Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review: Helene Schjerfbeck at the Royal Academy from 20 July to 27 October 2019

Exhibition Review: Helene Schjerfbeck at the Royal Academy from 20 July to 27 October 2019

The Royal Academy of Arts presents an exhibition which covers the long and productive career of Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck (1862 – 1946). The exhibition is the first solo exhibition of Schjerfbeck’s works to be held in the UK.  Schjerfbeck is considered one of the most famous and highly regarded artists in Finland and is known in Nordic countries and across mainland Europe, but is little known in the UK.

The exhibition features around 65 portraits, landscapes and still lifes and charts the artistic development of Schjerfbeck’s work from a more naturalistic style , to a more abstracted and modern approach from the turn of the twentieth century.

The exhibition is organised in five sections. Paris, Pont Aven and St Ives shows Schjerfbeck’s early works which demonstrate the influence of the naturalistic painting. The earliest work in the exhibition is Two Profiles, 1881, depicting Schjerfbeck’s lifelong friend and fellow painter Marianne Preindelsberger. There  are examples from her time spent in the artists’ colony of St Ives, Cornwall in the late 1880s. One of Schjerfbeck’s early successes was The Convalescent, 1888 exhibited at the Paris Salon.

The second section, Moments of Intimacy illustrates a change of emphasis with larger canvases capturing creating private moments like Maria, 1909. Schjerfbeck moved  back to Finland in 1896 and began teaching at the Finnish Art Society’s drawing school in Helsinki.  Schjerfbeck then moved with her mother to the rural town of Hyvinkää in 1902, where she used her mother as a model and her style began to evolve into a more modernist approach.

The central gallery features a series of Self-portraits from the age of 22 to 83, Schjerfbeck seemed to be fascinated by the process of aging and many of the self-portraits offer a opportunity to see the artist’s style changing from the more traditional naturalistic to  the more abstract ghostly and confrontational presence.

The section entitled the Modern Look features portraits of family, friends and models made between 1909 and 1944. Schjerfbeck was inspired by magazines and journals and many of the paintings are similar to magazine illustrations but based on real people. She often names the portrait as types rather than real people like The Skier (English Girl) 1909 which actually looks like a clown. As women’s roles began to change in society, Schjerfbeck seems fascinated with these changes and often referred to paintings from earlier centuries like Profile of Madonna after El Greco, 1943.

The exhibition concludes with Still Life, a group of pictures that perhaps senses the artist’s own mortality and uses nature to illustrate the process of life and decay, Three Pears on a Plate, 1945 is the final painting she ever made.

This fascinating exhibition introduces the work of Helene Schjerfbeck to a wider audience and offers the rare opportunity to view a large number of the artist’s work. Schjerfbeck is one of those artists that seem to operate in their own world and follow their intuitions rather than the fads and fashions of art. She was particularly interested in women and women’s role in society, her later paintings in particular seem to suggest that women were becoming asked to be various types rather than individuals. The paintings often blur the distinctive features of the portraits as if the person was losing their individuality.  Is this why her later self portraits seem so confrontational as if to say this is the ‘real me’ not a stereotype.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information and tickets, visit the Royal Academy website here

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