A level gaze

Issue 3/2003 | Archives online, Articles, Non-fiction

The artist Helene Schjerfbeck created her own form of modernism, giving pride of place to emotion, writes Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse. Throughout her solitary life, permanently affiicted by a physical handicap resulting from a childhood accident, Schjerfbeck looked into the mirror for inspiration. In her novel Helene the author Rakel Liehu takes a look at Schjerfbeck’s mirror images and the painter’s long life

Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946) was passionately interested in human beings and their inner lives – the riddle of the face.

She was one of the few artists of her generation who both created masterpieces in the naturalistic and impressionistic style of her youth and was also able to shift to an entirely modern, expressionist mode. Intensity and control only increased in the avant-garde paintings of her late period. These bear comparison with the work of Picasso, Modigliani and Rouault.

The artist’s fame has grown continually since her solo exhibition of 1917 – even during the strongest period of abstract art in the 1950s and 1960s. Reasons for this, in addition to the sheer quality of her work, included her stylistic versatility and the modernism of her late period. Thanks to the art dealer Gösta Stenman, her works were regularly on show in Sweden as well as Finland from the late 1930s onward. Today she enjoys perhaps the greatest respect of any Finnish artist – one of her works was sold in London for one million pounds in 1989.

Helene Schjerfbeck was born in Helsinki to an impoverished middle-class family. The family was beset with diffIculties: the bankruptcy of the father, the early death of three of the children, the father’s tuberculosis and death when Helene was 13 years old. After the passing away of her beloved father, all that remained of the family was her mother, Olga, her big brother Magnus and Helene herself.

The girl’s childhood was also shadowed by her fall from a flight of steps at the age of four and the lifelong limp that resulted: she suffered all her life, both physically and psychologically. Because of her difficulties in moving, Helene could not attend an ordinary school, but her teacher noticed the girl’s extraordinary talent, and she was able to begin her art studies in the Finnish Art Society drawing· school at the tender age of 11.

Schjerfbeck made excellent progress: her early history painting, Haavoittunut soturi hangella (‘Wounded warrior in the snow’, 1880) was immediately acquired by the Finnish National Collection. She received a bursary to travel to Paris and, in 1881, studied at the Colarossi private academy, where she was taught by Gustave Courtois. In the summer of the same year Schjerfbeck travelled to Concarneau in Brittany. A couple of years later, in the Pont-Aven artists’ colony, she painted the most moving works of her youth.

In Brittany she got to know an English artist with whom she became engaged, but when the engagement was broken off because of her hip problem, Schjerfbeck was so badly wounded that she ordered the destruction of all the correspondence in which her fiance’s name appeared. No one has yet been able to ascertain who the man was.

The young artist participated in the Paris salons in 1883, 1884 and 1888, and in the world’s fair of 1889 her Toipilas (‘The convalescent’), which she had painted in Cornwall, was awarded a bronze medal. Toipilas remains one of her best-loved works.

In 1890 Schjerfbeck returned to Finland, and never again visited France or England. She made copying trips to St Petersburg and to Vienna and Florence, where she also painted her own subjects. In the late 1890s she travelled to sanatoriums in Norway and Sweden, as teaching and many conflict situations wore down her physical strength. A doctor at the Norwegian mountain sanatorium also meant a great deal to her and restored her faith in life.

The second half of the 1890s was a period of crisis; the cultural and political climate changed and became critical, her teaching load was heavy, Schjerfbeck’s health was unreliable, the search for a new mode of expression became more difficult. In 1902 Schjerfbeck moved with her mother to Hyvinkää, 50 kilometres to the north of Helsinki. Life there was cheaper; she tried to live from her paintings and this factory locality had many kinds of potential models. It was also the location of a popular sanatorium whose patients included many St Petersburg aristocrats.

In Hyvinkää Schjerfbeck developed her intense, synthetic style. At first her model was her mother; subsequently, she painted young women and children from the locality. The models had to possess a kind of original painterly quality that began to spark in the painter’s imagination. She also painted still lifes and views from her window and worked on handicraft designs. Her participation in art exhibitions was scarce, particularly in Helsinki.

New, important acquaintances of the 1910s included the young art dealer Gösta Stenman and the forester-writer-artist Einar Reuter, alias H. Ahtela. Both men were important in the development of the artist’s modernist style as well as her public breakthrough. After moving to Sweden, Stenman encouraged and promoted Schjerfbeck’s career in that country too. Einar Reuter became her correspondent and biographer, and Schjerfbeck also fell in love with him. The nature of Reuter’s feelings – he was younger than Schjerfbeck – was, however, essentially intellectual admiration for her paintings and talents.

After the death of her mother, Olga, in 1923, Schjerfbeck was free to choose where to live; in 1925 she moved to the coastal town of Tammisaari, 100 kilometres to the west of Helsinki. Her painting style became sharper, more revealing; at Stenman’s urging, she also began to paint reinterpretations of her old subjects.

During the Winter and Continuation Wars, Schjerfbeck was forced to move away from Tammisaari, and in 1944 Stenman succeeded in persuading her to move away from the misery of wartime Finland to Sweden, to a seaside spa hotel in Saltsjöbaden. There the old artist, already sick with cancer, painted, over a couple of years, the extraordinary final climax to her oeuvre: portraits, stilllifes, landscapes and self-portraits. Stenman paid her expenses and, in return, took all the new work. The artist, now over 80 years old, painted a couple of dozen self-portraits in almost complete solitude. These marvellous paintings, which look death straight in the face, are unique in the history of world art.

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