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Helene Schjerfbeck review

  • Art
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Helene Schjerfbeck 'The Sailor (Einar Reuter)' (1918) Private collection. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

If you’re British, Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) is a relatively unknown artist. If you’re Finnish, Helene Schjerfbeck is a very famous artist. This show of 60 paintings is the first chance London audiences have had to join the Schjerfbeck fan club.

Separating her output into themed categories – including early work in France and Cornwall, pictures of contemplative women and sartorially focused poses – the exhibition repeatedly shows how her style morphed from French-influenced naturalism to looser, fuzzier modernism.

Ignoring painting style for a moment, there’s a ‘modern’ aspect to many of Schjerfbeck’s images. Right from the off, the women in her portraits look alive, real and healthy in a way they almost never do in comparable early twentieth-century British art. Looking at the smiling girl painted in St Ives or the hazy-edged and self-possessed women with downcast eyes is a bit like seeing a contemporary actress in a period drama. It makes the past seem less… past. And wearing yards of lace around your neck seem perfectly normal.

That said, the more her artwork slipped into modernism, the more interesting it became; the early works are often ‘lovely’ but not all that memorable.

One of the very best paintings here is ‘The Sailor (Einar Reuter)’, a chalky ochre and denim-blue portrait that’s as sexy an image of a sailor as Jean-Paul Gautier ever dreamed up (a reference the fashion-loving Schjerfbeck would surely appreciate). The soft-edged depiction of his muscled neck and jaw makes it not unlike Sam Taylor-Wood’s video portrait of a sleeping David Beckham.

A series of late self-portraits are another highlight, as they disintegrate into ghostly angular skulls often tinted an unhealthy mould-on-sliced-bread green. This is what makes Schjerfbeck fascinating. Instead of tapering off into rehearsed formulas, her art gets better as it heads from start to finish.

Written by
Rosemary Waugh


£14, concs available
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