Important Spring Sale presents 'Marta dansande (Svart kjol)' av Helene Schjerfbeck
Helene Schjerfbeck Marta Dancing (Black skirt)
Marta dansande (Svart kjol), which depicts Martta Sahrman (later Mäkinen, 1903-1991), holds a unique position amongst Helene Schjerfbeck’s production from her time in Hyvinge. This is because the composition portrays a girl in movement. Schjerfbeck usually preferred subjects characterised by their stillness, where the models were depicted seated or standing.
Einar Reuter (1881-1968), also known by the pseudonym of H. Ahtela, writes the following words in his extensive monograph on Schjerfbeck, published in Swedish in 1953: “In the late autumn, little Marta Sahrman arrives to dance for Helena as she had previously promised. During the summer the girl had actually been performing at a travelling village circus. But the dancing girl’s movements puzzled her. Helena has painted so many seated, resting people, she is wondering how Degas painted his dancing figures.”
The idea had come to Schjerfbeck the year before. In a letter (dated Hyvinge, 4th of November 1916) Schjerfbeck tells Reuter the following, partly quoting the model’s own words: “The girl is being painted in light yellow and grey tones with something of a strong pink in the clothes, a child of the circus. It is true that she only watched over Mr and Mrs Circus’s little children during the performances (3 days), but she’s the type and has that nature. She has promised to dance for me ‘for real on tiptoes, it is so ugly to dance on your whole foot’”. During the work, however, Schjerfbeck departed from the earlier planned palette: the composition was finally done in a more limited, sober and sophisticated range of colours.
Marta dansande (Svart kjol), preceded by Marta dansande (Head Study) (charcoal on paper, 23 x 21 cm, 1971, Athela no. 472, private collection), came about during a particularly eventful year for Schjerfbeck. In 1917 she visited, for the first time in fifteen years, the art museum Ateneum in Helsinki and was deeply affected by the paintings of Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne. After much persuasion from her friends Einar Reuter and Gösta Stenman, her first solo show at Stenman’s art salon was organised. The exhibition is said to have been a big public success for Schjerfbeck. The artist herself, however, did not see her own exhibition, and only accessed it through the exhibition catalogue (which included as many as 159 pieces) and through the newspapers’ reviews of the show.
The girl that Helene Schjerfbeck called the circus girl, and who was the model for Marta dansande (Svart kjol), lived with her family in Hyvinge. She had passed Schjerfbeck’s house together with her siblings on their way to school and the artist had noticed them and asked the children to be her models. Martta’s brother Einar was the model for Vedhuggaren (The Woodcutter). The first version of this work, Vedhuggaren I (The Woodcutter I) (oil and coloured chalk on canvas, 58 x 41 cm, 1910-1911), is included in the collections of Ateneum in Helsinki. In 1913 Martta and her little sister, Katri had modelled for the composition Syskonen (The Siblings) (oil, watercolour, charcoal and pencil on paper, 31 x 42 cm, private collection, Finland). Four years later it was also Martta and Katri who were portrayed together in the famous painting Bilderboken (Picture Book) (watercolour, gouache and charcoal on paper, 26 x 38 cm, 1917, private collection, Finland). This last image must be one of Schjerfbeck’s most famous and loved ones as it was also turned into a very popular lithograph (Bilderboken, edition of 90 sheets, 1938).
When Schjerfbeck, at about the same time that she was working on Bilderboken, took on the motif of the dancing Martta the result is a well-balanced composition that allows the viewer to imagine the movement of the model. Helene Schjerfbeck possessed a unique talent in capturing the essence of her subjects with a focused, and very elegant, simplicity. In a letter to Einar Reuter (16th of April 1917), she also writes how: “you do not need to repeat all the details in writing, the truth will be better revealed when you allude to it”.
When is the viewing and auction?
Viewing 27 May – 1 June, Berzelii Park 1, Stockholm.