An Overlooked Finnish Painter Found Modernism Before Its Time

Helene Schjerfbeck's work parallels 20th-century art movements. ART REVIEW

WHEN you enter a gallery full of Helene Schjerfbeck's paintings, you are drawn toward them, not for their exuberance or elan, but for the opposite. It is their restraint, their hints of secrets untold, the mystery that Garbo had, that pulls you.

The painter is the subject of "Helene Schjerfbeck: Finland's Modernist Rediscovered," an exhibition at the Phillips Collection here through Aug. 30. Her 70-year career spanned a view of life that in American terms went from the post-Civil War to the end of World War II. But she was always modern in her view - as she progressed, increasingly avant-garde, and as a woman artist in Finland, ignored for a long time.

This first major exhibition of her works in the United States contains 71 works: landscapes, still-life paintings, portraits (including a revealing series of portraits stretching over the years of her career) as well as historical paintings.

The show was culled from an exhibition of 210 works at the Finnish National Gallery Ateneum in Helsinki, where it drew 200,000 visitors in two months to the work of the artist slighted during much of her lifetime.

"It represents the entire output of one of the most important figures in Finnish art, and it is a unique, individual reflection of major currents in European art from the late-19th century right up to 20th-century modernism," as Soili Sinisalo, director of the Museum of Finnish Art, pointed out at the Helsinki opening.

When the exhibition at the Phillips leaves Washington, it will travel to the National Academy of Design in New York City.

Schjerfbeck was a child prodigy who at 11 enrolled at the Finnish Art Society and drawing school in Helsinki, later studying academic history painting at a private Finnish academy. Like other Finnish artists she was drawn to Paris, where plein-air realism was in flower. In 1880 she received a scholarship to study in Paris. But she discovered, as French Impressionist Berthe Morisot had, that women were banned from the Ecole des Beaux Arts. The alternative, to study at private academies, cost women twice a s much as men.

She and two friends who were also women artists, Maria Wiik and Helena Westermarck, enrolled at the Academie Colarossi, later traveled to artists' colonies in Brittany. After Paris, Schjerfbeck spent a year in another artists' colony in the fishing village of St. Ives in Cornwall, where she met the fiance who later broke the engagement because of a physical handicap she'd had since a child.

When she returned to Finland in the 1890s to teach, she fixed on her own star as a painter. Her highly innovative and original work drew criticism, distancing her from the traditional work of other artists. In a letter to her friend Marie Wiik in 1911 she said, "Painting is difficult, and it wears you out body and soul when it doesn't come out right - and yet, it is my only joy in life."

In 1902 she moved to Hyvinkaa, to take care of her mother who believed that housekeeping was more important than painting. That gave her the solitude she'd wanted most of her life to concentrate on her painting, but it also set her in isolation from the artistic community.

As you stand and stare at her work at the Phillips, you can see how the personal and professional rejection over the years had focused her art, made her cling more strongly to her own image of an art pared down to the essence - spare, shot with color that does not shout but is haunting. Her paintings are filled with silence and thoughtfulness.

Among the most memorable are the 1884 "The Door," a dark door with edges of light pushing from behind, almost Rothko-like except for the towering pillar at the right; her modern portrait of "The Red-Headed Girl," done in 1915; the contrast between her self-portraits as a fresh-faced blonde in a subdued blue dress (1895) and her bold but defensive study of herself in 1915; the brooding impressionism of Sjundby Nanor done in 1901 which emerges in truly modern form as an abstract painting in 1927; the timel essness of her 1941 "Image of Christ" haloed in white light.

She began to receive the artistic recognition she deserved in 1937 with an exhibition of 93 works at the Stenman Gallery in Stockholm, followed by other solo exhibitions in 1939 and 1940, and went to Sweden to live and paint until her death in 1946. In 1956, 36 works by Schjerfbeck represented Finland at the XXVIII Venice Biennale.

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