The story of the Finnish modernist painter Helene Schjerfbeck is a fascinating one, which was first told in America in 1992, 25 years ago, when she was the subject of an exhibition at the National Academy of Design. Writing for The New York Times (November 27, 1992), Roberta Smith characterized the exhibition of this neglected artist as “revelatory [and] bittersweet.” Smith’s observation still holds true, perhaps even more so, in the exhibition Independent Visions: Helene Schjerfbeck and Her Contemporaries at Scandinavia House (April 29 – October 7, 2017), which fleshes out a story of independence and perseverance that keeps needing to be told, if only to remind us how complicated and chaotic history is.
Starting with Schjerfbeck, the exhibition calls attention to the pioneering role of four Finnish woman artists at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century: Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946), Sigrid Schauman (1877–1979), Ellen Thesleff (1869–1954), and Elga Sesemann (1922–2007). Schjerfbeck, Schauman and Thesleff belong to the same generation and were roughly contemporary with Edvard Munch (1863–1944). This means that they were born in the day of the horse and carriage and lived to witness the advent of the nuclear age. Art also underwent seismic changes over that time. Not everyone was receptive to what was going on, and many saw the changes as signs of decline, faddishness, decadence, erosion of values, and worse.