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THREE ICONIC WORKS BY HELENE SCHJERFBECK FROM THE COLLECTION OF LARS SCHMIDT AND THE LATE INGRID BERGMAN
Lars Schmidt: A Distinguished Swedish Collector
Over a period of 30 years Lars Schmidt, one of Sweden's most notable film and theatre dignitaries, formed a broad and exciting collection of works by some of the most highly esteemed artists of the 20th century. A notable writer, director and producer of not just his own plays, but those by Tennesse Williams, Arthur Miller and Henrik Ibsen, Lars Schmidt opened his own theatre in Paris, Théâtre Montparnasse, which would play host to the stage stars of the era and become a melting pot of luminaries from the art, film and theatre worlds from André Malraux the French author, adventurer and statesman to artist Leonor Fini who was commissioned to design stage sets. Latterly, one of Schmidt's greatest achievements was having obtained the rights to American musicals such as My Fair Lady and Kiss Me Kate to show them on stages across Europe and Schmidt's deep commitment since the early 1950s to culture and the performing and decorative arts and his cultural achievements in France earned him the Legion d'honneur and Commandeur d'art et des lettres from the French President.
It was during these golden years that the talented and glamorous Schmidt met the Swedish Oscar-winning actress Ingrid Bergman while she was filming Paris Does Strange Things with Jean Renoir, and they fell in love. By the time they met, at the end of 1958, Bergman had performed in several stage plays and made Anastasia, Indiscreet with Cary Grant and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and had once again become the toast of Hollywood. Schmidt who had parted with his first wife and Bergman, having separated from her then-husband Italian director Roberto Rossellini, found happiness once again in their personal lives and were married in December the same year.
Not surprisingly Lars Schmidt's broad cultural interests and astute business acumen led him to collect fine art including major works by Auguste Rodin, Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas, Georges Rouault, Pablo Picasso and according to Malraux, the 'best' work that Kees van Dongen ever painted. Amongst these modern masters he and his wife would form an extensive collection of iconic works by the Finnish artist, Helene Schjerfbeck, the artist Schmidt was to later refer to as 'the greatest intimate painter of the Nordic countries'. Today her esteemed status in the international art world is confirmed following her highly successful retrospective exhibitions last year at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, and the Musee d'art moderne de la ville de Paris.
He and his wife were keen to keep their collection private and this particular group of works has only once been seen in public since they were bought; when they were shown exclusively at Christie's in Stockholm to commemorate his 80th birthday in 1997. Neither prior nor since, have these works been lent to any of the major Schjerfbeck exhibitions, including the retrospective at the Ateneum in Helsinki in 1992 or at the recent shows in Hamburg and The Hague, except for The Picture Book which was shown only recently in Paris.
Each of these works has its own individual story and personal significance to Schmidt, but Girl with Blue Ribbon, a seminal piece within Schjerfbeck's oeuvre, was important in that it was the first Schjerfbeck painting that Schmidt and Bergman bought together, and it took all their charm to convince Bertha Stenman to sell it. Thus, Girl with Blue Ribbon laid the foundation for a striking collection of works by the Nordic countries' most revered artist which would reside in Schmidt's and Bergman's home alongside the worlds most highly regarded 20th century masters.
THREE ICONIC WORKS BY HELENE SCHJERFBECK
'It is the subconscious, the primitive aspects of one's soul that create art, not rational thought, at least not in my case'.
Following intense academic training at the Finnish Art Society becoming acquainted to the working methods of the Parisian studios and French realism, Schjerfbeck won a scholarship to Paris in 1880 to study. Her work started as a beautifully skilled, somewhat melancholic version of the late 19th century academic realism that over time transformed into distilled, almost abstract images in which pure paint and sublime description are held in perfect balance. The years 1910-11 were those she herself referred to as the watershed between her old and new styles. Although clearly anchored in the modernism of the French masters of the 1880s, the influence of Manet, Cézanne and van Gogh were not evident until much later on in her career, and even then Schjerfbeck was known, and is now confirmed as having been, not so much a dedicated follower of fashion, but as an unconventional artistic luminary and ultimately a modern master in her own right.
