Helene Schjerfbeck’s Self-Portrait, Black Background

The Finnish painter known for her self-portraits and realist work encapsulates the haze in between life and mortality

Portrait of the artist …

This 1915 self-portrait, created by the Finnish modernist Helene Schjerfbeck at the age of 52, sets out her position: an artist-martyr, radiating mystery.

Face first …

Recalling Japanese prints, it is all about the eyes and mouth. Against a mask of thick pale paint, her features are picked out in pink and lilac. She was recovering from illness at the time and, coupled with the tombstone-like inscription in the dramatic black backdrop, her face paint suggests makeup applied to corpses.

Her own woman …

Yet, looking away from her viewers – this painting was commissioned by the Finnish Art Society – she also exudes quiet authority: unknowable and rather beyond it all.

Hold the light …

While a keen fashion hound in life, here her clothes have a saintly austerity. Though she would enjoy another three decades as an acclaimed painter, Schjerfbeck had certainly suffered for her art. She was lame from childhood, and early poverty, bereavements, maternal disapproval and failed love affairs informed her outlook.

Helene Schjerfbeck’s Self-Portrait, Black Background

Royal Academy of Arts, W1, to 27 October

Contributor

Skye Sherwin

The GuardianTramp

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