In Quiet Contemplation: ‘It Is in Silence that One Gets to Face Oneself’

Helene Schjerfbeck,  Self-Portrait, Black Background,  1915

Helene Schjerfbeck,Self-Portrait, Black Background, 1915

I recently attended an exhibition of the work of Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck (Royal Academy, London, until 27 October).

Schjerfbeck was born in Helsinki in 1862. Her father was an office manager in the state railways. When at the age of 4 she fell down the stairs and broke her hip, she was given drawing materials to cheer her up. It soon became clear that she had a special talent, and at 11 she was sent to study art in Helsinki. In 1880 she moved to Paris, and she subsequently spent time in artists’ colonies at Pont Aven, Brittany and St Ives, Cornwall. 

Schjerfbeck began as a realist, and over the years her work embraced impressionism and abstraction. She painted still lifes and landscapes, rural views and domestic scenes. Yet one is most struck by her portraits.

Schjerfbeck’s subjects regard us over their shoulders. Then they turn away and look down. Sometimes they simply close their eyes. Her friend Maria attends to her book with her back to us. Her black-clad mother reads, sews and sits silently with her hands clasped in front of her. The seamstress and the schoolgirl are lost in private reflection. 

Occasionally the melancholy mood is lifted by an element of fashion. Schjerfbeck subscribed to Marie Claire magazine and had an eye for a beret, a cloche hat, a bold shade of lipstick. 

From her early twenties until the end of her life, aged 83, Schjerfbeck painted raw, candid self-portraits. Hair neat, lips pursed, eyebrows arched. Angular features. A spot of rouge on her cheeks. The portraits become progressively more pared back, more abstract and anguished. Youth fades, skin pales, colours recede, shadows fall. Finally she faces death, gaunt and alone.

One leaves the Schjerfbeck exhibition haunted by a sense of sadness. She was an artist of introspection; of quiet rooms and muted colours; of silence and stillness.

When I was at college I recall a visit from my friend Catrin’s parents. I was babbling away, filling the awkward silence with inconsequential nonsense - as is my wont. At length Cat’s father addressed me in somewhat severe Welsh tones:

‘It is in silence that one gets to face oneself.’

These words stuck with me.

Helene Schjerfbeck,  Maria (detail),  1909

Helene Schjerfbeck,Maria (detail), 1909

I have generally subscribed to the view that an active mind needs constant stimulus; that it must process that stimulus into opinions and beliefs; that we must always be looking, listening and learning, deliberating, debating and discussing. But there’s a limit. As I’ve aged I’ve realised that it’s also important to stop and catch one’s breath; to liberate the brain from the trivial and unimportant; to pause and take stock. I have found it helpful when on the verge of sleep, on the edge of consciousness, to review the day and reflect on tomorrow. I guess I’ve gradually learned to appreciate absence and stillness.

‘Dreaming does not suit me. To work, to live through work, that is my path.’

Fate dealt Schjerfbeck a cruel hand. Her childhood accident left her with a lifelong limp and she suffered poor health. She was unlucky in love. Financially challenged, she spent many years nursing her mother in a small town north of Helsinki. She died in a sanatorium in Sweden in 1946. Nonetheless, one can’t help thinking that, though she had a tough life, she probably left it with profound knowledge and understanding, and with a strong sense of self. Perhaps that is enough.

Helene Schjerfbeck - The School Girl II (1908)

Helene Schjerfbeck - The School Girl II (1908)

'Quiet nights of quiet stars, quiet chords from my guitar,
Floating on the silence that surrounds us.
Quiet thoughts and quiet dreams, quiet walks by quiet streams,
And the window that looks out on Corcovado. Oh how lovely.’

Astrud Gilberto, ‘Quiet Nights (Corcovado)’ (A C Jobim / G Lees)

No. 245

PsychoBarn: A Lesson in Disorientation


I came up from Green Park tube, walked along Piccadilly, past the Ritz, the Wolseley and the Caffè Concerto, and turned into the Royal Academy.

There, in the neo-classical courtyard of this august building, sat a red family house with slatted wooden walls, gothic ornamentation, a tatty white porch and a steep mansard roof.

It stopped me in my tracks.

'Transitional Object (PsychoBarn)’ is a piece by the British artist, Cornelia Parker (at the Royal Academy until March 2019). It was first shown on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2016.  It was built using materials reclaimed from a typical American red barn. They have been carefully dismantled, then re-assembled in the form of the Bates family mansion from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film ‘Psycho’. This in turn was itself a studio interpretation of an Edward Hopper painting, ‘House by the Railroad’ (1925). ‘PsychoBarn’ is smaller in scale than a normal house (just over 30 feet). And it is incomplete. At its rear it is supported by scaffolding, just like a stage-set.

The piece suggests a kind of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ romanticism, at the same time as concealed threat and inarticulate menace. Parker talks about confronting the 'polarities of good and evil'. It is a house built from a barn. It is not whole. It deceives. Its scale confuses. In an urban context its architecture disorientates. And being modeled on a film, which in turn was inspired by a painting, it carries layered meaning.

Parker borrowed the term 'transitional object' from developmental psychology. It was coined in 1951 by the analyst DW Winnicott to describe an item used to provide psychological comfort as a substitute for reality - typically a child’s comfort blanket or teddy bear.

 

univ_psycho_frame_c.jpg

‘PsychoBarn’ is like a comfort blanket in that it is real and unreal. It is initially attractive, simple, reassuring. But on closer inspection it is deceitful, ambiguous, complex.

‘I like the idea that you take things that perhaps seem clichéd. But they’re clichéd for a reason. They resonate with a huge amount of people…The inverse of the cliché is the most unknown place.’

Cornelia Parker

There’s a simple lesson that we could all learn here.

