Helene Schjerfbeck, Self-Portrait, 1912, oil on canvas Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Yehia Eweis

The Enigma of Helene Schjerfbeck

Interview by Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

As the Finnish National Gallery announces a new donation of Helene Schjerfbeck’s letters, Gill Crabbe interviews Lena Holger, who has been a scholar of this intriguing artist since the 1970s and whose extensive research work has been significant in producing new knowledge and questions regarding Schjerfbeck’s art and life

GC A private individual has recently donated to the Finnish National Gallery eight letters written by Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946) that were in the possession of the donor’s family. The letters relate to Schjerfbeck’s last years of life in Sweden, from 1944 to 1945, when she resided in Saltsjöbaden’s spa hotel. The letters were written to Schjerfbeck’s second cousin, the artist Martha Neiglick-Platonoff (1889–1964). What research questions do you imagine are prompted by the emergence of these letters?
LH Helene Schjerfbeck longed to return home to Finland for most of the two years that she
stayed in Sweden, which were her last years. She wanted to have her relatives nearby and
would certainly have appreciated such correspondence highly. I have not seen the letters yet, but hopefully they contain more than mere family matters. I presume that Martha Neiglick-Platonoff’s letters to Schjerfbeck have disappeared, like so many other letters addressed to Helene Schjerfbeck.

GC What is the significance of the 1912 Self-Portrait which was recently purchased by the Ateneum Art Museum? This self-portrait has been known and exhibited, but there is clearly a new interest in portraiture and self-portraits internationally, so are there new angles to this part of Schjerfbeck’s oeuvre?
LH Portraits always say more about a person than a photograph does, and a painted
self-portrait says even more. I have written about this self-portrait from 1912 in an article
about international influences in the book accompanying the 1997 exhibition in Denmark at Nordjyllands Kunstmuseum, ‘Helene Schjerfbeck: kvinder, mandsportraetter, selvportraetter, landskaber, stilleben’ (Helene Schjerfbeck: women, portraits of men, self-portraits, landscapes, still-lifes), and more recently in my book for the Ateneum Art Museum in 2016. It is a sign of a new self-confidence and a kind of ‘goodbye’ to the artist world, which had not accepted her as an artist colleague. In the painting, one of her eyes is without an iris as though she was blind: blind to the world or blind to the critics. She is also turning her painting soul and face to the public again after about 10 years of painting in solitude. She had latterly entered on her own path as an artist and she shows it here.

Featured image: Helene Schjerfbeck, Self-Portrait, 1912, oil on canvas
Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Yehia Eweis

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