Art historian Marja Lahelma: “Schjerfbeck related to her models like they were apples”

Art historian Marja Lahelma: “Schjerfbeck related to her models like they were apples”

Researcher Marja Lahelma will be one of the speakers at the upcoming Royal Academy Schjerfbeck symposium. What does she expect from the event?

You have widely researched art from around the year 1900, especially symbolism. How did you end up researching Schjerfbeck’s paintings and the fashion in them?

“Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt was preparing a Helene Schjerfbeck -exhibition that opened in late 2014. They wanted to incorporate a fashion aspect to the exhibition and I was asked to join. I read Schjerfbeck’s private letters to her friend Dora Estlander for the exhibition catalogue. The letters are at the Gyllenberg foundation in Helsinki, so they needed a person who lives in Helsinki and who could read the letters in Swedish. I had not done research around Schjerfbeck before but I had a lot of previous knowledge about the era through my previous research. I have also researched self-portraiture and portraiture. Maybe these were the reasons I was asked to participate.” 

How would you describe the way Schjerfbeck approached the women in her pictures? 

“Schjerfbeck was not that interested in individual features or the inner life of the model, she was more interested in how the presence of the model was transmitted to her. She couldn’t paint anything from memory but still related to the person sitting in front of her as something extrinsic. In her letters she speaks of the models through herself, what she sees in them and how she experiences them. Oftentimes she didn’t even want to talk with the models. In her letters she complained that she needs people to paint since it’s so difficult to paint apples. She related to her models as if they were apples, or even easier to paint than the fruit. 

She didn’t flatter her subjects and sometimes the depictions can even feel a bit mean. When painting self-portraits she wanted to convey a certain image of herself to the viewer but when depicting others she cared only about what she herself saw and how she could transfer it onto fabric. The dynamics where wholly different when she painted Dora Estlander to whom she had a close personal connection.”

What are your thoughts about the discussions surrounding the Schjerfbeck exhibition here in London?

“The discussions have generally speaking been good, there were of course a few bad reviews but even that can be seen as refreshing. Quite often when Finnish or other Nordic artists are brought to international audiences the main focus lies on national perspectives. It has been positive in a way to notice that discussion around this exhibition have been more about her art as a part of an international art field. It is important to Finns that she is a Finnish artist but it is inconsequential to the wider audience here in London, at least to many of them.” 

If Schjerfbeck researchers meet, what do they talk about?

“Well, I would guess they talk about Schjerfbeck. The research around Schjerfbeck has maybe been running a bit in circles in recent years but time may be ripe for new interpretations. For example, it would be great to get more interpretations where her artistry is taken completely seriously instead of focusing on biographical questions. There’s certainly a lot more to be found out about her and her art, for example studies surrounding her as a part of an art historical context are still rather undeveloped. Schjerfbeck read a lot and literature kept her in touch with the changing art world even though she didn’t leave the small town of Hyvinkää for more than 15 years. She also followed the world through fashion magazines and this literary perspective has not been researched all that much.”

What do you expect from the symposium at Royal Academy?

“I look forward to the other talks, to meeting the other speakers and getting a grasp on where research concerning Schjerfbeck is heading. Maybe we’ll come up with something new and unexpected.”  

Text: Camilla Schleutker Photo: Courtesy of Marja Lahelma

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