Anna McNay

Review of Helene Schjerfbeck at the Royal Academy of Arts, London


Helene Schjerfbeck

Royal Academy of Arts, London
20 July – 27 October 2019

It is the same old story over again: a female artist, with a vast number of works to her name, successful during her lifetime, but since largely forgotten to the world at large (albeit still a known name in her native Finland). Her male contemporaries, whose influence is visible in her work (but would this have been a reciprocal relationship?), remain, of course, well known even outside the core of the art world. As deserving as the many other “rediscovered” women being brought out of the closet and put back into the spotlight, Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) is currently having her turn with her first UK solo exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (organised together with the Ateneum Art Gallery/Finnish National Gallery). 

Born in Helsinki, Schjerfbeck was discovered young by the Finnish painter Adolf von Becker, who secured her a place at the Finnish Drawing School when she was just 11 years old. Five years later, she moved to Becker’s private academy, from where she travelled to Paris to study at the Académies Trélat and Colarossi. Living the life of an educated artist, she flitted between Paris, Pont-Aven, St Petersburg, Vienna, Florence and even St Ives, Cornwall, exhibiting successfully across Europe, particularly in the Nordic countries, but never especially so in the UK. A major exhibition planned for the United States in 1939 was cancelled due to the outbreak of the second world war. Schjerfbeck, who died when she was 83, represented Finland posthumously at the Venice Biennale a decade later, in 1956. 

Read the full review here