So often modern communication reflects and confirms the world as it is, or as we would want it to be. Our ideas are two-dimensional, flat and transparent. We pedal clichés rather than subverting them; reinforce stereotypes rather than challenging them. Consumption becomes easy, passive and comfortable. And at the same time bland, safe and forgettable.

If we really want to be remembered, we should endeavour to disorientate our viewers; to disarm and disturb them. We should consider changing the context, adjusting the scale, reconfiguring the materials, juxtaposing the incongruous, layering the meaning, subverting the message.

In the midst of the comforting and familiar, we should seek out ‘the most unknown place.’

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Time for a festive break.
Next post will be on Thursday 3 January.
Have a restful Christmas.
See you on the other side, I hope.

'Christmas is here.
I know what I want this year.
Presents and toys are fine.
But I got bigger things in mind.
Santa can you swing more love? More peace?
Because that’s what everybody needs.’

Macy Gray, ’All I Want for Christmas'

No. 209

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 14

Garden and Woodland Special

 

Learning from Lilies: Strip Away the Context

I recently attended Painting the Modern Garden, an excellent exhibition examining the garden in art between the 1860s and 1920s. (It runs at the Royal Academy in London until 20 April.)

In the late nineteenth century there was a horticultural revolution. Bourgeois Europeans and middle class Americans had affluence and leisure time, and a yearning to preserve something natural against the march of industrialisation. Gardening became an obsession. They studied, imported, cultivated and collected. One contemporary writer proclaimed, ‘I love compost like one loves a woman.’

Artists seem to have been in the front ranks of this revolution. Gardens provided a subject to express their thoughts about nature, beauty, colour and light. Gardens could suggest interior as well as exterior truths. Pissaro, Renoir and Bonnard; Sargent, Van Gogh and Matisse. The great painters of the day repeatedly set their easels up outside, in the garden.

Painting the Modern Garden is an exhibition of intoxicating colour: radiant, ravishing yellows, pinks and purples; intense sensory explosions. One feels the heat and languor of a long Summer’s afternoon. White linen, lace and crinolines. Let’s play croquet on the lawn, take tea on the terrace, reel around the fountain. Sunflowers, dahlias, peonies and poppies. Come consider the chrysanthemums, tend the rhododendrons with me.

And then, of course, there was Monet and his wondrous water-lilies.

At Giverney Monet painted water-lilies over and over again. He studied them, scrutinized them, isolated them in their stillness, floating in the reflective water and changing light. He removed them from their context. They became abstract contemplations of colour, tone, atmosphere and silence.

One critic observed: ‘No more earth, no more sky, no limits now.’

I was struck by this comment and found myself thinking about the role of context in brand marketing and communication.

Context is central to good marketing. If we can understand a brand’s place in the world, we can promote its relevance more effectively. And the broader the cultural context considered, the deeper the understanding. But whilst context is critical to comprehension, effective communication requires compression, distillation and focus. So ultimately we must strip context away.

Too often we fail in this respect. We try to cram our messaging with visual, verbal and conceptual cues. Show the user, signal the occasion, reference the tradition, give the reason-to-believe, bash out the benefit. Communication becomes loud, cluttered, busy and bewildering. Context can be constricting.

Imagine if you could express your brand as an abstract truth, not an observed reality; an intense distillation, not an actual depiction. Imagine if you could strip away the context, narrow the frame, focus on the essence itself.

What would you say? What would we see? How would we feel?


Why We Go on Awaydays: A Reminder from Shakespeare

‘Good servant, tell this youth what ‘tis to love…
It is to be all made of sighs and tears.
It is to be all made of faith and service.
It is to be all made of fantasy,
All made of passion and all made of wishes,
All adoration, duty and observance.
All humbleness, all patience and impatience.
All purity, all trial, all observance.’

As You Like It, V, ii

Last week I saw a marvellous production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the National Theatre in London (running until 29 February).

As the programme notes point out, As You Like It is a ‘green world’ comedy. Its characters escape the oppressive regime of the city for the Forest of Arden. They’re leaving behind convention, hierarchies and the pressure of the present. In the forest they can be more contemplative, philosophical, romantic. They can express themselves freely; they can imagine possibilities; they can explore new roles and identities. They undergo transformations, revelations.

In recent years we’ve perhaps become a little sceptical about Awaydays. The heart sinks at the awkwardness of seeing our senior staff in their weekend casuals. We shun the flip-charts and Post-Its, gummy bears and energiser drinks; the bumptious facilitator and the embarrassing ice-breakers. We balk at the expense in time and money. And so generally we end up just taking a couple of hours in a conference room over at the Media Agency. The future can wait…

But I’m inclined to say that genuine Awaydays justify the cost. Increasingly we have our heads down, dealing with today’s pressing challenges; we rarely look up to talk about tomorrow’s. Awaydays provide an opportunity to draw a line in the sand, to consider broader themes and more distant horizons, to dream new possibilities and imagine the unthought.

And Awaydays do indeed gain something from being away.

‘There’s no clock in the forest.’

Orlando, As You Like It


‘Let’s Play Crusaders’: The Price of Difference

Martin and I shared a bedroom overlooking the back gardens of Heath Park Road. In the summer you could see all the other kids in the street - the Richards, the Chergwins et al - playing Cowboys and Indians in their own little domains. 

‘Let’s play Crusaders,’ we determined. (The ‘70s were more innocent times, somewhat lacking a proper historical context…)

Mum made us white smocks from old sheets and we imprinted bold crimson crosses on their fronts. We completed the outfits with blue balaclava helmets and woollen tights borrowed from our younger sisters. 

And as we skipped around the garden, taking on Saladin and his scimitared hordes, it struck me that it’s not easy being different.

‘We are stardust.
We are golden.
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden’

Joni Mitchell/ Woodstock

No. 68