Friday, September 02, 2011

Mademoiselles Who Dabble With Paints: Ellen Thesleff

For the first post in this series, on Fanny Churberg, go here.

"Only the weak are not lonely."
Ellen Thesleff, 1914

Ellen Thesleff (1869-1954) was one of the small group of late nineteenth century Finnish women painters whom Akseli Gallen-Kallela, a famous Finnish painter of the same era called "mamselles who dabble with paints." She is like the other women in the group in coming from the Swedish-speaking upper classes of that time, being privileged by her social class but not by her gender.

Whereas Fanny Churberg to me seems all about power and tension, as if the frames of her pictures should burst, Ellen Thesleff is about color. But her development went from realism and symbolism to colorism, as shown by these paintings, in chronological order:

Self-Portrait, 1894-95

Violin Player, 1896

Echo, 1890-91

Girls, 1906

Decorative Landscape, 1910

Helsinki Harbor, 1912

Fanny Churberg had a career cut short by the traditionally female tasks of caring for others, by ill health and possibly by negative criticism. Ellen Thesleff's story is very different: She lived a long life and received accolades by the end of it.

But despite those accolades, Thesleff also felt herself as an outsider, not a firm member of the Finnish artistic community. She was one of the first Finnish expressionists, perhaps too early for recognition. Later she walked her own path, largely ignoring the fashions in art. That may explain the quote with which I began this post: "Only the weak are not lonely."

It may also be clarified by what Thesleff wrote to her sister Gerda in 1914 (from Taitelijattaret. Malarinnor.)
"I'm just a "miss" -- but I know that one must be as ruthless as some Rissanen [a Finnish male painter of the era] -- and before all else one must think of one's own goals."

The point of this second post on Thesleff is perhaps in that artistic isolation, akin to the academic isolation of early female scientists, say. This isolation or exclusion is an obvious handicap, because an isolated artist does not benefit from the cross-currents of artistic thought and experimentation and because an isolated artist does not benefit from the rising market demand caused by a school coming into fashion. Just like isolated scientists, isolated artists are in danger of being left behind and forgotten: A not uncommon outcome for women scientists and artists.

But the isolation also has a benefit. By not belonging to a specific school of art in the sense of being regarded as one of its main creators an artist is free to experiment and to change. No great reputation is lost if she fails in these endeavors, and much may be gained. Note that this is not an excuse or justification for the traditional exclusion of women from the various fraternities.

You may already have spotted another commonality between the two posts in this series so far: Neither Churberg nor Thesleff ever married. Marriage was regarded as incompatible with careers for upper-class women. Then, that is...