Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition: research/reflection

This weekend I visited the RA to see the retrospective on Helene Schjerfbeck, the first solo exhibition of her work in the UK. Born in Finland in 1862, she was an active painter until her death in 1946.

I was keen to visit this exhibition, to continue my run of women artist retrospectives in 2019, begun with Lee Krasner and Natalia Goncharova. This is motivated by various reasons for me – to do what I can to ‘vote with my feet’ and support the rewriting of art history to include women who deservedly should be included within it, in the process educating myself and reflecting on their practice, and further because something about observing depictions of female subjects devoid of the male gaze is palliative and reassuring to me in some ways. I have often felt very uncomfortable in the more historic wings of art galleries, filled with idealised and sexualised female forms, and while some women artists have continued in this convention in the hopes of subverting the narrative, I find it most interesting seeing depiction go beyond this.

The exhibition itself was divided into 5 sections, split across 3 rooms, suggesting that the curator could have filled a good number more rooms if given the space!

Dreaming does not suit me. To work, to live through work, that is my path.”

Helene Schjerfbeck

I think this artist held a deep emotional intelligence, and conveying complex emotional narratives in her work. I will highlight the works I found to be most interesting here, in the order in which they were presented in the exhibition.

Section 1.

The Bakery (1887)

For this painting, Schjerbeck had set up her easel in a working bakery but chosen not to depict the bakers who no doubt would have been present at the time. In this sense she is already subverting the conventions of naturalism. I found this painting a little unsettling, and reflected on it for some time. The scales, just off centre, are unbalanced. We see a large table filled with fresh baked buns, just laying there (the perspective of this feels like it is exaggerating the size and dominance of this in the space). There is a sense of stillness and murkiness in the room, which is contrasted by the vivid light from the furnace emanating from around a corner in the distance. It implies for me a sense of waste, empty endeavour, inequality in a land of plenty.

Shadow on a wall (Breton landscape), 1883

I was intrigued to see this painting in the exhibition, following my own thinking around depiction of shadows and impermanence. For me, this painting was interesting as she had taken great care to depict the detail of the young branches on the foregrounded tree, to a very fine degree, but the subject of the painting itself, the shadow, contrastingly feels slightly sketchy or blurred. I wondered if this could be defying the convention of the object of focus being also the main subject of a piece (as in photography for instance). The effect is such that it is as though we are only seeing the shadows in our peripheral vision, as though they are some ever-present looming darkness. I think this must be the intention, since the landscape itself is fairly sparse, and the space taken up by shadow is quite large, you cannot focus on the tree without seeing it.

Section 2.

Silence, 1907

There is an interesting quality of light in this painting, her blue dress and delicately lit face contrasting with the plain dark background. The shape of her long neck and sloping shoulders makes her look ethereally elongated, and removed. Again here a sense of stillness and reservation – even regret from the downturned eyes?

Section 3

This room was dedicated to her self-portraits, painted throughout her life. Her style became more abstracted over time, and she confronted her mortality and the deterioration of age head on, with the final works completed within a year of her death at 83.

I found it quite a challenging room to be in, and felt that not only was she exploring that physical change she was seeing over time, but also capturing perhaps her self-perception and attitude towards herself. It is not a sympathetic view of aging we see in her final works, the figure abstracted to almost not being human. I wondered if here the figure of Nosferatu from early cinema might have been an influence (the film was released 20 years prior) – if so characterising oneself as a monster is certainly suggesting a troubled internal world.

Schjerbeck’s technique involved applying paint and then scraping it off or rubbing it back. She repeatedly reworked surfaces with a brush, palette knife or cloth and even sandpaper. The layering and erasure emulate the effects of time in paint. In some cases, parts of the canvas are deliberately left bare, using this texture as part of the picture.”

RA notes – Helene Schjerbeck exhibition

I was interested to read about her techniques with paint – she used oils which I am not familiar with but if applied thickly I imagine a similar effect can be achieved with acrylic? Could be interesting to experiment with this.

Section 4

Girl with beret, 1935

In this room, we saw more of Schjerfbeck’s portraiture, and here her style has developed further. She is using a variety of source material, including the latest fashions from Marie Claire and Chanel, as well as using her own memories and imagination to influence her work. This results in something more abstract and generalised, and though here again there is a woman with downcast eyes, here it suggests a sort of melancholy or regret for me, with a sharper light being cast on the figure.

Section 5

Her still lifes are for me really interesting. The exhibition notes stated that she would work on multiple canvases at a time, doing these as a counterpoint to the many portraits she did. As such I think she may have been a little freer here and we see her particular approach to painting clearly evidenced.

I especially liked seeing the variety of marks she used for the pumpkin still life and how the intent with these marks is not to recreate/emphasise what must have been a very rounded shape.

This exploration and experimentation with abstraction did not quite take her far enough in my view, and I left feeling like if only there had been a further section to her working life we might have gotten somewhere exciting. It left me somewhat unsatisfied, having seen the broad experimentation of Lee Krasner and Natalia Goncharova. But I certainly enjoyed seeing the depths of emotion contained within her works nonetheless.

Impermanence: my work & research

Since the lecture on approaches to drawing, I’ve been interested in thinking about impermanence in art and materials disintegrating.

This specifically was sparked by the mention of artist Amanda McCavour who creates ‘thread drawings’ on water-soluble fabric. One material (the thread) remains while the other (the fabric) disappears.

I think this is different to auto-destructive / destruction art. Where the whole piece might be destroyed in the process, e.g. Gustav Metzger’s acid paintings, or Banksy’s Love is in the Bin. Instead it is the juxtaposition of something ceasing to be, while something else endures. For me, this is akin to memento mori. We are reminded of our own mortality, while at the same time viewing something that will endure beyond the life of the subject.

I looked to other water soluble materials to experiment with this idea. In both tests I took the paper and ran it under the tap directly – this alone let the pen run, but I had to stroke the sketch itself in order to distort it directly. In both cases I chose to use imagery/text that directly act as memento mori.

I think this was an interesting experiment, but I wonder if it is a little too obvious? I may try to incorporate this into a more subtle approach.

Another thought I had was to make use of fleeting phenomenon to explore impermanence. In particular, shadow. In the process of making one of the objects for my survival kit, I happened upon an interesting shadow form as I was exploring it in suspension

I would be interested in exploring this theme further also. I am aware of artists creating sculptures in order to cast figurative shadows, but am not yet aware of more abstract shadow pieces, which I am interested to look into.

Detail of shadow cast by Kira Freije’s Standing Woman Arms Folded, RA