Reflective Journal Week 24, 8 Mar – 14 Mar 2020

Helene Schjerfbeck, 1862 – 1946

Penleehouse.org.uk. (2020). Helene Schjerfbeck – Newlyn School of Artists – Penlee House Gallery and Museum Penzance Cornwall UK. [online] Available at: https://www.penleehouse.org.uk/artists/helene-schjerfbeck [Accessed 9 Mar. 2020]. 

Oil on wood. 33 x 42 cm. Private collection; photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

Bilio: Schjerfbeck, H. (1887). View of St.Ives. [Oil on Wood] Helsinki: Private Collection, Finnish National Gallery.

Helene Schjerfbeck is a Finnish painter whose fame is widely celebrated in Scandinavia however less known in Britain. She was one of the earliest visiting artist to the fish town of St. Ives.

Quoting from the website: She was soon writing enthusiastic letters about the Cornish landscape: There are thousands of subjects here I would like to paint: the old fishing village down below, the new artists’ town on the hills above, a couple of sandy beaches, the harbour with the boats, heaths and grassy pastures browned by the hot summer sun. Cornwall is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.

A book by Denys Val Baker, which introduced the history of Cornish art around the flourishing of St. Ives painters, Britain’s Art Colony by the Sea(1959), stated that pictorial works are always self-explanatory. Undoubtedly, the image passed an easily-recognisable scene for those who are familiar with St. Ives. The distinctive look of the Island and the composition of the lighthouse, as well as the distant cliffs at the background, indicated the permanency of the landscape. Two figures of youth were placed at the front, assigning energy and idyllic peace to what was described as “poor, struggling lives as fishermen”. The image reminds the audience regarding the true essence of Cornish life, a recognisable character aside from visible landmarks. Perhaps it is the white-grey lime wall of sea viewing cottages, the golden moss on stony roofs that always exposed in the showering rain; a sudden strong wind rolling across the barren shores, or the dazzling sunlight that dyed pale sky with the blue-ish of The Atlantic Ocean . The landscape in the distance has not changed over centuries; however, the golden grassland upon which a long-lost afternoon was archived is now covered by residences and alleys. It is truly remarkable to think of when the audience may realise this painting is hanging in the Finnish National Gallery, on the edge of icebound Baltic Sea; a soulful moment of Cornish life on the opposite reach of European continent is still celebrating the romantic voyage of a young female artist and her beauty-discovering eyes that brought the world this very piece as a European cultural heritage.

As it has been mentioned before, Barbizon School was a seeking of pre-industrial era idyllic landscapes. Newlyn School, as its successor, inherited the core idea of this society. The movement accelerated the process of turning west Cornwall into an art colony. Newlyn School shares many common points with my explanation about the Hudson River School. Especially the number of travelling artists that devoted to establishing a geographically specific indigenous art are both considerable. Most of them ignored that they are fully trained with proficient European continental style of art and traditional western perspective. Their establishment of regional art takes an enormous amount of time, sometimes up to generations; the preoccupied impression is likely to dominate at the beginning and is easily motivated by market preference. It takes time for artists to get familiar with local value and lifestyle, which eventually shaped the independence of a brand new art trend. 

I recon the tile of this proposal should be changed to challenge how Cornish identity was formed upon their landscape as well as the cultural recognition of this label. The Hudson River School could be re-coordinate as an example of “how landscape art helped to shape a regional identity”. 

At the group crit last week, one classmate launched a critical question against my current assumption. I was queried that I am “not in the place to speak for the Cornish people to state their true feeling regarding a list of social phenomena”. I have to admit that she had some points. If I speak careless about my observation, lack of investigations on indigenous voice could lead this project to nothing but another stereotypical image. However, I do believe if the statement can be proved, the ethnic problem would no longer be a dilemma in this project. 

I contacted Andy Harper, asked several questions regarding Cornish identity and how to be recognised as Cornish. To my surprise, his answer indicated that there is no clear boundary of such a thing. Birthplace, residency, work theme, exhibition location, etc, these factors all matter but not necessarily. It left a possibility for me to overcome the ethnic problem. 

Bedrich Wachsmann is a Czech painter. Information about this painter is little in English, and not many of his work can be found online. His painting is a bit germanly scented when it comes to preciseness and chiaroscuro. But the broad range of style of his suggests a rapid learning speed and a comprehensive engage in contemporaneous art.

Hermann Ottomar, who is associated with the Düsseldorf school of painting, moved to the United States and is well-known for his contribution to landscape paintings. He was considered a prominent Hudson River School painter. His rendering of natural sceneries, human and animal figures reflect rationalism of industrial civilisation. Judging by his age, he should be counted in the second generation of this movement. However, his painting style is closer to the primitive stage of the Hudson River School, even celebrates its origin of Dutch Golden Age landscape images more than Romanticism, whose aesthetic and value flourished in early 19th Century. 

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About cechenpaints

An artist, painter, illustrator based in London.