schjerfbeck's imagining. Schjerbeck often used local women and children as her models, projecting onto them the styles she found in fashion magazines. Perhaps because she transformed them so completely, she disliked showing models their complete portraits. The young woman's striking, simplified facial features also point to Schjerfbeck's interest in so-called 'primitive' sculpture and Japanese woodblock prints.

Profile of a Woman from Memory, 1932, (oil on canvas)

Alarm, 1935, (oil on canvas)

The Teacher, 1933, (oil on canvas)

The Landlord II, 1928, (oil on canvas)

Mans Schjerfbeck, 1930, (oil on canvas)

Profile of Madonna, after El Greco, 1943, (oil on canvas)

Girl with Beret, 1935, (oil on canvas)

Hjordis, 1934, (oil on canvas)

Stubborn Girl, 1938-39, (oil on canvas)

Madonna de la Charite after El Greco, 1941, (oil on canvas)

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