Wäinö Aaltonen, Jean Sibelius, 1935, marble, ht. 70 cm Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen

Article: From a Young Genius to a Monument

Riitta Ojanperä, PhD, Director, Collections Management, Finnish National Gallery

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, 13─61.

We all know what the composer Jean Sibelius looks like. He is elderly, with penetrating eyes, his mouth closed in a stern line. He is bald and – if we can see more than his face – he sits in an armchair and smokes a cigar. The image is very much a cliché. It is also quite possible that this is no longer the figure many Finns see in their minds – the prevalence of such images is very much bound to culture and generation. It is nevertheless quite likely that such an image of Sibelius is shared by those of us who were born before the 1970s, who received a school education founded on early 20th-century unified culture – our minds imprinted not only with the image of the stern national composer, but also with the Finlandia Hymn and the Song of the Athenians – and who in primary school groped for the notes of Andante Festivo in the ranks of the school orchestra.

The assumption of a widely held visual image requires at least that we know who Sibelius is. The composer has been on the list of the most famous Finns for decades, although the basis of his recognition is undoubtedly different in Finland than elsewhere. In Finland, Sibelius’s peers have comprised both the most prominent statesmen and the most prestigious representatives of art and culture. The Finnish adage ‘Sibelius, sauna and sisu’ carries the name of Sibelius everywhere that the deepest perceived values and everyday experiences of Finnishness are discussed.[1]

The popular recognition of Sibelius shows no sign of declining. In 2013, the Finnish Cultural Foundation conducted an extensive Gallup poll on the kind of art Finns find appealing.[2] The result shows that the appreciation of Sibelius is virtually unrivalled, insofar as age, education and domicile in Finland made hardly any difference in the overall positive result.[3] The survey suggests that while traditional cultural heavyweights remain strong, the top four – Jean Sibelius, Tove Jansson, Väinö Linna and Juice Leskinen – encompass a wide spectrum of artforms and artist’s ages.[4]

[1] ‘Sibelius, sauna and sisu’ is used as an idiomatic compound. Its reference is to the cultural determination of Finnish identity, sometimes used ironically. Examples: in popular culture, the chart hit of the Kivikasvot ensemble entitled Made in Finland (Tankeros love) 1975; in an academic context, the title of a seminar ‘Sibelius, sauna ja sisu! Suomen maakuvan historiaa’ (‘Sibelius, sauna and sisu! History of the Finnish national image’), University of Helsinki 16 April 2009, or the title of a thesis Sauna, sisu ja Sibelius. Jean Sibeliuksen konstruoidun säveltäjäkuvan muodostuminen musiikkikirjallisuudessa (‘Sauna, sisu and Sibelius. The formation of the constructed image of Jean Sibelius in music literature’), Lantto 2013.

[2] Study commissioned by the Finnish Cultural Foundation Suomalaisten näkemykset kulttuurista. Vaikuttuneisuus taiteilijoista ja tyylisuunnista (‘Finnish Views on and Engagement in Culture and the Arts’). The survey questions related to 32 pre-selected artists.

[3] Suomalaisten näkemykset kulttuurista. Vaikuttuneisuus taiteilijoista ja tyylisuunnista, 35.

[4] Press release of the Finnish Cultural Foundation 2013: ‘Tutkimus: Tunnetuimmat taiteilijamme ovat Jean Sibelius, Tove Jansson, Väinö Linna ja Juice Leskinen’ (‘Study shows our most famous artists are Jean Sibelius, Tove Jansson, Väinö Linna and Juice Leskinen’).

Featured image: Wäinö Aaltonen, Jean Sibelius, 1935, marble, ht. 70cm
Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen

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