Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Valentine for Ms. Schjerfbeck

Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946), Yellow Roses, circa 1880s, Oil on Canvas, 10 by 11 ½ in., Private Collection

The Convalescent, 1888, considered a hidden self-portrait, Oil on canvas, 36.2 by 42.1 in., Atenium Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki

Dancing Shoes, 1882, Oil on Canvas, 21 3/4 by 25 1/2 in., sold for $4.3 million in 2008 at Sotheby's London, Private Collection

Picking Bluebells, 1880s, Oil on Canvas

The Nursemaid, 1880s, Oil on Canvas

Portrait of a Girl, 1880s, Oil on Canvas

Drying Laundry, 1883, Oil on Canvas, 38.5 by 54 in., Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki
Self-Portrait, 1884-85, Oil on Canvas, 19.69 by 16.4 in., Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki

Self-Portrait with Red Spot, 1944, Oil on Canvas, 17.7 by 14.52 in., Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki
Helene Schjerfbeck, undated photo

Helene Schjerfbeck paints at her home in Tammisaari in 1937

In a private art collection somewhere resides a quiet little oil painting on canvas of two wilting yellow roses in a drinking glass.  It measures just 10 by 11 ½ inches.  And it is one of the world’s greatest paintings.

In its apparent simplicity, this little work contains all the deep secrets of the unfathomable art of oil painting and loyally refuses to yield them to those who seek the same perfection in their own work.   Don’t ask me to explain why this is so.  I can’t.  And I’m certain the painter couldn’t have either.

The creator of this masterpiece was the iconic Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946), whose rise to fame in her later years and after her death was no doubt aided by a life filled with “illness, loneliness, pain and suffering,” as summarized by one chronicler, a surefire recipe for public adoration of a gifted artist.  This shy, introverted painter left behind about 1,000 paintings and 2,000 letters, so there is a lot of material for scholars to ponder over.

An art critic for The Independent of London, in a review of a big Schjerfbeck exhibit in The Hague, Hamburg and Paris in 2007, wrote, “Imagine the life of Frida Kahlo yoked to the eye of Edvard Munch, and you’ll begin to get the measure of this oeuvre.”  Kahlo endured a similar life of physical pain, but she confronted and publicly glorified her infirmities in her artwork.  Schjerfbeck on the other hand, became reclusive and introverted, spending most of her life isolated in small towns in Finland and Sweden.

Schjerfbeck wrote to a friend in 1917 that she hadn’t known one day of good health in 50 years.  “One gets so tired of fighting,” she wrote.   She somehow managed to complete all those paintings, despite sometimes being able to paint only one or two hours a day.  Her self-described lifelong illnesses are not identified in any of the online articles I read.

Here’s a brief rundown on some of the troubles she suffered early on that may have contributed to her shy and reclusive personality.  When she was four years old, she fell on a staircase, breaking her left hip and leaving her with a permanent limp.  Her twin siblings (a brother and sister), died at the age of one, her elder sister died shortly before her birth, and when she was 13 she lost her father to tuberculosis, causing her mother to take on boarders for a time to make ends meet.  A brother, Magnus, survived and grew up to be an architect.  Because of her poor health she was home-schooled in early childhood.  She was “silent and gloomy.”  As an adult, Schjerfbeck spent many years caring for her ill mother, a frequent model for her paintings, who died in 1923. 

Considered a child prodigy for her drawing skill at a very young age, Schjerfbeck was admitted to the Finnish Art Society Drawing School when she was only 11 years old.  In 1880, when she was 18, she went off to Paris to study in the academies, with Léon Bonnat and Gustave Courtois, among others.  During the 1880s, she spent time painting at various art colonies, including Concarneau and Pont-Aven in Brittany, and St. Ives in Cornwall. Her work in that decade is very much influenced by the plein-air naturalism of Jules Bastien-Lepage and others, including Stanhope Forbes.  And that’s the work of hers that I really love.

In 1884 she had her own studio in Paris, which she longed for again in her final years, and she lamented losing her drawing ability as she settled into her expressionistic, modernist phase by 1905, which she pursued for the remainder of her life.  In a 1914 letter to a friend, she complained that "I don't know how to draw anymore."  Her later figurative work is marked by simplified abstractions of line, light and color.

