Helene Schjerfbeck at the Royal Academy of Arts
The project of expanding the Western canon of the arts is ongoing. As we look forward, we must look back on artists overshadowed by social barriers but whose works resist the boundaries of convention.
Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) was a Finnish artist whose career spanned historic moments in art history. She was the youngest student ever to attend the Finnish Art Society’s drawing school and later became a prolific interpreter of the naturalistic style of the French Salon in the 1880s. In the 1900s, Schjerfbeck shifted towards representing themes of modernity through bold and emotional portraits. From the ages of 22 to 83, she created an extraordinary collection of portraits and self-portraits that looked back to early Renaissance frescoes and the Rococo style of the 18th century through a modern perspective.
The artist’s paintings weave together canvas and material in a way that emphasises their atmospheric qualities. Schjerfbeck’s portraits are introspective and vibrantly emotional. At the same time, her works reveal a sense of humour towards herself and her subjects. Many of her portraits imagine her subjects as specific character types matched with titles that seem to wink at their representations.
A book exploring Schjerfbeck’s unique style and portraits accompanies the exhibit. It includes a collection of essays describing her historical influences and personal breakthroughs. The show also includes a small series of still life paintings otherwise outshined by the artist’s portraits. Overall, the exhibition presents a wide-range of her characteristic yet tender depictions of the people and sentiments of the early 20th century.
Although Schjerfbeck is one of the most famous and highly regarded artists in Finland, her work remains relatively unknown in the United Kingdom. This is the first solo exhibition of her work in the UK and thoughtfully curated to centre around her portraits and self-portraits. This is a rare opportunity to experience the imaginative works of a skilled modernist painter throughout her lifetime.
Featured Image: Helene Schjerfbeck, Self-Portrait, Black Background, 1915
Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum; photo: Hannu Aaltonen
Helene Schjerfbeck is at the Royal Academy of Arts from 20th July until 27th October 2019. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.