… absolutely extraordinary. Go and see them …

Finnish Self Portrait expressionism

Wow! What a revelation! Why have I not heard of this artist before?

Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946) is a Finnish national icon – and most of her work remains there – after wandering around the Jungels-Winkler Galleries at the back of the Royal Academy, I can see why. I would hold onto every single one of them, tightly. From gorgeous Cezannesque studies to her early naturalistic French style, Helene‘s work is fresh, vibrant and thoughtful.

The highlight of the exhibition is the room showing most extraordinary sequence of 17 self portraits. Individually they are brilliant, stylish works but together they build to a breath taking climax.

Starting with a naturalistic approach, Helene‘s face develops into a gorgeous display of vibrant, witty expressionism with trade mark high collar and angled cheek bones, her eyes slide sideways past the viewer or stare straight at you. Either way, you are both charmed and challenged by her cool stance.

Gradually the paintings turn into a meditation on old age and death. The last four sketches are the most radical and poignant, Helene pulls no punches. She paints herself as a goblin: bald, slack mouthed, pointed ears, hooded eyes, emerging from clouds of green paint. The final charcoal sketch she is not so much a human as a mask.

finnish villa gyllenberg helsinki 1945 self potrait

Absolutely extraordinary. Go and see them.

The exhibition runs from 20 July to 27 October 2019 and has been organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and the Ateneum Art Museum / Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki. For further details of opening times and ticket prices, click here for the Royal Academy website.


Self-portrait with Black Background. Oil on canvas, 1915. Finnish National Gallery.

Self-portrait, Light and Shadow. Oil on canvas, 1945. Villa Gyllenberg, Helsinki, Signe and Ane Gyllenberg Foundation.