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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Helene Schjerfbeck

The self-portrait--a moving picture
As I've mentioned a few times before, there's a very good reason (several, actually) why I always go in search of a self-portrait whenever I'm considering an artist about which to write. People place a good deal of subconscious importance on how others look. That almost goes without saying. The same is true from the artist's standpoint and their own appearance. Beyond that, through the self-portrait the artist projects his or her public persona--how they wish to be seen, as artists, by others. These are the most obvious attributes of the self-portrait. Beyond that, hopefully spread over a number of years, perhaps an entire lifetime, self-portraits also demonstrate the advancement of the artists skills in what is probably the most demanding type of art to be found--capturing the human being on canvas--more than just a face or likeness, but something akin to the artist's soul. They also demonstrate changes in the artist's style of painting, in essence, how he or she thinks about art, as well as how they think about themselves--their changing self-image. And finally, self-portraits, in the numbers created by artists such as van Gogh, Rembrandt, Picasso, and others, provide a moving picture account of the artist growing older. The work of the Finnish portrait artist, Helene Schjerfbeck, provides an excellent example of all these factors.
Dancing Shoes, 1882, Helene Schjerfbeck
A Boy Feeding his Younger Sister,
1881, Helene Schjerfbeck
Schjerfbeck is not a famous artist. She is, however, interesting. Schjerfbeck is another of the artists I discussed some time back who is quite difficult to categorize--Realist, Romanticist, Im-pressionist, Naturalist, Symbolist, Ex-pressionist, perhaps even Abstractionist --take your pick. Her life's work invites a comparison to the blind men describing an elephant by feeling different parts of it with their hands. The panel of her self-portraits (top) vividly demonstrates this evolution as to style from Realism (top, left) to an Edward Munch Expressionism (bottom right). Here the dates are vitally important. Yes, she ages, changing physically--the paintings are spread over a span of almost fifty-five years--but it's her style which changes far more.

The years of her life began in 1862. Helene Schjerfbeck was born the daughter of a Helsinki office manager. When she was four years old she fell down a flight of stairs, breaking her hip. It did not heal correctly, causing her to walk with a limp; the pain preventing her from attending school for the rest of her life. However, home-schooled, she found plenty of time to hone her childhood drawing skills. At age eleven, she was enrolled in The Finish Art Society Drawing School where she came to the attention of her drawing instructor, Adolf von Becker, who shepherded her through his drawing school and later the University of Helsinki. Helene's father died of tuberculosis when she was fourteen. A professor at the university paid her tuition while von Becker, himself, not only taught her drawing, but French as well (a very important skill for an art student at the time). Even while a student, Helene began winning prizes with her work.

Portrait of a Girl, 1886,
Helene Schjerfbeck
Portrait of a Girl, ca. 1945,
Helene Schjerfbeck
Around 1880, Helene Schjerfbeck put her newfound language skills to use as she moved to Paris, studying under a number of artists before enrolling a year later in the Académie Colarossi, where she studied with fellow Finnish artist, Helena Westermarck. She supported herself by painting portraits and selling her landscapes, as well as through a scholarship from the Finnish Imperial Senate. Schjerfbeck's portraits of others, especially children, didn't change as much over her lifetime as did most of her other work as can be seen in the 1886 Portrait of a Girl (above, left) painted when Schjerfbeck was twenty-four and the portrait by the same title from 1945, (above, right) painted at age eighty-three just a year before her death.

The Convalescent, 1888, Helene Schjerfbeck. It was a role she knew well.
Girl from Eydtkuhnen II, 1927,
Helene Schjerfbeck
By way of contrast, in terms of her other work, we see her award-winning The Convalescent (above) from 1888, painted while still a student in Helsinki. It is very much like her Mother and Child (below) painted in 1945, as to content. Yet in these two works we can see her mature style contrasted with the Finnish Realism she was taught as a student. For a more stunning contrast, even exceeding that of her self-portraits, Schjerfbeck's Girl from Eydtkuhnen II (right) dating from, 1927, is an example of her portrait work at its Expressionist best. Her paintings have variously been compared to those of James McNeill Whistler and Edvard Munch. I would compare this portrait with the work of Amadeo Modigliani. Helene Schjerfbeck was gradually forced into retirement by ill health. By 1940 she was living in a nursing home, though she continued painting almost up to the time of her death in January, 1946.

Mother and Child, ca. 1945 Helene Schjerfbeck


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