Sotheby's to offer nine works by Helene Schjerfbeck from a Swedish private collection

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Sotheby's to offer nine works by Helene Schjerfbeck from a Swedish private collection
The Convalescent, watercolour on paper, 1938, est. £300,000-500,000. Courtesy Sotheby's.

LONDON.- This summer, Sotheby's will offer nine works by Helene Schjerfbeck, one of Finland’s best-loved and most celebrated artists. Consigned to auction from a Swedish private collection, the group constitutes what is arguably the most important ensemble of late works by the artist still in private hands, and an unprecedented offering on the international market. Carrying a combined low estimate in the region of £3 million, they will be presented as part of Sotheby's sale of European & British Art, Part I, in London on 13 July 2022. Prior to that, the works will go on view to the public in Helsinki at the Gallery Lemmetti on 19 May from 11am to 5pm.*

Always well-known in Finland and Sweden, and sometimes described as “Finland’s Munch”, Schjerfbeck began to be rediscovered by an international audience in 1992, with a retrospective exhibition in the US, an interest that has since extended to Asia, with the first staging of her work in the region held in 2015 at the University Art Museum in Tokyo. The appearance on the market of such an exceptional group comes at a time when critical interest in Schjerfbeck is at an all-time high, thanks to an array of international exhibitions from Paris and Hamburg, to Stockholm and, most recently, London.

Schjerfbeck, who started out painting in a naturalistic style, sought to voice her own individuality as an artist. Produced between 1923 and 1945, the works chart a remarkable chronicle of Schjerfbeck's output over the final decades of her life, both aesthetically and psychologically. All of them stand out for their expressiveness and place them at the very forefront of Finnish but also European modernism.

In these stylistically pared-down, abstracted compositions, Schjerfbeck derives expression from within her sitters and herself. Her models were family, friends and acquaintances – people in her milieu – and never once did she paint a commissioned portrait. The Schjerfbeck exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 2019 demonstrated the artist’s life-long self-examination to powerful effect, with an entire room dedicated to her self-portraits that culminated in a series of moving late works in which she draws attention to the aging process and her own mortality. The Observer’s art critic Laura Cumming described the effect as “one the greatest time-lapse sequences in European art”. Schjerfbeck’s enquiry into her own humanity places her in esteemed company, alongside Rembrandt, Goya, Freud and Bacon.

Claude Piening, Sotheby’s Senior International Specialist, European Art, said: “The appearance of these works marks not only an exciting and defining moment for the Nordic art market, but a chance for the public to see one of the finest groupings of the artist’s work outside of a museum exhibition. With five of the nine pictures making their auction debut, and all of them very much of the current wider narrative surrounding women artists, we envisage strong interest from museum and private buyers alike. Schjerfbeck’s work defies categorisation, her inimitable and timeless aesthetic reflecting her rich cultural frame of reference, from El Greco and Japanese prints, to the work of her contemporaries and Modigliani and Degas.”

Peder Isacson, Managing Director, Sotheby’s Scandinavia, said: “We are delighted and honoured to be offering this exceptional group, collected with such passion and love by its current owners here in Sweden over a period of thirty years. Back in the 1990s, Schjerfbeck was barely known outside of Finland and Sweden, and it is with great pleasure and not a little pride that we now see her work being appreciated not only across Europe, but in America to Asia as well. The recent exhibition at the Royal Academy, her first in the British capital in more than a hundred years, marked an appropriate and poignant return of the artist to the international stage. And deservedly so, as Schjerfbeck truly ranks among the great early twentieth-century Modernists.”

“Let us avoid executing so precisely and exactly, that our work closes the way instead of opening it, let us imply.” --Helene Schjerfbeck to Einar Reutar

Over her lifetime Schjerfbeck painted and drew around forty self-portraits, about half of which were made in the last years few years of her life. From her earliest poised naturalistic likenesses of herself, her expressive observations executed in her abstracted, pared-down style, to the primal egg-shaped heads with a few smudged marks that marked out her final self-representations, these works chart her emotional life, her ageing process, and her physical decline. This work is among the most haunting self-portraits of the twentieth century. For almost half a century after it was painted, until it appeared at auction in 1988, it remained in the possession of the family of its first owner, Einar Reuter.

Mark Poltimore, Deputy Chairman, Sotheby’s Europe, said: “Helene Schjerfbeck’s 1942 self-portrait was the first work by her ever to come up for sale in London in 1988. Then she was little known outside Finland, and it seems a long time ago since I first saw it at the Reuter home in Finland. Having managed that 1988 sale, I have championed her work for over 30 years, so I am delighted for Sotheby’s to be handling this exceptional collection which I am confident will bolster international interest.”

In the very last of Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits, the artist imagines herself as a death mask, a powerful expression of her fading energy between life and death. The concept of the mask, behind which she increasingly retreated, was important to Schjerfbeck who looked closely at Japanese woodcuts but also Cambodian tribal masks.