Schjerfbeck was able to retain her curiosity and artistic skills throughout her career, often returning time and again to the same themes: 'Freedom from everything and from the world is the best of all - the freedom to take, to study wherever one wishes...I am nothing, absolutely nothing, all I want to do is paint, search - It must be this that makes painters great, so that they never age: the fact that there is always something more to achieve.'
This collection includes two of her most favoured subjects, Girl with Blue Ribbon (lot 62) and The Picture Book (lot 64) for which she was later to become most famous, and Girl from California (lot 63), one of her most powerful and iconic female portraits. These works are testament to the painter's artistic genius; her re-working of the same subject in these compositions reflects an advancing modernism, marked by a Japanese influence and subtle contrasts of colour and abstract lines for which she will always be held in the highest regard.
In 1902 Schjerfbeck retreated to Hyvinkää, outside Helsinki, where she lived in a small apartment with her mother. During this period, Schjerfbeck concentrated on a series of paintings of local women and portraits of children which were one of her recurring themes. They show a deep sensitivity for subtle feminine emotions which would mark this tentative, experimental period of development from 1902-1912.
Embodying this sensitivity, Girl with Blue Ribbon is a sublime portrait, gentle yet powerful, as the artist deliberately chose a medium to reflect her sitter. The model for the Girl with Blue Ribbon was a young school girl, Fanny who passed the Schjerfbeck apartment daily on her way to and from school whom the artist had wanted to paint for a few years. The strap of the girl's bag became the so-called 'blue ribbon'; a fine example of how Schjerfbeck would focus on something tangible to 'hook' her painterly vision onto. This work, alongside the Medici Daughter and The Woodcutter of 1910-11, were those that best illustrate her unfolding modernist style. Her biographer, H. Ahtela (Einar Reuter), documents the specific circumstances surrounding the creation of the first watercolour done in 1909 (sold with Christie's in 1998) where she chose this little model for she felt an affinity with the child's soul.
'This little creature is exactly what she wants to paint, to feel close to for a few short moments. She feels that only watercolour will do justice to the fragile girl. She paints anew in grey and brown, letting the paper decide the colour of the face, only adding a thin blue-grey shadow and some white on the nose and the upper lip, ochre in the tufts of hair. All her work serves only this one goal: to render a glimpse of what she has read in this child's soul! The inner life that is vibrating beneath the surface ...' (H. Ahtela)
The sitters for Sisters were Martta and Katri Sahrman (Mäkinen) [Figs. 1 and 2] whose brother Einar was the model for one of Schjerfbeck's most important works, the aforementioned The Woodcutter. The artist liked the Sahrman children for their pale skins and their sensitivity but by contrast, their imagination and unconditional openness.
'When Marta Sahrman enters the room, it is as if sunshine had filled it. The Sahrman sisters and brother, what joy they bring! Marta, who is 14 now, has the same sunny character as her mother...Marta's little sister Katri also comes to visit. She has grown a lot since 'Sisters' [Fig. 3] was painted four years ago. Again she is touched by the beauty of the heads of the two girls close together over a book, a mark an hour for looking like a God's angel, like a breeze...the model (Katri) is so ethereal, moves often, gives something new every minute. Helene watches and watches wishing she could start on a new canvas all the time.' (H. Ahtela)
The artist started to paint the two girls with renewed enthusiasm and the result is seen in the present work (lot 64) and another watercolour she painted of Katri from that year Katri (Fig 4).
'The ever-innovative Schjerfbeck showed that a creative spirit is never spent and knows no bounds ... she had the courage to paint subjects that were almost unbearably poignant or 'extremely beautiful' ... These two extremes coincide in some of the child portraits Schjerfbeck painted in 1910-20, such as 'Sisters', 'The Picture Book' and 'The Family Heirloom'...' (S. Sinisalo, Director, Ateneum, Helsinki, Helene Schjerfbeck - Finland's Modernist Rediscovered, Helsinki, 1992) [Fig. 5, overleaf].
