The painter Helene Schjerfbeck (1862—1946) is apparently ‘one of Finland’s best kept secrets’. I must disagree: firstly, we Finns don’t really aim to keep national secrets (or, at the very least, we get very excited when anything Finnish, such as this exhibition, makes international news), and, secondly, Schjerfbeck is probably Finland’s most internationally acclaimed painter—that the curator of Helsinkian Ateneum Art Museum, Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, can describe London as ‘the final outpost’ not yet conquered by Schjerfbeck, tells more about the British isolationist tendency than about the painter’s international reputation. However, I think there’s grounds to get excited about the fact that British audiences are discovering her only now: a clean canvas means that, since there aren’t layers of old paint to be rubbed out first, the discussion we create around Schjerfbeck can be made fresh, strong and feminist.
In Finland, certain traditionally-regurgitated myths about Schjerfbeck are as hard to kill as Virginia Woolf’s Angel in the House. Many of these legends hark back to Einar Reuter’s 1951 account of his friend, which relies on the myth of the sickly, spiritualised female genius—von Bonsdorff notes that such a portraiture was then a requirement in making claims about artistic genius in a woman. I learned to think that the dream-like light of her paintings had to do with her disability—after breaking her hip as a four-year-old, she limped for the rest of her life—and her life as a hermit—she is understood to have lived in seclusion from 1902 onwards (if sharing one room and a kitchen with one’s mother for 20 years can be called ‘seclusion’). I am pleased to discover that the Royal Academy exhibition does not overtly rely on these myths—there is space to rethink Schjerfbeck’s hazy light.
Schjerfbeck painted over a thousand paintings, and a selection of sixty-something works is inevitably going to be limiting. I note that the exhibition is missing the numerous floral still-lifes and portraits of children with shining faces, and it is actually refreshing to see Schjerfbeck outside of these traditionally feminine themes. Some of the emerging narratives make me slightly uncomfortable: the emphasis on the bleakness of Schjerfbeck’s relationship with her mother, created by the three Whistlerian portraits, could have been balanced by providing that one photograph we know of Schjerfbeck smiling, in which she looks at her mother. On the other hand, representing her post-1909 portraits as exemplifying a ‘modern look’ is very persuasive and links Schjerfbeck to her contemporary European modernist practitioners in her indifference to realistic depiction and her experiments ‘in colour, tone, and composition, which capture an atmosphere or mood, rather than simple likeness.’ The ‘heart of the exhibition’, as curator Jeremy Lewison calls it, is justifiably the third of the five gallery-rooms, exhibiting Schjerfbeck’s raw and shattering self-portraits, which evidence that she can hold her own in the company of the likes of Frida Kahlo, Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon.
Helene Schjerfbeck, Self-portrait with Red Spot, 1944. Oil on canvas, 45 x 37 cm. Gösta and Bertha Stenman Donation. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum; photo: Hannu Aaltonen
What routes should our new discussion of Schjerfbeck take, then? As I talked to von Bonsdorff at the press view, she emphasised that Schjerfbeck was primarily a process-focused artist. ‘Schjerfbeck was never spontaneous’, rather, she worked at her paintings for months, producing pictures that are precisely what she wanted them to be; everything is thoroughly considered. Many Schjerfbecks have that one final lash of brush or a spot of colour that changes everything, making the hues pop out and drawing attention to the picture’s painterly materiality—it was made to be exactly like that. Von Bonsdorff points out other material traces in the paintings: wedge frames have left their impressions on the canvas, which, at a closer look, might turn out to be split. If unsatisfied with the proportions of a painting, Schjerfbeck would cut them, or sew more canvas onto a work-in-process. These strong signifiers of work having been done are as much a part of the paintings as the layers of oils.
Two weeks before the exhibition opened, I met the Ateneum conservators Pia Hurri and Kirsi Hiltunen in a pub in Covent Garden. They had travelled to London accompanying the painting loads. They too underline the physicality of Schjerfbeck’s work. ‘She didn’t spare herself at all’, Kirsi states—the delicacy and infirmity we have learned to associate with her could just not have been true in light of what we now understand about her process. Repeatedly and constantly, she chafed, scraped and rubbed her canvases. Recurrently, Kirsi imitates rubbing on the pub table to demonstrate her point. If Schjerfbeck didn’t like something, she would scratch it out—with, say, a knife or sandpaper—and paint something new on top. Consequently, the conservators note, a Schjerfbeck has layers upon layers—sometimes you even discover old paintings under the old ones—and this chafed quality is her trademark. There are a lot of Schjerfbeck forgeries—the simple shapes and scarce colours make her an easy target—but it is even easier to expose these. People, forgers and audiences alike, rarely realise how much physical work has gone into her paintings. Gladly, the Royal Academy exhibition has chosen excellent examples of Schjerfbeck’s labour. Try to get close to her 1915 self-portrait or her Portrait of a Girl in Blue and Brown (1945): below her rubbed-out name in the self-portrait you can see the canvas emerging through thinned-down layers of colour; the girl’s jersey, with the unprimed blue colour plane, in striking contrast with the portrait’s other surfaces, employs the canvas in a way that can only be called sculptural.
Helene Schjerfbeck, The Family Heirloom, 1915-16. Oil on canvas, 63 x 44.5 cm. August and Lydia Keirkner Fine Arts Collection. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum; photo: Yehia Eweis
Besides a hard-working and technically—and physically—polished Schjerfbeck, I would like to think of her as an artist who was passionately outward-looking. This is why the first section exhibiting Schjerfbeck’s early work from Paris, Pont Aven and St Ives might just be the most important one. Recalling her time in Paris, Schjerfbeck wrote ‘Wonderful was the time when ‘the searching begun’—searching all that one wanted to understand in art and in life.’ Although she barely travelled in her later years, she was made in Paris and in the art-colonies of Pont Aven and St Ives, and longed for ‘the metropolis, its pale faces, soft light and the great longing of its people’. Her early works are to a great extent studies of light—witness the sparkling net in Clothes Drying, the light under the pioneeringly modernist Door, the light in the air around St Ives, and the atmospheric light in the unoccupied interior of The Bakery.
Even when her concrete world had grown smaller, Schjerfbeck’s work remained marked by an intense desire to know and to be inspired by her surroundings. Without doubting her ability to look inside, I wonder whether we can realise her fierce labouring of light, colour and composition as points of meeting with, and cherishing, the outside world, a world that she loved by painting it. The Royal Academy exhibition gives us an opportunity to meet a Schjerfbeck who is grinding and probing, a world-class painter in a small physical world, and by doing so manages something that touchingly exceeds expectations.
The Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London from 20 July—27 October 2019. For more information, click here.
Words by Jenni Råback
 ‘Discover the mesmerising paintings of Helene Schjerfbeck, one of Finland’s best kept secrets, in the UK’s first major exhibition of her work.’, Royalacademy.org, <https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/helene-schjerfbeck> [accessed 21.7.2019]
 Exhibition text for ‘The Modern Look’ gallery.
 Schjerfbeck quoted in Riitta Konttinen, Oma tie: Helene Schjerfbeckin elämä (Keuruu: Otava, 2004), p.58. My translation. Underlining original.
 Schjerfbeck quoted in Konttinen, p.82. My trans.