“Sometimes it is said that I am modern. I don’t know what modern looks like, I only know that the next work has developed from the previous one, through the experience that I have achieved.”
I n the first years of the twentieth century, Helene Schjerfbeck – once a child prodigy of the Finnish Art Society – abandoned sentimental genre painting and plunged herself into flattened, expressive forms. Her new, reduced colour palettes performed like a musical key, setting the mood and internal harmonies of each painting. In early experiments with deadened, flat colour, Schjerfbeck, like her compatriot Ellen Thesleff, stepped along a near-monochrome route laid out by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, whose Nocturnes evoke the moody, dreamlike abstraction of heard melody. Schjerfbeck turned 40 in 1902: living in relative isolation for the next 40-odd years, she continued to push herself, moving towards a late style that became increasingly radical.
As a young woman, Schjerfbeck studied and worked in the great art capitals of Europe, and in artist communities at St Ives in Cornwall and Pont-Aven in Brittany. After copying frescoes by Botticelli at the Louvre in 1888, during the 1890s she received commissions from the Finnish Art Society to reproduce Old Master paintings from St Petersburg, Vienna and Florence. For painters, copying can be revelatory: a way to think your way into a painting, to unpick its mechanisms, understand its structure. It is a process that Schjerfbeck went through herself with her own works, in her late career, reducing them further and further towards, as the art historian Élisabeth Lebovici put it, the origins of representation.
In The Convalescent (1938) Schjerfbeck revisits one of her best-loved works, painted some 50 years previously at St Ives. In that earlier painting, a tousled child, swaddled to the armpits in white bedsheets sits forward from an outsize wicker chair to examine a twig bursting into spring growth: a harbinger of returning vitality. The painting still retains trappings of the Victorian narrative works for which Schjerfbeck was known. At the time, though 'Finnish critical views of the picture were sceptical,' writes Susanna Pettersson. 'Was an ill girl a worthy subject for a painting? And was the child even depicted in the correct manner? To viewers accustomed to the idealised human images of the Romantic era, the artist’s new way of painting seemed rough and unfinished, even insulting toward the Finnish people.'[i]
The 1888 painting shows its subject surrounded by domestic paraphernalia: there are shelves full of old ledgers, a ceramic jar and plucked shoots on the tabletop. The tiny child is dwarfed by its adult setting. In the watercolour of 1938, Schjerfbeck zooms in like a cinematographer, focusing fully on the hopeful melancholy of the saucer-eyed girl, and the echo of her spindly body in the twig bending from its stoneware mug.
Schjerfbeck’s years studying frescoes fed into the muted, tonal palette that emerged as she shifted away from naturalism. Fresco is painted onto fresh, wet, plaster so that pigment becomes integral to the fabric of the wall. Pursuing this sense of integral pigment, as well as the soft, abraded effect of age in works such as Fragment (1904) and Blonde Girl (Girl with Blue Bow) (1923), Schjerfbeck worked in layers, scraping, rubbing and re-painting, until the colour was worked into the weave of the canvas, resulting in worn softness reminiscent of old pigmented plaster.
"My portrait will have a dead expression, thus the painter reveals the soul, and I can’t help it. I’m searching for an expression, something gloomier, stronger"
“My portrait will have a dead expression, thus the painter reveals the soul, and I can’t help it. I’m searching for an expression, something gloomier, stronger,”[ii] wrote Helene Schjerfbeck to her ally and supporter, Einar Reuter in 1921. Two years earlier, their friendship had become a source of exquisite pain: two decades Reuter’s senior, Schjerfbeck had apparently nourished hopes that theirs was a relationship of romantic possibility. She was shocked in 1919, when her woodsman friend announced his engagement to a Swedish woman.
In the Unfinished Self-portrait, painted in the year of that letter, Schjerfbeck slashed into the “dead expression” of her own face, obliterating one eye. It's an extraordinary act of violence, and, one feels instinctively, an emotional, rather than a technical response to the work. This is not an artist’s reaction to her own paint handling so much as an uncontrolled expression of that “something gloomier, stronger” that Schjerfbeck drove herself to access.
Schjerfbeck executed some 40 self-portraits, half of them in the final years of her life. “Since the 18th century at least, self-portraiture has been a common practice among women painters, perhaps because it testifies to a reversal of roles: carrying them from that of model to that of artist,” writes Élisabeth Lebovici. [iii]
In Schjerfbeck’s late self-portraits, however, Lebovici finds something far more than a simple assertion of presence: instead she tests the limits of representation. Schjerfbeck presses ever harder, toward something close to abstraction. By 1945, a few jagged lines and clouds of shading suggest a head reduced to bony approximation.
The Self-portrait of 1942 is hauntingly reminiscent of the face that Schjerfbeck slashed 21 years earlier: the mute incarnadine of that tightly closed mouth, the deep shading of the hollowing eye sockets, the dead tones. Here, however, the face is left un-lit, swathed instead in dusky gloom. Schjerfbeck has rubbed into her painting until it recalls a portion of damaged plaster still carrying a memento of an ancient face. She described it to Reuter as “a sincere attempt which failed.”
Despite high demand for her work in this period, and invitation into the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts that year as a foreign member (her name followed Picasso’s on the membership list), she remained bruisingly self-critical. In the last two years of her life, Schjerfbeck painted her slow passage from the living world in a series of self-portraits in which she appeared as, “an apparition, an otherworldly being rendered in swirls of brown and beige” according to writer Jennifer Higgie. The economy with which she committed her likeness to page feels like a progressive withdrawal. She died on 23 January 1946, and as Higgie notes, “her easel, like family, was at her bedside.”[iv]
[i] Susanna Pettersson, ‘Helene Schjerfbeck: The brightest pearl of the Ateneum’s collection’
Published in Helene Schjerfbeck, Reflections. Ed. by Naoki Sato. (Tokyo: Kyuryodo Publishing, 2015) pp. 202‐205
[ii] Letter to Einar Reuter, December 4, 1921, quoted in Uwe M. Schneede, “‘Thus the painter reveals the soul.’ The Self-Portraits,” in Helene Schjerfbeck 1862-1946, p. 35
[iii] Elisabeth Lebovici, ‘Hélene Schjerfbeck’, Les clefs d'une passion (Fondation Louis Vuitton, 2015) translation – author’s own.
[iv] Jennifer Higgie, The Mirror and the Palette: Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 years of Women’s Self-Portraits (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2021) pp. 142-3