Schjerfbeck had moved back to Finland around 1890, due to her declining health, and began teaching regularly at the Art Society drawing school.  But in 1902, she became too ill to teach and resigned her position.  She kept in touch with the European art scene through black-and-white reproductions in art magazines and books, which artist friends sent her, leading to her experimentation with line, color and abstract shapes from magazine illustrations. When no models were available, she would use photographic portraits as a source of inspiration for her modernist works.  It is noted that living with her mother in a predominately female community gave Schjerfbeck the artistic freedom she desired.  She once mentioned that Degas, also, could only settle down to paint by disdaining society.

In 1913, Schjerfbeck met the art dealer Gösta Stenman, who arranged numerous exhibits of her work and began paying her a monthly salary in 1938.  She continued to paint actively, even during her last years.  During her final two years of life she lived in the Saltsjöbaden spa hotel in Sweden, where she created her now-famous “final burst” of reductive self-portraits.
Schjerfbeck painted at least 36 self-portraits throughout her career.  These works became increasingly abstract and analytical, eventually recording her physical deterioration, ending with ghostlike skull imagery.  The later self-portraits, created during the Second World War are “haunting and cartoonish,” in one critic’s view.  Schjerfbeck is said to be best known today for those self-portraits, painted from 1878 to 1945. “Now that I so seldom have the strength to paint, I’ve started on a self-portrait,” she wrote to a friend in 1921. “This way the model is always available, although it isn’t at all pleasant to see oneself.”

Writing in an online journal of 19th Century art at the time of the European tour of Schjerfbeck’s work, the Belgian art historian Marjan Sterckx offered an analysis of the painter’s late modernist philosophy and technique:   She attained an expressive imagery through the reduction of the narrative and her color palette, by leaving out more and more detail, and working with fields and two dimensions, without abandoning depth. Schjerfbeck herself wrote: "A work of art always lacks the last few details; the finished is dead."  In literature, she also saw confirmation of the principle that "we do not [need to] list every detail; a hint brings us closer to the truth."  So she went in search of the essence and the power of emptiness through the simplification and blurring of pictorial elements, and the omission of the unnecessary. Helene Schjerfbeck tried to express as much as possible with as little as possible.

Her conviction that “the finished is dead” is apparent in the way she treated her exquisite painting of the two wilting yellow roses.  It is far from finished in the photographic sense, but it is “finished” to absolute perfection.  From her vantage point, she saw clearly and felt intensely what nature had created, and that was that.  She seemed incredibly perceptive as to the right time to stop working on a painting before killing it with narcoleptic “finish,” even in her most realistic paintings from the 1880s.  Whenever you see most painters’ photographic record of the creation of a painting, the best image is invariably the one shown one or two stages before the completed work.  Try to tell that to all of today’s photographic finishers!

Riita Konttinen, a Finnish art historian, writes:  Schjerfbeck's own way of working was very slow; she painted and erased her works many times in order to achieve the effect that she wanted. She was very self-critical and never felt that she had achieved what she was really aiming at. "One should paint with feelers, not with brushes and fingers", she once remarked.  But Helene Schjerfbeck was not so ethereal and incorporeal as people have often fondly imagined, and her work is not mere aestheticising but an intensive exploration of the depths of existence, an exploration tied in many ways to general developments in her era and in art.

Schjerfbeck never married.  She had a brief engagement to an unnamed English artist she met in an art colony in Brittany, but eliminated any traces of that relationship.  Konttinen writes that Schjerfbeck’s fiancé broke off the engagement because his relatives suspected that her hip problem was of a tubercular nature.  And she had a long-term unrequited friendship with the lumberjack, writer and artist Einar Reuter, who wrote the first biography of her in 1917.  “They corresponded regularly,” Konttinen writes, “and Reuter adopted a caring attitude towards her; Schjerfbeck for her part became deeply attached to him. The news of Reuter's engagement to the Swede Tyra Arp in 1919 came as a shock to her, as she was afraid of losing this friendship. But Reuter and Schjerfbeck continued to be close friends.” Konttinen surmises that having no children seems to have been particularly sad for Schjerfbeck, who later thought of adopting a child, but her environment was hostile to that notion.

So that’s my funny valentine to Ms. Schjerfbeck for creating one of my favorite works of art.  And that’s my Valentine’s Day story for all you lovelorn painters out there.  You will just have to face the fact that, like Schjerfbeck, painting is going to be your only true love.