The Alarm of 1935 is perhaps the most intricate and resolved of Schjerfbeck's late compositions, combining a sensitivity to form and line with a subtle strength of colour and her characteristic interest in the essence of the human appearance.
The idea for the subject came to her late one evening in the spring of 1935, in Ekenäs, in southern Finland. She was looking out of the window and saw, through the green glass of the window, her neighbours, a mother and daughter, reacting to some kind of incident in their small village. The two women were in an intriguingly beautiful position and Schjerfbeck immediately started looking for models for them. She was very keen to catch the movement of the subjects she had seen in the window, as well as the evening light (see H. Ahtela, op. cit., p. 262).
The Alarm is one of two paintings that Schjerfbeck executed in her later years that employs an elaborate figure composition, the other being the dynamic At the mirror from 1937. The important role that The Alarm played in her work is conveyed by the many sketches, studies and replicas she made of the two figures, later named 'mother' and 'daughter'. Schjerfbeck made several sketches in charcoal, and two pictures, an oil and a watercolour, where the dominant colour is light green, representing the night sky through the green glass of her window. 'I have always wanted to paint a woman through the green glass of a window' (cited in H. Ahtela, op. cit., p. 245). However, in a letter to her friend Einar Reuter in June of that year, she complained that her sketches were not conveying the right sense of movement and effects of light, suggesting that the finished painting, the present work, was not completed to the artist's total satisfaction until later that year.
Gottard Johansson writes with regard to the figures in The Alarm that they are 'relieved of everything unnecessary and accidental and with the entire expression collected in the interplay of the lines of the figures...the inner music, that slowly begins to ring already in the soft rhythms of the 90s art, now reaches its fullest expression' (Helene Schjerfbeck, Stockholm, 1940, p. 48). Although the image relies heavily for its visual and emotional power on the interplay between the two figures and the protective pose of the mother enveloping the daughter, Schjerfbeck does not completely concentrate on line at the expense of colour. Schjerfbeck clearly abandoned her original idea of faithfully representing the monochromatic effect of the window pane and instead employs a strong palette for the daughter's clothing, contrasting it with the subtle tone of the mother's dress. As Johansson stresses: 'Her work from the 1920s and 1930s represents not only the fulfilment, the culmination of her life's work. It is as if she only now had entirely taken possession of the world of colour' (op. cit., p. 37).
Although formal questions of line and composition played an increasing role in Schjerfbeck's art during her last decades, the human face never becomes merely an instrument for the music of line and colour. It remains absolutely central to Schjerfbeck's art. It has been noted that, in her later period, Schjerfbeck invariably painted only two motifs, portraits and still lifes. This asceticism regarding subject matter is, however, only seemingly a limitation. Within these simple motifs there is a world of colour and feeling. 'But it is the visage of the human being that dominates the art of Helene Schjerfbeck. She never painted portraits in the normal sense, and she most certainly would not have been satisfied with tasks so contrary to her method of working, of endlessly experimenting, balancing, rejecting, resuming and renewing' (G. Johansson, op. cit., p. 39). The face had become increasingly important in Schjerfbeck's painting, never conveying a particular person, rather establishing a generic human essence. In The Alarm this is taken one stage further and the two faces both complement and strengthen one another in their sense of rhythm and movement. Schjerfbeck has created, through the combination of simplicity and complexity, a startlingly vibrant painting in which her central tenets of line and colour blend harmoniously with the depiction of human existence through emotion.
The Alarm was first owned by Gösta Stenman, Schjerfbeck's close friend and dealer. They first met in 1913 when Stenman knocked on the artist's door in Hyvinkää to introduce himself and, together with Einar Reuter, organised her first solo exhibition at his gallery in Helsinki in 1917. Stenman had an enormous influence on Schjerfbeck's art and persuaded her in the mid-1920s to reprise and re-interpret some of her more important subjects, a defining motif of Schjerfbeck's art and one that allowed her to further develop her minimalist approach of condensed simplification. From the late 1930s Stenman had an exclusive deal with Schjerfbeck and, for a monthly sum, took everything she painted. He was thus able to mount the most extraordinary and comprehensive exhibitions of Schjerfbeck's work, to huge critical acclaim. The Alarm was exhibited in Stenman's 1937 show and again in the celebrated 1940 show, the exhibition which prompted Gotthard Johansson to write so effusively on the painting's lyricism.
The Alarm is presented for sale by Lars Schmidt, one of the most celebrated collectors of Schjerfbeck's art. Built up over the last forty years, Schmidt's collection comprises some of the most beautiful paintings and watercolours in private hands. The Alarm was purchased at auction in Stockholm in 1967 on behalf of Lars Schmidt's wife, the actress Ingrid Bergman, and has remained in his collection ever since. Two further works from his collection are offered at auction in the day sale of Impressionist and Modern Art on 4 February; The Stubborn Girl from 1938-1939 and Mother from The Alarm, an exquisite study for the present work.