Review: Helene Schjerfbeck Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts

Helene Schjerfbeck, Self-portrait, Black Background, 1915. Oil on canvas, 45.5 x 36 cm. Herman and Elisabeth Hallonblad Collection. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum; photo: Yehia Eweis

The painter Helene Schjerfbeck (1862—1946) is apparently ‘one of Finland’s best kept secrets’.[1] 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.

Review: Helene Schjerfbeck Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts