Thursday, December 2, 2010

Helene and Phineas: While My Lady Sleeps


© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Here’s another in our continuing efforts to meld Art and Jazz. Obviously, some of these work better than others, but we continue to try to forge these bonds because we find the work and the end result, pleasing. We hope you will, too.

The music to our video tribute to the Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck [1862-1946] is by the Memphis-born pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr. [1931-1989].

The composition is entitled While My Lady Sleeps and Phineas performs it with Dennis Farnon and His Orchestra. Dennis also did the arrangement. The song was written by Bronislaw Kaper & Gus Kahn. [Checkout the cadenza that Phineas lays down on this one beginning at minutes.]

Due to circumstances of geography and chronology, it is highly unlikely that Helene and Phineas [pronounced Fine-us] would have ever met.

But we thought it would be nice to bring them together vicariously in this fashion as the beauty and delicacy of their respective art seemed to compliment one another very well.

Although Phineas was not a celebrity, he was highly regarded by knowledgeable Jazz fans, especially in the 1950's and 60's. ''In his prime, he was one of the three greatest jazz pianists of all time, right up there with Bud Powell and Art Tatum,'' said the late Leonard Feather, who for many years served as a Jazz critic for Downbeat magazine and The Los Angeles Times.

There was a time when Phineas looked set for stardom, but mental problems forced him to return to Memphis in the '60s, where he spent his remaining years struggling against the alcohol and drug problems that exacerbated an already fragile emotional state.

Although he received much acclaim early on, unfortunately, Phineas trips to the “Big Cities” of New York and Los Angeles turned out to be the end of his career instead of the beginning.

Helene, too, was to return home from her time in the Big City, in her case, Paris. But her trip back to her native Finland was to mark a re-birth of her calling as an artist and the ascension of her star in the Art universe.

The video will introduce you to many of Helene’s major paintings, and the facts below will give you an overview of the salient aspects of her career.


© -Arthistory.com, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“[As for Helene’s style of painting], Symbolism seems like the best fit.

Honestly? The more recognition Helene Schjerfbeck received the harder it became to classify her working style. Many movements have tried to claim Helene Schjerfbeck as one of their number.

She was supposedly a Realist, a Romanticist, an Impressionist, a Naturalist, a Symbolist, an Expressionist and a wildly ahead-of-her-time Abstractist. Truthfully, there were elements of all of these in her work as the decades progressed and one would not be incorrect using any of these terms. But in the end she stripped herself of all save that which symbolized 83-years' worth of learning to see.

Date and Place of Birth:

July 10, 1862, Helsinki, Finland

Early Life:

Helene Schjerfbeck may have had an unremarkable life had she not fallen down a flight of stairs and broken her hip at age four. Her injury mended badly, leaving her with a pronounced limp that made it impossible for her to attend school. It also impeded her mobility and kept her in fragile health for the rest of her life.
On the upside, her housebound status allowed many hours for sketching and she was accepted as a drawing student at the Finnish Art Society in 1873. An artistic prodigy, she was eleven years old--a full five years younger than typical new students.

After only two years' study, Schjerfbeck's father died and the family, never well-off to begin with, fell on hard times. It is remarkable that she kept studying, supported figuratively by her mother and materially by an instructor who strongly believed in Helene's talent. The Art Society was followed by private lessons and independent study.

By the late 1870s Schjerfbeck was gaining a good reputation in Finland, which led to her receiving a travel grant from the Russian Imperial Senate. In a gutsy move, she packed and left for additional formal instruction in Paris, where she knew no one and was herself unknown.


Life and Study Abroad:

She was successful there, refining her oil technique, acquainting herself with Impressionism and madly flirting with the Spanish Baroque. Schjerfbeck marketed herself untiringly at this time, exhibiting (and selling) as often as possible and taking numerous illustration jobs.

Her Paris years were punctuated by frequent artistically-purposed travel (to Florence and Prague, for two examples) and she was engaged to a British painter for a time. Dwindling health and funds put an end to the excitement, though, and Helene returned to Finland in 1890, to live with her mother in the latter's modest home in Hyvinkää.

A Career is (Re)Born:

Anyone else might have been content to putter around the district, painting occasionally and remembering what had once been. Helene, however, hadn't had her ambitions crushed. She kept in touch, corresponded with her numerous contacts, continued to market herself and, though it took nearly thirty more years, achieved a second "discovery" in 1917 when the Finnish dealer Gösta Stenman mounted Helene's first solo exhibition.

Never again reduced to obscurity, Schjerfbeck was able to work steadily for the next three decades, watch her name become relatively famous and enjoy the first stable finances of her life.

Summing Things Up:

We know her best as a brutally honest self-portraitist, based on (almost literally) bare bones views of herself in her 80s. It is also important to remember that, along with her tremendous native talent, she possessed vision, courage and persistence.

Helene Schjerbeck’s career spanned parts of eight decades during which she moved from her initial, realistic history paintings to an abstract style. Only when death intervened did she stop stretching the boundaries of her work. A true master artist and, as such, one to be admired.”