“Independent Visions: Helene Schjerfbeck and Her Contemporaries” at Scandinavia House

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Helene Schjerfbeck, Self Portrait with Red Spot (1944), oil on canvas, 45 x 37 cm; courtesy Ateneum Art Museum/Finnish National Gallery

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The magic of painting is in how an accumulation of color can encapsulate and elaborate upon lived experience. A tired observation, perhaps, but when such a moment hits full force it still comes across as something of a miracle. How can so much be embodied by (to quote Symbolist painter Maurice Denis) “a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order”? It seems so improbable, and so rare. This train of thought came to mind while traversing “Independent Visions: Helene Schjerfbeck and Her Contemporaries,” a pleasantly innocuous exhibition of four Finnish painters, all of whom are women. Pleasant and innocuous, that is, until one encounters Self-Portrait with Red Spot (1944) by Schjerfbeck (1862–1946). Has there been a meditation on the depredations of growing older quite as pitiless? You’d have to look to late Rembrandt or Bonnard to find a picture that confronts mortality with as much sobriety and candor. (Schjerfbeck painted it at age eighty-two.) Applying a hurried gray wash and a jab of pink—the “red” in the title— Schjerfbeck created an image of scarifying self-awareness. It likely took five minutes to put Self-Portrait with Red Spot into place, but, really, a lifetime went into its making.

The name “Schjerfbeck” might ring a bell for New Yorkers with some sense of cultural memory. She was the subject of a 1992 retrospective at The National Academy of Design, and the paintings—stylized, astringent and largely unknown on these shores—resonated with devotees of the artform. Schjerfbeck is a national treasure in Finland, and on the evidence at Scandinavia House—around twenty canvases or so—it’s easy to intuit why: she’s an uncompromising, if at times highly affected, talent. At her best, Schjerfbeck holds vulnerability and measure in wiry equilibrium. In Self-Portrait, Black Background (1915), she strikes an imperial pose even as the weathered paint film connotes doubt and, with it, a strain of tenderness. Schjerfbeck’s love of the canvas weave is patent throughout “Independent Visions,” as erased, abraded and revised runs of oil paint are allowed to remain in its tooth. But try nosing up to the paintings—they call for it, after all—and you’ll be thwarted. Electric eyes are installed throughout the gallery: robotic warnings to step back are persistent—and an annoyance. More frustrating is the retractable stanchion placing viewers at a significant distance from Self-Portrait, Black Background and the sumptuous Red Apples (1915). What a cheat.

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Ellen Thesleff, Self-Portrait with Hat (1935), oil on canvas, 44 x 38 cm./courtesy Ateneum Art Museum/Finnish National Gallery

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Granted, neither canvas is protected by glass, and the Ateneum Art Museum, the Finnish collection from which “Independent Visions” is culled, surely wants its masterworks returned in good condition. It is, in fact, an indication of Schjerfbeck’s importance that only the gallery housing her work at Scandinavia House is cordoned off in such a manner. (Still, you’d think there would be better ways to prompt aesthetic reflection than putting viewers in mind of waiting on line at the airport.) The paintings and prints of Sigrid Schauman (1877–1979), Ellen Thesleff (1869–1954), and Elga Sesemann (1922–2007)—“the contemporaries” cited in the exhibition title—aren’t hindered by such restraints, and it’s a boon, particularly given how emphatic texture unites them. Applying pigment with a palette knife seems to have been de rigueur—was its use promoted amongst Finnish ateliers?—and points to an awareness of vanguards outside the country, particularly Post-Impressionism. Brusqueness is the rule. Thesleff ’s rainbow-colored wood-cuts of Italy are no less physical than a pair of scrabbled portraits in oil by Schaumann displayed nearby. The innovations of early Modernism liberated these painters in ways that retain a modicum of edge, of newness and excitement.

Of course, the primary thing that liberated these women was that they were able to pursue viable careers as artists at all. The independence put forth in the title cuts in more ways than one. Yes, the exhibition “delves into the role of the modern woman,” to quote Dr. Susanna Pettersson, the director of the Finnish National Gallery; it has also been mounted in honor of the centennial anniversary of valtalaki, the “Power Law” transferring governmental power from the Russian Empire to the Finnish parliament. Finland had proven itself to be at the forefront of equality, being among the first Western countries to give women the vote in 1906. Which isn’t to say that chauvinism vanished overnight. Writing in the catalogue, the Ateneum curator Anu Utrainen, who, along with Pettersson, organized “Independent Visions,” cites a 1921 Schjerfbeck letter in which she bemoans popular conceptions about what a woman should and should not portray in art. Still, those tempted to foist a “feminist” tag on Schjerfbeck have their work cut out for them. She bristled at the “female artist” tag and wanted no part of gender-specific exhibitions: “Shouldn’t art be all that matters?”


Elga Sesemann, Self-Portrait (1946), oil on canvas, 77 x 68 cm.; courtesy Ateneum Art Museum/Finnish National Gallery

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Absolutely, but circumstance has a sneaky way of funneling into the work. The lot of the artist, let alone a woman artist working outside of a major cultural center, is keenly felt, if not always explicitly stated, at Scandinavia House. (It’s stated plainly enough in the catalogue, wherein we read Schjerfbeck’s advice to Schaumann: “Never become an artist. The world will let an artist perish.”) It can’t be a coincidence that the strongest pieces in “Independent Visions” are the self-portraits. Schjerfbeck deserves a place of prominence in the genre (though her Art Deco–inspired mannerisms are off-putting), but Sesemann, Thesleff and, especially, Schaumann bring to portraiture a dour self-regard and haunting sense of isolation. An undated Schaumann canvas barely brings itself to fruition, threatening to dissipate even as it coalesces into tangible form. Elsewhere, an elegantly appointed Thesleff regards herself with wary dispassion, and Sesemann, the artist seen least in abundance, opts for moody anomie. There are other types of imagery on view—Thesleff ’s mordant and whimsical Marionettes (1907), for example, or her Klimt-like Decorative Landscape (1910)—but they’re absent the nettlesome gravitas brought to bear on the portraits. A fuller accounting of each painter’s oeuvre might prove otherwise, but, in the meantime, “Independent Visions” serves as a noteworthy introduction to a byway of Modernism that will be new to a lot of us.

© 2017 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 edition of The New Criterion.

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