It is 1975. I am in Helsinki. Participating in my first group exhibition abroad. It is an exhibition of SPACE artists, the London-based studio collective, at the Taidehalli, the city exhibition space run by the Finnish Artists’ Union. The city feels dour, grey, emerging as it was from being politically sandwiched between Sweden and the Soviets. Each of the visiting artists has been allocated a Finnish counterpart as minder-cum-guide. Mine is Timo, a painter photographer, who also writes, perhaps a couple of years younger than myself. We get on well. On one of the free days Timo takes me to the Ateneum Art Museum, which houses part of the Finnish national collection of paintings. It is my first introduction to the history of Finnish art. Difficult; I have no reference points. However, Timo is good, he knows his country’s painting tradition, and he helps me to ease my way in. Some works come easier than others; the large snowy landscape of Akseli Gallen-Kallela for instance, I can thread back to a broader context with relative ease. At one point we find ourselves in a gallery of smallish paintings, still-lifes, landscapes and portraits. It is the work of Helene Schjerfbeck, Timo enthuses. I am both curious and nonplussed. Unable to make head or tail of what I am looking at – why the fuss?
Over the following years Timo and I become good friends and I am in Finland fairly regularly. On such visits at some point I invariably find myself standing yet again in front of Helene Schjerfbeck’s paintings. They have become a Finnish marker for me. One of those things we use when travelling to tell us we have arrived, be it a croissant in Paris or the mounds of fresh mint in Marrakesh. Paintings too can anchor one from museum to museum, country to country. I have only to stand in front of Vilhelm Hammershøi’s small Portrait of a Young Woman in Funen Art Museum in Odense to know I am slap bang in the middle of Denmark and its culture. For me in Finland this has become Helene Schjerfbeck.
It is the self-portraits that particularly hold me, keep me guessing. They emit a strange discomfort that has
to be reciprocated. Discomfort as such is not the problem; after all looking at art is not a comfort blanket. Even if the sensation of looking is pleasurable, satisfying, it should at least have that quality of not being fully available. One should be left with a lingering ache, like unrequited love. But there is something about self-portraits which gets closer to the bone. Makes looking, eye to eye, somehow harder. Puts one in that embarrassing position of being caught out as the only one looking. After all, not even the painter in painting the self-portrait is outside looking on, giving us another set of eyes. He or she is literally in the painting. Depriving us of that usual reassurance of being complicit in looking. We cannot step into the artist’s shoes as the artist is in the painting, looking back. We are locked out.
How does a painter begin to grasp any notion of painting the self? What is he or she looking at? What does it look like? I can understand the idea that every artistic statement is somehow a reflection of the artist’s psyche. A statement left in the vague twilight zone of glance and glimmer. Yet to paint the self as semblance, as somehow fully appearing in the world, mystifies me. How is it different to painting another person, or even a table or a chair, come to that? How does the artist objectify the self? Where does the painter begin, and what is then held in the painting’s fixity? Who is it the painter is looking at, eye to eye?
The history of Western portrait painting begins in profile. Eyes do not meet. The head is refined into a beautiful silhouette. Fra Filippo Lippi’s Profile Portrait of a Young Woman (c. 1445) presents the sitter in profile with the inscrutable quality of a delicate flower. Too fragile to get close to. As immaculate as any portrait on the cover of a 21st-century glossy magazine. Beyond approach or reproach. It is only in the 15th century that the Italian portrait, under influence from the North, slowly begins to turn its head to gaze back at the viewer. Meets the world full on. This changes things. Changes not only the nature of the portrait, but also how we look at paintings. The painting ceases being something we behold, becoming something we have a shared interest in. We are now in conversation both with the portrait and the painting, eye to eye. The painting and the portrait have become a reciprocating part of our lives too.