Ellen Thesleff, Violin Player, 1896, oil on canvas, 40 x 44 cm Ahlström Collection, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jukka Romu

Correspondences – Jean Sibelius in a Forest of Image and Myth

Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, PhD, Chief Curator, Finnish National Gallery,
Ateneum Art Museum

First published in Hanna-Leena Paloposki (ed.), Sibelius and the World of Art. Ateneum Publications Vol. 70. Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, 2014, 81–127.

Thanks to his friends in the arts the idea of a young Jean Sibelius who was the composer-genius of his age developed rapidly. The figure that was created was emphatically anguished, reflective and profound. On the other hand, pictures of Sibelius show us a fashionable, reckless and modern international bohemian, whose personality inspired artists to create cartoons and caricatures. Among his many portraitists were the young Akseli Gallen-Kallela[1]  and the more experienced Albert Edelfelt. They tended to emphasise Sibelius’s high forehead, assertive hair and piercing eyes, as if calling attention to how this charismatic person created compositions in his head and then wrote them down, in their entirety, as the score.

Such an image of Sibelius largely conforms to the notion of the artists’ spirituality in late-19th-century art theory: artists were seen as special individuals endowed with the ability to achieve greatness and explore inner worlds. The idea was brewing in the international art world that artists were free, heroic individuals detached from everything mundane and trivial.[2] The importance of Sibelius for Finnish art of the 1890s is also accentuated by the fact that, according to the symbolist theory of art, music, being ‘immaterial’, was the highest form of art. Sibelius’s synaesthetic propensity to perceive colours and sounds together was also seen as a sign of a true artist.[3]

This essay examines Jean Sibelius through the visual art of his day, with a view to discovering how his image was fashioned to correspond to international ideas of art prevalent in the 1890s. It also highlights the way his music influenced the artists around him and their work. On the other hand, it is also obvious that Sibelius drew on influences from contemporary art for his own work as a composer. He was in constant contact with artists and surrounded himself at his home in Ainola with artworks that he both purchased and received as gifts.[4] This fruitful and complex interaction played a central role at a turning point in Finnish art and culture at the beginning of the 20th century, when the art world was undergoing an innovative period of new contacts and internationality.

I am so happy to be able to view paintings in Munich and in particular those of [Franz von] Stuck that Erik [Eero Järnefelt] has pictures of. I will now surely save [money] so that before returning home I will get to Italy – to Venezia. (……) I will take a ‘gallery’ at the opera. I will sit there in my shirtsleeves and enjoy. I am now fully restored to my old self. I will have to try to get out a little every year. Then I will be as I used to be.[5]

International modern art provided links to literature, poetry, music, nationalism and science. The age favoured artists such as Sibelius who might be described as a patriotic cosmopolitan. There was a duality in his work; he was both national and international. Sibelius travelled outside Finland 41 times in all, and throughout his active career he went abroad on average once a year.[6] These travels were also a necessity for the composer, who publicised his music by conducting it with different orchestras. At the same time, he also spent a great deal of time engaging with contemporary art. Travelling nourished inspiration and Sibelius worked on his second symphony in Italy, in Rapallo, on his third in Paris, and on Tapiola in Rome. It is characteristic that, by his own admission, he worked best either in the peace and quiet of the countryside or in a hotel room in the city. This productive dualism is common to many visual artists, too. Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Sibelius’s brother-in-law Eero Järnefelt, as well as Pekka Halonen, all found directions for their art in both urban Paris and the silence of the forest. The clear references in Sibelius’s music to the mythic world of the Kalevala, to the forces of nature, to the animal kingdom and turn-of-the-century fantasy all contributed to the image of a contemporary composer who was as much at home as a flâneur in Vienna, Berlin and Paris as he was trekking in vast forests or seeking inspiration among the Koli hills.

[1] Axel Gallén (1865–1930), this form of name until 1907.

[2] Alongside Realism and Naturalism, the literary movement known as Nietzscheism also developed on the international art scene. In his lectures on Nietzsche in 1888, the Danish writer Georg Brandes disseminated the new philosophy among Scandinavians. Another important influence was the Swedish writer, critic and artist August Strindberg, who had entered his ‘Nietzsche period’. The philosophy, with its mythical culture of superman and mysticism, left its imprint also on Finnish art of the 1880s. The first version of Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s On the Road to Tuonela (1888) portrays a heroic man, a free individual, who is liberated from all that is mundane and ordinary. Sarajas-Korte 1989, 239.

[3] Synaesthesia refers to the neurological condition in which the senses intermingle. A sensory stimulus results in a perception belonging to some other sense. A person suffering from synaesthesia may see sounds as colours or taste phonemes. The most common form of synaesthesia is so-called colour hearing, which became activated in Sibelius when he saw colours. For further information on colours and synaesthesia, see Arnkill 2007.

[4] On the art works in Ainola, see Hälikkä 2014b, 168–171.

[5] Franz von Stuck was a leading Symbolist artist in Germany and later a teacher of Wassily Kandinsky. Jean Sibelius to Aino Sibelius, Bayreuth 23 July 1894. Talas 2003, 52.

[6] The young Jean Sibelius had his first contact with urban life when, with his sister Linda and his aunt Evelina, he moved from Hämeenlinna to Helsinki in summer 1885. Sibelius’s financial worries made him enter, in his father’s footsteps, the medical faculty of the Imperial Alexander University, but he soon switched to law. He was already irregularly attending the new Music Institute at this time. From the outset he had his mind set on a career as a celebrated violinist. Goss 2009, 64, 67.

Featured image: Ellen Thesleff, Violin Player, 1896, oil on canvas, 40 x 44cm
Ahlström Collection, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jukka Romu

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