Schjerfbeck's models were extremely important to her artistic output, that is to say, that not just anyone could inspire within her the fervour she yearned for to satisfy her creative hunger. The artist was not elitist in her choice of sitter in terms of social standing, but selective based upon whether she thought them, to the naked eye, simply 'paintable' or not.
'When models come and sit in front of me, I can see their beauty, but what is it that stirs them within? What are they thinking? I have always searched for the dense depths of the soul, that have not yet discovered themselves, where everything is still unconscious - there one can make the greatest discoveries.' (H. Ahtela)
During this period of self discovery she adopted techniques that have become synonymous with her modernist period: scratches, rubbings, accents of intense colour, sharp lines, all in an effort to express in pictorial form the subconscious in her works. Having the freedom to work and rework her pieces was crucial in order for her to reach the zenith of her inner explorations. For this reason, she rejected private commissions for they restricted her time and creative vision. Shunning private and public attention during these years, she enjoyed the freedom that came with having her major exhibitions take place abroad in Stockholm, most importantly those in 1934 and latterly the 1937 exhibition organised by Stenman, in which the present version of Girl from California (lot 63) from a few years earlier, was included. This work too, was a reworking of the same subject that she embarked upon in the summer of 1919. Her relative Ulla, was the model; and the works of Gauguin the inspiration. She unashamedly used the similar motifs seen in his Taihitian paintings of girls with hair grips and sun-drenched tanned skin, describing her model to Einar Reuter in a letter dated 16 June 1919, 'There is something monumental (Gauguin) about her, and yet something young, subconscious'. There were constant references to this portrait in her continuing correspondence with Reuter. Not for the execution of the work was she drawing similarities with that of Gauguin, but for the subject, the model. Ulla, who was painted on not just one occasion (see Fig. 6) inspired in Schjerfbeck a certain 'otherness' that her other models lacked: 'Ulla isn't always good, she needs warmth, heat to bring out her glowing Indian colours, her copper colours. She is a Creole, born in San Fransisko...am trying to paint, must do some serious work on the head since trying to find the right tone for it. There is no point in sketching the outline before finding the right tone, it will disappear if I have to go over it. There is a dangerous side to her, to be like an Italian girl'.
It is clear from her letters to Reuter that Schjerfbeck's models were an integral part of her life, both consciously and subconsciously. In her efforts to explore the representation of not just the physical presence but the spiritual, she worked on her portraits for long periods of time, living her models' lives, interpreting their every feature, their expressions, their movements and every line etched upon their face. As she became entranced by her sitters, she was able to transcend their individual physical attributes and project upon her models her own personal vision, changing their features, translating them onto subtle and charming, powerful and severe, yet all the while elegant and alluring portraits (Figs. 7 and 8).
By the 1920s Schjerfbeck's reputation in the Nordic countries had increased so greatly that she was having difficulty painting enough works to feed the ever-increasing demand particularly as she found it very problematic to find models that inspired her. It was the artist's dealer and close friend Gosta Stenman that sometime after 1925, suggested that Schjerfbeck re-interpret her more important pictures. Having seen that other artists such as Edvard Munch and Picasso often did this, he rightly thought that it would not only provide her with a certain financial security, but would serve give her the opportunity to achieve artistic satisfaction, all the while perfecting her advancing modernist style. From 1938, Stenman would contractually receive all works she painted for a monthly salary until 1943 when Schjerfbeck decided to put a hold on this agreement although still allowing her dealer first option.
An important work in the artist's oeuvre, the present version of Girl with Blue Ribbon from 1943 was one of the important works acquired by Stenman in 1943 which remained in his collection until it was bought by Lars Schmidt and Ingrid Bergman. Having successfully acquired their first important work by Helene Schjerfbeck, Girl with Blue Ribbon stirred within them the desire to cast their collecting eye further afield to search for more works to form a core collection by this great Finnish painter to ultimately sit in the Schmidt-Bergman home alongside the modern masters that Schjerfbeck herself had held in such high esteem.