Although there are still lives and architectural scenes included, this exhibition really starts and ends with Schjerfbeck’s portraits, into which you have to look as if trying to see into their eyes and into their very soul. It is through those that you can see and feel Schjerfbeck’s life and her pain, with self-portraits and portraits of her mother, who she looked after for many years, across the exhibition. One of the saddest portraits is perhaps ‘The Sailor’ which is quite sensual for its date (1915) and represented Einar Reutar, almost 20 years younger than Schjerfbeck, and with whom she hoped to develop a relationship, but it never moved beyond friendship and appreciation. She never did marry and seems to have been a lonely individual, finding her release in the passion of her art and her portraits of the people around her, sometimes projecting the real people she painted into imaginary situations.
One of Finland’s best-known artists, her life appears to be full of tragedy and illness, not helped by the changing political situations in Finland in the first half of the 20th century, with its declaration of Independence from Russia in 1917 and then invasion by the Soviet Union in 1939
There are links with England – In the late 1880′s, she visited and stayed in St Ives, being inspired as other artists by the clarity of the light, and also exhibited in London.
I’m off to visit Helsinki later this autumn, so this is an excellent introduction to the relatively unknown world of Finnish art, which I hope to explore more in the art museums there.