The Modern Woman showcases the pioneering role of artists Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946), Ellen Thesleff (1869–1954), Sigrid Schauman (1877–1979) and Elga Sesemann (1922–2007) in the Finnish art world at the turn and the first decades of the 20th century. Exploring the role of the modern woman amidst the social, political and cultural changes of the day, the exhibition also investigates the means whereby a woman could create an independent career for herself as an artist in Finland. The exhibition’s themes echo the still-current debate on the status and opportunities of women the world over.
“Women artists have played – and continue to play – an important role in Finnish art history. They have worked alongside men in the field of art in many roles, not only as artists but as critics and teachers as well as designers and artisans in applied art, and also as writers and poets. Such versatility is the hallmark of the four featured artists, who all made long, independent careers for themselves as visual artists. All four also took a goal-oriented and strategic view of their career from the start. They specifically aimed to become professional artists in an age when art was considered more of a suitable hobby than a serious profession for a woman,” says Anu Utriainen, special researcher at Ateneum Art Museum and curator of this exhibition.
Works by Schjerfbeck, Thesleff, Schauman and Sesemann held in the collections of the most prominent art museums in Finland prove that art made by women was valued, in spite of the challenges faced by the artists themselves. These women were exceptionally international, travelling and painting throughout their lives. New settings inspired them to find new ways of seeing and recording the world. Social, political and cultural changes were reflected in their art: in the 20th century, a new woman appeared in paintings, one who defied the social expectations of older generations and decided herself the direction of her career and private life.
The Modern Woman is part of a long-term project at the Ateneum Art Museum, during which the exhibition has been on tour to New York, Stockholm, Oulu, Tokyo and Copenhagen, in slightly different versions in each city. The version on show in Turku is curated from the touring exhibition by Anu Utriainen. It presents more than 50 works of art from the collection of the Ateneum Art Museum/Finnish National Gallery, alongside which it also features works from the Turku Art Museum’s own collection. Produced in collaboration with the Ateneum Art Museum/Finnish National Gallery, the exhibition producer at Turku Art Museum was Ilona Mäki.