This work has been requested for the exhibition Helene Schjerfbeck at the Hamburger Kunsthalle from February to April 2007.
Robber at the gate of Paradise is one of Schjerfbeck's most important works from the 1920s and a tour de force of her emerging mature style, a period which Gotthard Johansson refers to as 'the culmination of her life's work... Schjerfbeck is creating works with a completely new colouristic meaning... A rather stunning artistic renewing' (Helene Schjerfbecks Konst, Stockholm, 1940, p. 37). Living in Hyvinkää, Schjerfbeck wrote to her friend and first biographer Einar Reuter (pseud. H. Ahtela) on 15 January: 'Then I have added a few strokes to the robber's trousers - for the first time this year! He looks like a young satyr, I noticed - and there is a halo just emerging! Now I feel emboldened to begin something new'. For Schjerfbeck the process of painting was a constant process of revision, of addition, of perfecting, a painstaking and exacting method of conveying the most subtle nuance. In Robber at the gate of Paradise Schjerfbeck's mastery of minimalist depiction is displayed at its absolute finest.
The present work was conceived by Schjerfbeck in 1924. In a letter to her old friend and fellow artist Maria Wiik, Schjerfbeck states that she had asked for and received a male model so that she could paint the back of a man. The work seems to have started out as the back of Christ and later a generic sinner, before finally becoming the robber (H. Ahtela, op. cit., p. 208). The man that was chosen to represent the robber is Alku Jaakkola. Seemingly excited by the prospect of painting what she describes as something different, she calls Jaakkola a farmer and a sportsman, the strongest she has ever seen, and this physical strength is well conveyed in the finished work. Schjerfbeck rarely used male models, preferring women and children instead. Possibly due to her one failed love affair which had finished over four decades previously, it is more likely that Schjerfbeck simply found them easier to relate to; comfort with her sitter was clearly conducive to her spontaneous creativity and she describes Jaakkola in her letters as so easy to deal with. Aside from classical antecedent and the occasional depiction of Christ, the adult males that populate her work are friends or relatives: Einar Reuter, Mans Schjerfbeck, her father Svante. However, in the 1920s she seems to have become emboldened enough to use several other male models, for example in The Landlord from 1926 and 1928 (Ahtela 620, 653, 654) or The Woodcarver from 1928 (Ahtela 673).
At the time of execution of Robber at the gate of Paradise, Schjerfbeck was looking closely at the works of Gauguin and El Greco. Although she never quoted directly from other artists and external influences are often difficult to detect, Schjerfbeck did gently assimilate alternative aesthetics from looking at different trends and periods of European art, borrowing moods and nuances rather than more concrete artistic factors. Thus the influence of El Greco is discernible in her subdued palette and that of Gauguin in the taut make-up of the robber's body. Schjerfbeck had in fact produced a work in 1924 which she titled Girl from Tahiti (Ahtela 563), another compliment and acknowledgement of Gauguin's work, rather than a directly influenced execution.
Robber at the gate of Paradise displays the subtlety of execution that so markes Schjerfbeck's output of the late 1910s and 1920s. Working towards a reduced visual aesthetic, Schjerfbeck places more and more emphasis on the unity of line, colour and form and ultimately conveys so much with so little. Thus the robber's pose and actions are at once suggested and delineated, as are the strong muscles in his back, by contrasts of light and shade and of the angular with the curved line, by sparing but intelligent use of colour and by the addition of carefully chosen and beautifully placed bold lines around the hair and outline.
The subtlety of composition and execution in the figure, in which no stroke or line is placed without relation to the whole, is further echoed in the background. With typical sensitivity to surface, Schjerfbeck has scraped back and layered the different nuances and tones of black, grey, white and cream. The halo she refers to in her letter to Reuter shadows the robber's body so that he seems to emerge from the gloom and radiate light and freshness. In fact there is a double halo, a small lighter one revealing scraped back ground, and a larger, darker one enveloping his crouching body. Enclosing the composition with two areas of brightness at the upper edge and lower left completes the balance of light and dark, while the strokes of white around the figure's leg and foot give form to the lower half of his body.