Helene Schjerfbeck, “Self-Portrait, Black Background” (1915), oil on canvas, 45.5 x 36 cm, Herman and Elisabeth Hallonblad collection, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum (courtesy Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen)

The story of the Finnish modernist painter Helene Schjerfbeck is a fascinating one, which was first told in America in 1992, 25 years ago, when she was the subject of an exhibition at the National Academy of Design. Writing for The New York Times (November 27, 1992), Roberta Smith characterized the exhibition of this neglected artist as “revelatory [and] bittersweet.” Smith’s observation still holds true, perhaps even more so, in the exhibition Independent Visions: Helene Schjerfbeck and Her Contemporaries at Scandinavia House (April 29 – October 7, 2017), which fleshes out a story of independence and perseverance that keeps needing to be told, if only to remind us how complicated and chaotic history is.

Starting with Schjerfbeck, the exhibition calls attention to the pioneering role of four Finnish woman artists at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century: Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946), Sigrid Schauman (1877–1979), Ellen Thesleff (1869–1954), and Elga Sesemann (1922–2007). Schjerfbeck, Schauman and Thesleff belong to the same generation and were roughly contemporary with Edvard Munch (1863–1944). This means that they were born in the day of the horse and carriage and lived to witness the advent of the nuclear age. Art also underwent seismic changes over that time. Not everyone was receptive to what was going on, and many saw the changes as signs of decline, faddishness, decadence, erosion of values, and  worse.

Helene Schjerfbeck, “Self-Portrait with Red Spot” (1944), oil on canvas, 45 x 37 cm (courtesy Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum)

In contrast to the  men enjoying the comradery of the Finnish art world, Schjerfbeck and her contemporaries recognized that becoming an artist was a solitary endeavor, and that the sacrifices they made were in direct relationship to their pursuit of independence. This helps explain why these women were receptive to the innovative work being done by Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Cézanne, Amedeo Modigliani, and others. A new visual language offered them a way out of the one they would associate with repression and constraint. Forced into a minor status and recognizing that neglect would dog the reception of their art, they chose not to accommodate themselves to this authorized rejection.

According to the press release, there are 55 works in the exhibition. The subjects include portraits, still-lifes, and landscapes. You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to quickly detect that there are no portraits of men or depictions of happy couples in the exhibition. Another thing I noticed was that Schjerfbeck repeatedly accentuated women’s mouths, often with a smudged brushstroke of gaudy red in an otherwise muted painting.

Like Mary Cassatt, Scherfbeck made women the primary subject of her work. However, in contrast to Cassatt, many of the portraits she did between 1915 and 1930 were of young, independent women, and signs of domesticity are few. She often used a dry brush and added and wiped off the thinly applied paint, giving the work a sketchy feel. At times, the paint rubbed into the canvas weave seems to share something with the paintings of R. B. Kitaj and their dusty surfaces. You can count fashion magazines, Japanese woodcuts, and Modigliani among her influences. None of this prepares you for “Self-Portrait with Red Spot” (1944), which was done two years before her death, and is a showstopper.

Installation view, “Independent Visions: Helene Schjerfbeck and Her Contemporaries” (2017), Scandinavia House (photo by Eileen Travell)

According to the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, at the end of her life, Schjerfbeck painted self-portraits in which she observed her own approaching mortality. If “Self-Portrait with Red Spot” is any indication of what she was doing, I think a show devoted to this body of work would be — as Smith said years ago — revelatory and bittersweet. The portrait, which is more rubbed out than filled in, depicts a ghostly face, with a black smudge for the right eye and the left eye rubbed away. A pink splotch has been placed just below the partially open mouth, which is the shape of a squashed O. The black pullover she is wearing takes up the lower half of the painting, an image that brought these lines by the great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer to mind:

The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.

Schjefbeck’s self-portrait registers her erasure by time, leaving behind the clothes and other things she accumulated. In examining that moment — with her mouth half-open in protest — she memorializes something common to us all, our plaintive cry.

Elga Sesemann, “Self-Portrait” (1945), oil on canvas, 73 x 54 cm, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum (courtesy Finnish National Gallery / Janne Tuominen)

There are many revelations in this exhibition. One senses that the Dionysian abandon that would come to characterize expressionist painting was not an option, and the forays into it made by Segesman, Thesleff, Schauman were usually with a palette knife. And the multi-colored woodcuts of Ellen Thesleff, which were done in Florence, Italy, are smaller than a postcard and full of detail. According to the catalogue, Thesleff  “printed the image with a single, multi-colored block, printing all colors at the same time.” The control she needed to exert in the making of these works speaks to something more than art.

One of things that this exhibition makes evident is how muddled history is. It is easier to focus on the high points or call further attention to those who have been successful in the marketplace, but that hardly tells the story of what actually happened. If we think only in terms of innovation, Schjerfbeck and her contemporaries would not be regarded as major artists. But then, that is true of a lot of artists, isn’t it? What Schjerfbeck and her contemporaries did is on a par with what the sublime, haunting composer Jean Sibelius did for Finland, which is helped give it a national identity by making modern art.

Independent Visions: Helene Schjerfbeck and Her Contemporaries continues at Scandinavia House (58 Park Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through October 7.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...