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December 17, 2007

Schjerfbeck's Drift to Modernism

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Finland produced some interesting artists who were active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I wrote about Albert Edelfelt here and Axel Gallén (Akseli Gallén-Kallela) here.

Another artist whose work impressed me a few years ago as I made a mad, just-before-closing-time dash through Helsinki's Ateneum was Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946). Although she lived into her 80s, Schjerfbeck was sickly and faced economic problems early in life. Biographical information can be found here and here.

What interested me was Schjerfbeck's transition from being a traditional/realist to a Modernist painter. This was made quite clear because the Ateneum devoted an entire room to her work and all I had to do was stroll along the walls and note the paintings' dates. The following Gallery section should give you a sense of what I saw.


The Convalescent - 1888
In her mid-20s Schjerfbeck was still painting in a mainstream non-Impressionist style; her brushwork and sketchy background suggest John Singer Sargent's work.

Portrait of a Young Girl - 1886
Painted two years before the painting shown above, this work is sketchier, but still within parameters set by the better non-Impressionists elsewhere in Europe. I find this a very satisfying painting aside perhaps for a minor quibble about the treatment of the girl's garment.

The Seamstress - 1903
By the dawn of the 20th century Schjerfbeck edged away from free brushwork to a more "designed" approach. Again, a satisfying work because the stylization is kept under control.

Self-Portrait - 1915
Modernist influence has now sunk in. Whereas the face is correctly proportioned, what can be seen of the torso seems distorted. The painting style has moved from "sketchy" to highly stripped-down. Schjerfbeck's good compositional sense remains intact.

Einar Reuter - 1919
Modernism has taken hold completely. All the qualities I liked in the Schjerfbeck paintings shown above are gone.

Varjo Muurilla - 1928
Better composition and color use than for the Einar Reuter portrait. Pretty abstract, but nice.

The last painting shown above seems better than what I remember seeing at the Ateneum. My impression was that Schjerfbeck's work had pretty well gone to pot before 1920 in a quest to be "with it." Even so, she still had enough compositional and color sense to salvage a little something during and after abandoning her younger approach.

Many of her contemporaries who were seduced by Modernism (or felt compelled to switch out of fear of losing sales) were less successful. If I can find good examples of this, I'll pass them along.



posted by Donald at December 17, 2007


I suppose the artist who stays within the parameters of academically approved orthodox representation is painting correctly. But then, does that artist have the right to the title, artist, at all? What Schjerfbeck was doing in her, to use your term, drift to modernism, was what every artist who hasn't trademarked himself does: she was exploring what it is to look and see and record. And that's a journey not a destination.

Posted by: ricpic on December 17, 2007 7:40 PM

If I understand her Wikipedia article, Schjerfbeck, after a fairly successful "official" art career, was forced to give up a teaching job because of a bout of ill health. She then spent the first decade or so of the 20th century in some cultural isolation while she was took care of her elderly mother, which is when she 'evolved' into modernism. The article says she continued to exhibit during this time, but how much of her income came from her painting (or how else she made a living) is pretty unclear. Anyway, I bring that up because it doesn't seem that she was forced by art world politics or dealers to become a modernist; it seems to have been pretty much her choice. So more power to her from that point of view.

From the point of view of my pleasure in her work, however, I can't say that I cheer her conversion. The strongest quality in her early work is her great skill as a academic draftswoman and as a tonal painter. (She seems to have poked her nose into Impressionism at one point, but I guess it didn't stick.) In her transition to modernism, she gave all that up, but didn't appear to gain what modernism chiefly has to offer, the freedom to revel in art's decorative qualities (colorism, 2-dimensional design, etc.)


Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 18, 2007 2:52 PM

That's a good point, about people who ended up doing Modernist work without playing to its strengths. What would a Mondrian look like if done only in dingy, washed-out shades of taupe and dun?

That 1919 Reuter painting is most unpleasant, I have to say. . .

Posted by: Derek Lowe on December 19, 2007 1:31 PM

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