Helene Schjerfbeck, Self-Portrait with Palette I, 1937, tempera and oil on canvas, 44.5cm x 33.5cm Moderna Museet, Statens konstmuseer, Stockholm Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Yehia Eweis

Helene Schjerfbeck – only an Image?

Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

As the Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition opens at the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki, Gill Crabbe discusses the artists self-portraiture with contemporary art curator Patrik Nyberg and art historian Marja Lahelma 

Patrik, you are a curator at the Finnish National Gallerys Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma and you have just published your doctoral thesis on Helene Schjerfbecks self-portraits. How did you become interested in Schjerfbeck?

Patrik Nyberg I have always been interested in art that seems to critique or subvert its own representation, be it in a video, or any contemporary art, or painting from the modernist era or earlier, so I wanted to look at Helene Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits in this light.

Where would you place Helene Schjerfbecks self-portraits in the modernist canon?

PN Well, that’s a question I’m thinking about in my thesis – what is the modernist canon and what kind of painting is defined as modernist painting? I think Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits go beyond the parameters of how modernism is defined by its defenders, such as Clive Bell, Roger Fry and the Greenbergian tradition. These works also question the way that, in the postmodern era, we tend to define painting in the modernist era as self-sustained autonomous art and in favour of an autonomous subject. I think Helene Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits go beyond that idea and are more contemporary in a way.

Marja, you were the opponent for the public defence of Patrik’s doctoral thesis. You have seen the recent Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, in which the self-portraits were given a central focus by presenting them chronologically in the room at the heart of the gallery space. What did you make of that kind of presentation – do you think this shows that the self-portraits are the most important of her works?

Marja Lahelma I thought it was quite powerful to walk into that room and as I had already read Patrik’s thesis I was aware of the fact that, although these self-portraits were presented as a chronological sequence, they didn’t really produce a narrative, which I liked. Apart from the early self-portraits, you couldn’t really see a progression that starts from likeness and representation, then going towards abstraction – it doesn’t really work that way with her.

So how did it work?

ML They are all such different kinds of works. In his thesis, Patrik discusses the performative aspect of these works and that became very clear to me in that room. It appeared almost as some kind of a game. I had the impression that Schjerfbeck was really conscious of what she was doing, that there was nothing accidental. I was also aware that these works don’t really say anything about who she was – for example that they reveal the soul – in fact there was nothing of that kind there, it was all about surface. I really liked that.

Featured image: Helene Schjerfbeck, Self-Portrait with Palette I, 1937, tempera and oil on canvas, 44.5cm x 33.5cm
Moderna Museet, Statens konstmuseer, Stockholm
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Yehia Eweis

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