The modern woman presents the works of twelve groundbreaking Finnish artists and highlights their substantial contribution to 20th century modernism. It brings together more than 150 works by artists including Hilda Flodin, Sigrid Schaumann, Helen Schjerfbeck, Elga Sesemann and Ellen Theleff, who developed new visual languages and embraced radical approaches to painting and sculpture – surpassing male artists by introducing them to the Finnish cultural realm. Set amid the seismic shifts in the social, political and cultural landscape of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the exhibition examines their works from two angles: looking at women both as creators and as subjects of their images. .
Between painting, sculpture, drawing and prints, The modern woman reflects the position of women in Finland during the period. One of the first countries to grant women the right to vote in 1906, they were also able to attend art school, access scholarships and travel abroad, allowing them for the first time to pursue an independent career as artists. The exhibition embodies the radical spirit that unites these women: dedication to their profession, their willingness to seize opportunities for artistic fulfillment and their rejection of the way of life expected of them.
Throughout their lives, these women worked internationally in European artistic centers such as Paris and Florence. This influenced their work and is reflected in the choice of subject matter and techniques. First paintings of Ellen Theleff reveal the influence of Impressionism and Expressionism; she then formed the Finnish group Septem, which introduced Impressionism to the country. Helen SchjerfbeckThe paintings also show the wide range of sources available to artists working in the French capital. Teacher of Ellen Thesleff among others, the exhibition reveals how these artists often inspired and supported each other throughout their careers.
The exhibition also presents the bronze sculpture old man thinking, 1900 by Hilda Flodin, trained as an assistant to Rodin. Embracing the famously erotic quality of Rodin’s work as both a sculptor and a model, Flodin’s work shows how female artists began to permeate roles and genres traditionally considered the domain of men.
As the emancipation movement and demands for equality progressed, the image of a woman began to take on unusual nuances in artists’ depictions of themselves and other women. Besides passive beauty and an erotic charge, the images contained more complex, less idealized and more mundane features. New subjects may be working women or often the artist herself. Helen Schjerfbeck is renowned for her self-portraits, but her paintings of modern women include The teacher, 1933 and nurse i, 1943. Sigrid Schaumann experimented with many styles and techniques throughout his career and his minimalist female nudes, such as Model, 1958 are almost ethereal studies of light and color, despite their light corporeality and thick layers of paint.
The work of an earlier generation of pioneering artists was continued by Elga Sesemann, a bold colourist influenced by German Expressionism, Surrealism and Metaphysical art. Like Schjerfbeck, Thesleff and Schauman, Sesemann created several self-portraits using a palette knife, examining himself with an unsentimental and psychologically astute eye.
The works in The modern woman show how, despite facing the expectations and restrictions of their gender, these women were able to forge independent careers as artists and go on to play a crucial role in the development of art in Finland and beyond.
Conversation: Elina Brotherus and Hannele Rantala
February 11 – March 27, 2022
Dialogue features works by Finnish photographers Elina Brotherus (b. 1972) and Hannele Rantala (b. 1952) who, alongside their independent practices, have been working together in dialogue for more than two decades. Through this creative tandem approach, Brotherus and Rantala offer their individual reflections on the identity, role and status of female artists in today’s world.
Typical of the duo’s working method, the photographs in the exhibition were taken in response to themes, quotes and commissions that the artists gave themselves. The new works created in response to these commissions reflect each of the artists’ particular styles: while Brotherus is known for his witty self-portraiture and autobiographical references, Rantala takes a more poetic approach. Together, the works are a celebration of individual expression, reflecting personal experiences and the subjective nature of art and creativity.
Homework includes tasks based on Yoko Ono quotes and Erwin Wurm’s one-minute sculptures. One of the missions that recurs throughout the exhibition is “Choosing works by forgotten women photographers and creating a parallel work”: the duo draws inspiration from a variety of unknown or forgotten creative women through literature and the arts, from Nordic poet Edith Södergran to photographers like Hilja Ravinemi and Emmi Fock. The exhibition sees Brotherus and Rantala questioning the canon while honoring the influence and importance of female artists.
About Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery:
Ateneum is Finland’s main national art museum. Located in the heart of Helsinki, it houses Finland’s largest collection of classical art. Ateneum is one of three museums forming the Finnish National Gallery, alongside the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art and the Sinebrychoff Art Museum.