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Helsinki Art Museum showcases Ellen Thesleff's trailblazing and evolving art
Ellen Thesleff, Girls (Girls in the Meadow), 1906 © Photo: HAM/Hanna Kukorelli.

HELSINKI.- The year 2019 marks the passage of 150 years since the birth of Ellen Thesleff (1869–1954). Ellen Thesleff – I Paint Like a God at HAM showcases Thesleff’s trailblazing and evolving art alongside texts, photographs and archive materials that illustrate her eventful life. The exhibition explores how Thesleff’s art has, over the decades, reflected both the spirit of the day and the influence of her broad network of international contacts. Alongside 70 paintings, the show presents photographs, letters, sketchbooks and objects that illustrate the events of Thesleff’s life.

Ellen Thesleff was a radical in a boyish haircut who dedicated herself to art and rarely did as was expected of her. Rejecting nice manners and refusing to stay at home, she spent her life travelling and painting. A pioneer in an age when female artists took great pains to gain recognition, hers was a fascinating and eventful life.

Thesleff’s career as painter began in the early 1890s, when she was in her twenties, and she created her last works in the late 1940s at the age of 80. A woman in a male-dominated professional world, she painted the same subjects as men: women, landscapes and, towards the end of her career, even abstract canvases. Still-lifes, animals and motherhood held no appeal for her. When she was in the country, she would dress like a man in trousers and a jacket, pull a cap down over her eyes and set out to explore nature. Thesleff’s way of painting was and remains striking, self-assured and free.

Ellen Thesleff chose not to commit to nationalist subjects or to the building of national identity for the newly independent country, preferring instead active involvement in the art circles of continental Europe. After her 1891 debut exhibition, she travelled to Paris, the first trip in her breathless, life-long wanderings through the great cities of Europe. A cosmopolitan, Thesleff was spiritually at home in Florence, where she lived for many years and where in her old age she longed to return. As part of her bold and uncompromising work as an artist, she was among the first to introduce a number of international art movements in Finland, such as symbolism and expressionism. Later, from the 1930s onwards, she explored aspects of surrealism.

The exhibition is curated by art and cultural historian Hanna-Reetta Schreck, author of a Thesleff biography published in 2017.

The HAM collection contains key works from Ellen Thesleff’s output, complemented in this exhibition with major works from private and public collections. The last time Thesleff’s work was shown as extensively in her home town of Helsinki was over 20 years ago.

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