Helene Schjerfbeck @ RA

The Helene Schjerfbeck exhibit at the Royal Academy is stunning. I do wonder if there is something genetic that makes me particularly partial to Finnish artists, but sacrilegiously, I don’t like coffee or liquorice, so perhaps not. There is something utterly engaging about her use of light, even when she paints in Cornwall, which by all rights ought to have given a quiet different sense of light — then again she heads into the darkness of a bakery to see the oven fire in the gloom. A stark simplicity is the cliché of Scandinavian work but the inkwell in The Convalescent enchanted me.

The revelation though was the room of self-portraits. If paintings are snapshots of time, there’s something defiantly proud in a most women’s self-portraits. For so long we have been denied our own agency in determining our physicality, our depictions, even our mythologies. Schjerfbeck goes far beyond just self-possession: she stares down mortality unblinking. This room bowled me over. I can’t begin to describe my feelings, but I sat there staring at many of the portraits, mesmerised by their power.


The last room was more playful. Schjerfbeck seldom chose to just paint portraits, instead turning her sitters into costumed actors in plays only she could see. Completely engaging: whole stories spawning in my head. Go; see for yourself.