By Laura Palotie
This weekend, friends and members of Finland Center will have the opportunity to gather over a Sunday brunch while peering into the mind of one of Finland’s most revered painters. Author, art historian and museum guide Sue Cedercreutz- Suhonen will give a free lecture on artist Helene Schjerfbeck’s modernist style and the mysteries behind some of her subjects.
Earlier this week, Cedercreutz-Suhonen was kind enough to answer some of my questions about her fascination with Schjerfbeck, her work as a guide, and her collaboration with actress and playwright Meri Pakarinen.
You’ve worked as Head Guide at Helsinki-based art museum Villa Gyllenberg since 1996. What does your work usually entail?
“I work part-time at the museum, which means that I’m regularly there on Wednesdays and Sundays when we are open to the public, as well as on days when we open the museum for special groups. I also introduce the art of Villa Gyllenberg by giving lectures and tours at special events organized by the Signe and Ane Gyllenberg Foundation, the owner of the museum. Naturally, I also take care of paperwork regarding the administration of Villa Gyllenberg. It’s my responsibility to supervise that visitors are satisfied with their visit and that they get the information we need. I feel more or less like a hostess to our visitors, and the most rewarding aspect of my job is discussing art with them.”
What initially inspired you to research Helene Schjerfbeck and her work?
“I have loved Helene Schjerfbeck´s works since I was a teenager. Villa Gyllenberg also has the biggest private collection of Schjerfbeck´s paintings.
In 2002 I met Lea Bergström, Curator of the Hyvinkää Art Museum, who had done some research on the people who modeled for Helene Schjerfbeck in Hyvinkää. We became acquainted, and the idea was born that I should try to find the models behind the paintings. We have 31 paintings by Schjerfbeck at Villa Gyllenberg and most of them are “faces.”
Our research “Helene Schjerfbeck – Models” was published as a book in 2003 in Finnish, Swedish and English. We were very happy when it was chosen as the most beautiful book of the year [by The Finnish Book Arts Committee].”
In researching Schjerbeck, what were some of the most surprising discoveries that you made?
“It was thrilling to work as a kind of detective, to follow the clues Helene Schjerfbeck had left behind. It was thrilling when you could identify one of her models, and in the end find their relatives who could supply photos and information about the model. These people were all very kind and co-operative when we met. Some even became my friends.
For Helene Schjerfbeck, it was important that the model inspired her. The personality of her models was more important than their beauty. In her paintings, an ordinary working girl could become an aristocrat.”
What started your collaboration with Finland Center? In other words, what brings you to New York?
“Originally it was Meri Pakarinen, the actress performing a monologue on Helene Schjerfbeck´s life, who contacted me. She has performed twice at Villa Gyllenberg, and thought that the members of the Finland Center Foundation needed some background information about Helene Schjerfbeck in order to fully understand her play [Pakarinen is scheduled to hold a performance of her one-woman show at Salmagundi later this spring]. It just happened that I had already booked a private trip to New York.”
What are some of the main topics that you plan to address at your lecture? What should attendees look forward to?
“I hope that the attendees get a clear picture of Helene Schjerfbeck´s life and art. She began her career as a realist, but over the years she developed and simplified her art and fine-tuned her colors, becoming the first Finnish modernist.”
What about Schjerfbeck might be relatable to American audiences? What aspects of her life and work are universal, in your opinion?
“Did you know that Helene Schjerfbeck was influenced by the American painter James Whistler, and his painting entitled “My Mother?” Schjerfbeck studied abroad for almost ten years, which above all meant Paris, Brittany and St. Ives. Her art is not particularly Finnish, but European. She learnt a lot from the Old Masters, and in creating her own style she was influenced by painters such as Paul Gauguin, Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse.
Helene Schjerfbeck isn’t completely unknown to Americans. Her paintings were featured in 1992 at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., and at the National Academy of Design in New York. Reviews were very positive. After her paintings were shown in 2007 and 2008 in Hamburg, The Hague and Paris, she is now becoming better and better known outside of Finland. Today she ranks as the most expensive Finnish painter of all time.”
What’s next for you? Any new projects you can share with us?
“I’m currently working on a project with our neighboring museum, Didrichsen Museum of Art and Cultur. Together we will showcase around 50 paintings by – guess who? I never get tired of her!”