The identity of the sitter in Brown Eyes is unknown, although she was no doubt a local girl from Tammisaari and very likely one of the carers upon whom Schjerfbeck, living on her own, was dependent. Depicted as a doyenne of modern Parisian fashion, from her bob coiffure to the straight-line style of clothing made popular by Coco Chanel, she is the representation of the modern woman, an approach that can be seen in the context of the politics of the period and the emancipation of women. Finland had been the first European country to grant votes to women and the first to elect women to parliament. Schjerfbeck was keenly interested in contemporary fashion and kept up with the latest trends through magazines, buying garments from Paris via mail order.

Girl at the Gate is, along with Dancing Shoes and The Convalescent, among Schjerfbeck’s best-known compositions and one that exists in four painted versions. The earliest was painted in her naturalistic style, however by the time she painted the three later versions, including the present version IV, her style had become even more liberated and schematic.

The model is Eva Thilén, the youngest of the three daughters of Johan and Wilhelmiina Thilén, relatives of Schjerfbeck’s good friend and fellow artist Ada Thilén. A Finnish speaker, Eva worked all her life as an insurance clerk. As a child, she and her sisters also modelled for other women artists including Maria Wiik, Elin Danielson-Gambogi, and Ada Thilén.

The models for The Picture Book are Katri and Martta Mäkinen, daughters of the blacksmith Juho Kustaa Mäkinen and his wife Olga, Scherfbeck’s neighbours in Hyvinkää, the railway town to the north of Helsinki to which Schjerfbeck moved with her mother in 1902.

This is one of Scherfbeck’s favourite and best-known compositions, which she first conceived in 1888 and revisited throughout her life. The subject held deeply personal meaning for the artist and was no doubt a reference to her own troubled and sickly early childhood. Aged four she fell down some stairs and broke her left hip, resulting in a lifelong limp. Unable to at tend school due to her injury, she was educated with a small group of children at home. It was also while convalescing that she started to draw after her father gave her pencils as a distraction.

Schjerfbeck was drawn to the sixteenth-century Spanish master El Greco’s portraits by his sheer drama, his use of colour and chiaroscuro, and by his manner of creating intense focus on facial expression and reaching what she called the ‘deep layers of the soul’. In this work, the soulful yet submissive gaze takes on quasi-religious overtones, that of a benevolent Madonna.

The sitter Saara Annuli Huhtala’s angelic pose in Blonde Girl (Girl with Blue Bow) recalls the faces of the Quattrocento Florentine painter Fra Lippi. Schjerfbeck helped support Annuli’s mother – a single parent of eight children following the death of her husband in the Finnish civil war – by taking on her daughter as a model.

The sitter Dora Estlander was Schjerfbeck’s favourite model. She was beautiful and talented, striking an androgynous note, and her admirers included a Bulgarian prince. But her hopes and dreams of an education, marriage and a career were dashed by having to care for her mother. She eked a living painting small pictures and trays, which were sold in a shop in Helsinki. In this portrait, Dora’s face is reduced to an almost mask-like apparition, her expression melancholic and withdrawn.

Born in Helsinki to a railway manager and a farmer’s daughter, Schjerfbeck studied at the drawing school of the Finnish Art Society. In 1880 she received a travel grant from the Senate to study in Paris, where she came into contact with many contemporary artists. In 1883 she made her debut at the Paris Salon with her painting Fête juive. She spent the summers of 1887 and 1889 in St Ives in Cornwall, where she painted one of her greatest naturalistic masterpieces, The Convalescent, shown at the Salon of 1888. In the mid-1890s she travelled to St Petersburg, Vienna, and Florence making copies after the Old Masters for the Finnish Art Society, before settling for good in Finland and teaching the Art Society’s drawing class.

In 1902 she resigned her teaching post and moved with her mother, Olga, to Hyvinkää to the north, where she evolved her new, modernist style while living the life of a recluse. Though she would not travel for the next fifteen years, she kept up with the times by subscribing to and reading international art and fashion journals. Following encouraging reviews of her work in 1913, she was visited by the journalist and art dealer Gösta Stenman, who purchased several of her works. A year later, she met the forester, writer and painter Einar Reuter, starting a lifelong friendship. Although ostensibly a platonic relationship, she was devasted when he announced his marriage to a Swedish woman in 1920.

In 1917, Stenman organized her first one-woman exhibition in Helsinki. To coincide with this, Einar Reuter wrote his first book on the artist. Following her mother’s death in 1923, Schjerfbeck moved to Tammisaari in 1925. Stenman began commissioning new versions of Schjerfbeck’s early works, and in 1938 hosted her second one-woman exhibition, this time at his gallery in Stockholm. It marked the start of yearly exhibitions of her work at his gallery, and in 1938 Schjerfbeck signed a formal contract with him giving him the right of first refusal on all her new paintings.

In 1941 Schjerfbeck was evacuated to Loviisa, before moving to the Luontola sanatorium in Numela. In 1944, at Steinman’s expense, she moved to Stockholm to escape the war, where she painted her series of self-portraits, and died at the Saltsjöbaden spa hotel.

*Gallery Lemmetti, Yrjönkatu 8A, 00120 Helsinki

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