I was shaken by Helene Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits at the Finnish National Gallery. Taken as a series, these paintings grapple with mortality, isolation, and disappearance. They do not flinch. In the last two years of her life, Schjerfbeck painted twenty pictures of herself, each one progressively warped and blurred until she begins to appear alien. The final image comes just before her death at the age of 83: a simple charcoal sketch of her face, half illuminated and half in shadow.

Our art and literature are fueled by the desire to capture and archive the self, to untangle the mess of dealing with being a person who knows they will disappear someday. Do these same impulses drive today’s culture of the selfie? Can a series of Instagram snapshots be viewed as an extension of Schjerfbeck’s inquiry? Today’s social media inherently coats any image with the gloss of performance rather than something earnest, curious, and raw. I wonder if these spaces can ever be rewired into something beyond approval-seeking or developing a personal brand (such a chilling phrase). But perhaps the screen itself has become too tainted by the nervy energy of distraction and craving to allow for moments of contemplation.

Meanwhile in America, impeachment and pandemic anxiety fills the airwaves. An entire political party has been infected with cult logic, refusing to acknowledge the evidence we can see and hear. “I feel so sorry for what is happening in your country,” an elderly Swedish man told me in the sauna. “The whole thing started out with such good intentions.” In China, forty people have died from a new virus that emerged on New Year’s Eve. The headlines are more apocalyptic than usual: The next pandemic will come. Here’s how to prepare, etc. And perhaps more reflective of our times: Stocks close lower on news of deadly virus spreading to USA.

Helene Schjerfbeck; exhibition at the Ateneum; A Neglected Finnish Modernist is Rediscovered, The New York Times