An Overlooked Finnish Painter Found Modernism before Its Time Helene Schjerfbeck's Work Parallels 20th-Century Art Movements. ART REVIEW

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WHEN you enter a gallery full of Helene Schjerfbeck's paintings, you are drawn toward them, not for their exuberance or elan, but for the opposite. It is their restraint, their hints of secrets untold, the mystery that Garbo had, that pulls you.

The painter is the subject of "Helene Schjerfbeck: Finland's Modernist Rediscovered," an exhibition at the Phillips Collection here through Aug. 30. Her 70-year career spanned a view of life that in American terms went from the post-Civil War to the end of World War II. But she was always modern in her view - as she progressed, increasingly avant-garde, and as a woman artist in Finland, ignored for a long time.

This first major exhibition of her works in the United States contains 71 works: landscapes, still-life paintings, portraits (including a revealing series of portraits stretching over the years of her career) as well as historical paintings.

The show was culled from an exhibition of 210 works at the Finnish National Gallery Ateneum in Helsinki, where it drew 200,000 visitors in two months to the work of the artist slighted during much of her lifetime.

"It represents the entire output of one of the most important figures in Finnish art, and it is a unique, individual reflection of major currents in European art from the late-19th century right up to 20th-century modernism," as Soili Sinisalo, director of the Museum of Finnish Art, pointed out at the Helsinki opening.

When the exhibition at the Phillips leaves Washington, it will travel to the National Academy of Design in New York City.

Schjerfbeck was a child prodigy who at 11 enrolled at the Finnish Art Society and drawing school in Helsinki, later studying academic history painting at a private Finnish academy. Like other Finnish artists she was drawn to Paris, where plein-air realism was in flower. In 1880 she received a scholarship to study in Paris. But she discovered, as French Impressionist Berthe Morisot had, that women were banned from the Ecole des Beaux Arts. The alternative, to study at private academies, cost women twice as much as men.

She and two friends who were also women artists, Maria Wiik and Helena Westermarck, enrolled at the Academie Colarossi, later traveled to artists' colonies in Brittany. …


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