Monday, October 25, 2010

The self portraits of Helene Schjerfbeck

Self portrait • Helene Schjerfbeck, 1884-85

Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck's self portraits show clearly the evolution of her style from one that was highly realistic to one that simplified and abstracted the forms of her subject.

Schjerfbeck's life and career was shaped to a large extent by her health. Breaking her hip when she was four, she was left with a difficult limp that made getting around difficult, and kept her home from school. The Independent of London described her work by saying," Imagine the life of Frida Kahlo yoked to the eye of Edvard Munch...." She used her time to sketch, and became a prodigy, accepted into the Finnish Art Society as a drawing student at the age of eleven (most entrants were sixteen).

The support, after her father died two years later, of her mother and a teacher, who recognized her gifts, allowed her to continue to study. By the late 1870s her reputation was growing in Finland. A travel grant and her own determination and continuing marketing allowed her to travel to Paris, and to other places in Europe, including Florence, Prague, and England.

Self portrait • Helene Schjerfbeck, 1912

In 1890, because of worsening health and finances, Schjerfbeck needed to move back to Finland, where she continued to paint. Her paintings were "rediscovered" in 1917, when she had her first solo exhibition. She continued to explore and grow as a painter, and her work had changed considerably during that time.

Self portrait • Helene Schjerfbeck, 1915

In 1921, she wrote to a friend, "Now that I so seldom have the strength to paint, I have started on a self-portrait. This way the model is always available, although it isn't at all pleasant to see oneself." She continued to paint self portraits – at least 36 during her life.

Self portrait • Helene Schjerfbeck, 1939

Schjerfbeck painted most of her self portraits from 1939 to 1945. Painted with a brutal honesty, and perhaps reflecting the fear and panic of the breakout of war with Russia, during which she had to be evacuated, Self Portrait with Black Mouth, painted with both brush and palette knife, is one of those.

You can find an excellent review of her work by Marjan Sterckx at Helene Schjerfbeck: Finland's best-kept secret.

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