Hamburger Kunsthalle

Helene Schjerfbeck

02 Feb - 06 May 2007

Helene Schjerfbeck
2 February 2007 - 6 May 2007


“Imagine the life of Frida Kahlo yoked to the eye of Edvard Munch,
and you’ll begin to get the measure of this oeuvre...”
(The Independent on Helene Schjerfbeck, London, October 2003)

In Finland she is a national heroine, and across all of Scandinavia she has gained near-mythical status, yet in the rest of Europe she is virtually unknown: Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946). Now the Hamburger Kunsthalle is mounting a major retrospective of Schjerfbeck’s work, the first large-scale European exhibition of her art to be held outside Scandinavia. Following its showing in Hamburg, the exhibition will tour to the Gemeentemuseum in Den Haag and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

Ninety years after Helene Schjerfbeck’s work was first presented in a one-woman show, this new exhibition features more than 120 oil paintings, watercolours and drawings from the influential painter’s extensive oeuvre. The portraits, self-portraits, landscapes and still lifes on show testify to Schjerfbeck’s highly individual style and affirm her position as an outstanding modernist artist. Having gained success and recognition for her art at a young age, Schjerfbeck’s development as a painter was shaped by periods of study in Paris and subsequent travels to Florence, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Brittany and England. At the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, the then 27-year-old artist was awarded the bronze medal for her painting The Convalescent, which reflects impressionist influences.

Combining the impressionist impulse with her training in the realistic style, Schjerfbeck made a conscious decision at the turn of the century to distance herself from the National Romanticism of her Nordic colleagues and establish her own artistic identity, one that was more international in character. She confidently adopted a modern approach to the free application of paint and a reduced language of forms, and some of her paintings already anticipate the qualities of abstraction. By 1902, when she was forced to give up her cosmopolitan lifestyle due to ill-health, she was already regarded as one of the most important representatives of a generation of Finnish women artists.

In the following almost 50 years of self-imposed isolation in two Finnish villages, Schjerfbeck created an individual expressive style that is deeply impressive in its austerity, stillness and intensity, and at the same time is imbued with strength and sensitivity. Far removed from historicism and National Romanticism, the artist portrays the simple life of women and children. In paintings such as The Schoolgirl, The Seamstress and My Mother the depicted surroundings take second place to the figures’ particular bearing and presence, sustained by some inner force. Schjerfbeck reduces the narrative elements to a highly expressive formal language.

At the centre of the retrospective are Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits, culminating in a late series of radically reduced self-analyses. As the artist – who was plagued by ill health throughout her life – wrote to a friend in 1921: “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.” With unflinching honesty, a vulnerable yet strong woman here provides an unsparing and increasingly intense portrayal of the ageing process, and ultimately of her own physical decline.

The exhibition includes works on loan from museums in Finland (Ateneum Art Museum/Finnish National Gallery, City Art Museum, Didrichsen Art Museum in Helsinki and many more) and Sweden (Moderna Museet in Stockholm), as well as a large number of additional loans from private collections, above all in Finland and Sweden. It has therefore been possible to bring together works that even in Scandinavia have not been shown since Schjerfbeck’s death.

A comprehensive catalogue is being published in German, English, Dutch and French to accompany the exhibition. An associated programme of events includes guided tours, a reading of Finnish literature and a concert of Finnish tango music.

Curator of the exhibition: Dr. Annabelle Görgen

Tags: Frida Kahlo, Edvard Munch