Helene Schjerfbeck, ­ Self-Portrait, 1912, oil on canvas, 43.5cm x 42cm Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Yehia Eweis

Artist Ian McKeever on the Raw Power of Helene Schjerfbeck’s Self-portraits

Ian McKeever, painter and Royal Academician

First published in the Summer 2019 issue of RA Magazine to coincide with the presentation of the ‘Helene Schjerfbeck’ exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (until 27 October 2019)

‘For I have always found it impossible to resemble myself from one day to the next.’
– Philippe Ricord

‘…I never go around mirrors… it tears me up to see a grown man cry,’ he sang to himself, as he looked into the mirror. The face staring back at him, presumably to others always the same face, was to him barely known. He never could figure out whose skin he was in; for sure it was not his. But then he would not recognise his own skin were it ever to wrap itself around him. How did others deal with this, he wondered? Did they too feel this discomfort, a rub which never eased? Never spoken about, lived with; or was he one of just a few who had what felt like a body on loan. A body he did not fully trust. Committing to something he did not fully know or trust seemed reckless. So he withheld, as if only ever partially present in the world. A part of himself held back, unsure if he had the resilience to endure, survive total immersion. Most of the time he felt truly lost. Things around him, people even, polluted him. Turning him into mere flotsam and jetsam floating aimlessly, without meaning. Becoming just a part of the vague, directionless flow of life. Any meaning which might crystallize itself into something concrete, graspable, eluded him most of the time. So when in those odd moments it did materialise, he hung on to it as if his life depended on it. He turned away from the mirror, casting one last glance into those eyes.

It is 1975. I am in Helsinki. Participating in my first group exhibition abroad. It is an exhibition of SPACE artists, the London-based studio collective, at the Taidehalli, the city exhibition space run by the Finnish Artists’ Union. The city feels dour, grey, emerging as it was from being politically sandwiched between Sweden and the Soviets. Each of the visiting artists has been allocated a Finnish counterpart as minder-cum-guide. Mine is Timo, a painter photographer, who also writes, perhaps a couple of years younger than myself. We get on well. On one of the free days Timo takes me to the Ateneum Art Museum, which houses part of the Finnish national collection of paintings. It is my first introduction to the history of Finnish art. Difficult; I have no reference points. However, Timo is good, he knows his country’s painting tradition, and he helps me to ease my way in. Some works come easier than others; the large snowy landscape of Akseli Gallen-Kallela for instance, I can thread back to a broader context with relative ease. At one point we find ourselves in a gallery of smallish paintings, still-lifes, landscapes and portraits. It is the work of Helene Schjerfbeck, Timo enthuses. I am both curious and nonplussed. Unable to make head or tail of what I am looking at – why the fuss?

Over the following years Timo and I become good friends and I am in Finland fairly regularly. On such visits at some point I invariably find myself standing yet again in front of Helene Schjerfbeck’s paintings. They have become a Finnish marker for me. One of those things we use when travelling to tell us we have arrived, be it a croissant in Paris or the mounds of fresh mint in Marrakesh. Paintings too can anchor one from museum to museum, country to country. I have only to stand in front of Vilhelm Hammershøi’s small Portrait of a Young Woman in Funen Art Museum in Odense to know I am slap bang in the middle of Denmark and its culture. For me in Finland this has become Helene Schjerfbeck

Featured image: Helene Schjerfbeck, ­Self-Portrait, 1912, oil on canvas, 43.5cm x 42cm. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Yehia Eweis

Read more — Download ‘Raw Power of Helene Schjerfbeck’s Self-portraits’, by Ian McKeever, as a PDF

Download the article as a PDF >>