• Sunday, August 14, 2022


Picture of the artist as a portrait painter

A self-portrait by Amrita Sher-Gil

By: LekshmiSajeev



The Royal Academy in London is currently exhibiting the work of the Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946).

The exhibition features “around 65 portraits, landscapes and still lifes, charting the development of Schjerfbeck’s work from a naturalistic style inspired by French Salon painters in the early 1880s, to a radically abstracted and modern approach from the turn of the 20th century onwards”.

There is something about her work which recalls the portraits and self-portraits done by the Indo-Hungarian Amrita Sher-Gil, who has been hailed as “one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early 20th century” and a “pioneer” in modern Indian art. Born on January 30, 1913, she died aged only 28, on December 5, 1941.

Perhaps it is the dash of lipstick that encourages the superficial comparison.

Among British Asian artists today, there are not too many portrait painters. Shanti Panchal, who works in watercolour and has developed a distinctive style, is an exception. Suman Kaur is also making a name for herself. Panchal has won an ACTA (Eastern Eye’s annual Arts Culture and Theatre Awards), while Kaur has been nominated for one.

In the central gallery, Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits feature “a series of 17 progressively abstracted and increasingly raw works painted throughout her life … that reveal Schjerfbeck’s fascination with aging and the physical deterioration of the self. These show her journey from impressionistic beginnings with the earliest work, Self-portrait, 1884-85, to the pared-down confidence of such later paintings as Self-portrait, Black Background, 1915”. 3

As the Royal Academy points out, “in her final years she executed more than 20 abstracted self-portraits, creating striking and haunting images with confrontational gazes. What is believed to be one of the last self-portraits is also included, Self-portrait in Black and Pink, 1945. These later works demonstrate her own sense of isolation… and bear evidence of her study of Old Masters, such as El Greco and Rembrandt.

“The Modern Look focuses on portraits of family, friends and models made between 1909 and 1944. They are formal, painterly explorations that capture an atmosphere as much as a likeness”.

There is the clear influence of fashion magazines in her portraits. She was inspired by diverse sources including such journals as L’Amour de l’art, Marie Claire and Chiffons.
A major exhibition of 120 works was planned in the US in 1939 but was cancelled due to the outbreak of the Second World War. With the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland in the same year, Schjerfbeck was temporarily evacuated and was later persuaded to move to Sweden. She died at the age of 83 in 1946. Ten years after her death, she was chosen to represent Finland at the Venice Biennale in 1956.

The Royal Academy says “she has remained largely undiscovered in the UK”.
Until now, that is.

Helene Schjrfbeck (until October 27) is at the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries, Royal Academy, London.


Related Stories