Helene Schjerfbeck at the Royal Academy

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By Ann Witheridge

Scott and I decided to have a date night at the Royal Academy.

It was also so wonderful to see how many people were at the exhibition, we didn’t see it the first week, or even the last, some bland middle of the exhibition visit, and yet I was amazed how many people were there and of all ages. Scott and I were in the older team! How wonderful that on a Friday night in London, this many people of all ages are visiting exhibitions.

A Little Convalescent, Helene Schjerfbeck
A Little Convalescent, Helene Schjerfbeck

The Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition at the Royal Academy is definitely worth going to see and should satisfy everyone’s taste, as her artistic career spanned tradition and figurative art to modernism and near abstraction in a very systematic clean sweep. I was obviously more drawn by her earlier work, her sense of tonality, her paint handling, and even her subject matter. She really does have such a wonderful sense of calm and harmony while building, layering and glazing paint.

Woman with a Child, Helene Schjerfbeck
Woman with a Child, Helene Schjerfbeck

She was fortunate enough, at the age of 30, to be commissioned by the Finnish Art Society to head to the Hermitage, St Petersburg to do a series of copies of Velazquez, Hals and then onto Florence to study at the Uffizi. What an opportunity and what an invaluable lesson. Her series of self-portraits work wonderfully as she steps from naturalism into modernism into expressionism and near abstraction. But her later paintings only work because they started from such a solid basis with her amazing sense of colouring and tone. Her draughtsmanship was so beautiful and her paint handling, but her real skill is her understanding and balance of tones and muted colours. Her compositions of tone are as beautiful with a figurative subject as with a near abstract. I think the problem is many artists dive into abstraction and modernism, but they haven’t yet stepped through the study of tradition, with the demands of the understanding of draughtsmanship, values, edges, colour and paint handling. A painting only works if these steps are understood and executed. With a figurative piece of artwork, it is obvious when it is unbalanced. A modern piece of artwork might seduce some into believing the work, but great artists like Helene Schjerfbeck stand the test of time because her abstraction stems from representation, her sense of design and balance is founded on realism, from which one can’t deceive. Much like Klimt, who was born the same year, her journey to modernism and design was only so stunning and successful because of her initial training and success as a figurative painter. Her journey was as natural as her early paintings were naturalistic, and as a consequence her later works have that balance of sincerity and beauty.

Self Portrait, Helene Schjerfbeck
Self Portrait, Helene Schjerfbeck
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