Friday, July 16, 2010

Helene Schjerfbeck and Sisters in Art (exhibition)

Helene Schjerfbeck: Ovi / The Door. Oil painting created in Brittany, 1884.
Exhibition at Retretti curated by Riitta Konttinen. Book by Riitta Konttinen: Naiset taiteen rajoilla: naistaiteilijat Suomessa 1800-luvulla [Women Transcending the Limits of Art: Women Artists in Finland in the 19th Century]. Helsinki: Tammi 2010, 268 pages in large format.

Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) is another surefire name to attract a lot of visitors to the Retretti Art Centre, and one can be happy when high quality brings success. But again Retretti is not only playing it safe. Many well-known Schjerfbeck paintings are excluded. Instead, exciting, little-known masterpieces are on display.

The Door (1884) is one of them, a painting that was ahead of its time in its stark minimalism. It took decades until Schjerfbeck was able to create consistently in that original, modern vein.

Helene Schjerfbeck is the figurehead of the exhibition's great story of the breakthrough of Finnish women artists in the 19the century. Other masters included Fanny Churberg, Maria Wiik, Helena Westermarck, Venny Soldan-Brofeldt, Elin Danielson-Gambogi, Beda Stjernschantz, Ellen Thesleff, and Greta Hällfors-Sipilä.

Finnish women's battle for the right to create was an important sector of emancipation. That battle is topical even now, but today at least it is no longer relevant to speak of "women artists".

The level of artistic achievement is not the only selection criterion. The big idea is also to present many unknown artists to be discovered and to display a rich variety of styles, themes, topics, and approaches. Yet there are more than enough masterpieces in this excellent exhibition.

Among the cinematic links I kept thinking that the breakthrough of the women artists coincides with the birth of the cinema. Both the contemporary art and the cinema bore witness to the last decades of the traditional woman and to the birth of the modern, emancipated, liberated woman.

Today a cinematic soulmate to Helene Schjerfbeck is Pedro Costa (the art of meditation, the colour palette, the art of natural light, the profound melancholy, the profiles). Schjerfbeck's The Door could be a frame from a Pedro Costa movie.

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