Critics’ Picks

Helene Schjerfbeck, Girl from Eydtkuhne II, 1927, oil on canvas, 27 1/2 x 21 1/2".

Helene Schjerfbeck, Girl from Eydtkuhne II, 1927, oil on canvas, 27 1/2 x 21 1/2".


Helene Schjerfbeck

Royal Academy | Burlington Gardens
6 Burlington Gardens
July 20–October 27, 2019

The transformation of Helene Schjerfbeck from an accomplished if unremarkable salon painter at the end of the nineteenth century to a radical modernist from the 1900s onward is so abrupt that it could give one mental whiplash. My Mother, 1902, made when the artist was forty, is the earliest among her twentieth-century pieces in this survey (which includes a selection of her nineteenth-century works) and already speaks the abstract language she would develop over the next four decades: flattening of space, reduction of detail, and use of clothing to introduce a large patch of dominant color. All was in place.

Working in the small Finnish town of Hyvinkää since 1902, far from the avant-garde strongholds, Schjerfbeck nevertheless possessed an unmistakably modern sensibility, which she likely gleaned during her European travels. Like Manet or Warhol, she was an observer of the present, often taking fashion magazines as her source material. Girl from Eydtkuhne II, 1927, perfectly encapsulates her blend of painterly abstraction and contemporary design. The model’s garment is a grid of broad pastel brushstrokes, and her elongated face is reduced to its essentials. Her body dissolves into the background. The work is at once a sharp disquisition on what it means to represent a person and an irresistibly stylish comment on fashion.

Schjerfbeck’s mature works often chime more with art made closer to her death, in 1946, than with the heroic modernism that prevailed among her peers. Her forceful inquiry into the modern human subject and acute treatment of surfaces—the repeated applying and rubbing off, the scraping and sandpapering of paint—prefigures works by Giacometti, Dubuffet, and Wols, and yet Schjerfbeck employed these methods to create pictures of striking quietude, a temperament mostly alien to these successors. This distinctness allows her canvases to appear markedly contemporary today.