The Unfinished Finn – A Sibelius Portrait by Jack Kennerly

Photograph provided courtesy of Jack Kennerly
Photograph provided courtesy of Jack Kennerly

The painter of this portrait is currently all of 15 years old.

Late last year in 2013, I embarked on a casual internet search for new Sibelius portraits for my Jean Sibelius Pinterest board and my eyes lit up as a a new one appeared amongst the images Google offered. A young man stands behind the portrait, the painter’s head dwarfed by the massive coloured bust of the composer, rendered in stark colours of black, blue, greys and whites.

The familiar 1949 photograph of Sibelius by Yousuf Karsh has been interpreted in a unique modern light by the young painter. The portrait captures Sibelius’s intent faraway look – perhaps it is a little less stern, the presence of the colour blue lending a little youth to the then (at the  time of the photograph) 84-year-old composer, but it retains the magisterial quality of the original photo. The swaths of blue and smaller dashes of red give Sibelius’s face a certain life and dynamism, compared to the magnificent austerity of the photograph. Not that the portrait is better or worse – it is simply a new interpretation.

Jack Kennerly1

“I am a 15-year-old student from Los Angeles, California, ” Jack (left) wrote to me when I requested for an interview via email. “I have been an artist for most of my life, starting with drawing on the walls of my house with markers and painting blob-shaped objects on paper.

“I constantly explore new ways of creative expression, including playing cello (which I have done from grade two), making films, taking photos, composing music and writing.  During my study of the cello, I was introduced to the fabulous music of Sibelius.  I greatly admire his music; it is so expressive, and so filled with emotion.”

A quick click on the image on Google that day in December 2013 had led me to the blog of none other than famed Pulitzer prize-winning photographer David Hume Kennerly.  He won – at age 25 – the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for his portfolio of photographs taken of the Vietnam War, Cambodia, East Pakistani refugees near Calcutta, and the Ali-Frazier fight in Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971. Mr Kennerly has been named one of the 100 most important people in photography by the American Photo Magazine and has also photographed every American president since Richard Nixon.

Sibelius Portrait with Jack KennerlyIn his blog post from 2 Nov 2013, Mr Kennerly showcased the new portrait his son Jack had just completed. “This made for a good black and blue moment!” Unable to ascertain how to contact the painter, I sent a message to Mr David Kennerly instead and was delighted to receive an email from Jack himself in January 2014. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Mr David Hume Kennerly for so kindly connecting me to his young son.

Jack calls Yousuf Karsh one of the greatest and most influential portrait photographers who has ever existed – and surely no one would disagree.  He chose to paint Sibelius because the look on his face in the 1949  photograph (below) is “very intense and powerful, the lighting accentuating his bulging veins”.  The photograph seems to contrast wildly with the image of the composer of such “delicate and complex passages that have made him famous”, says Jack.

“I originally wanted to faithfully copy the photograph onto the canvas, ” he goes on to explain.  “However, I used a canvas on which I had previously painted an abstract form.  I didn’t like the original work,  so I decided to paint over it.   When I was half finished with the Sibelius painting, I stepped back and noticed the interesting and beautiful way he looked with the color from the original abstract painting showing through into the portrait.  So, I left the painting ‘unfinished’.”

This remark by Jack on his “completion” of the portrait will surely bring a smile to all Sibelians. We know of Sibelius’s own struggles with finishing (or not finishing) his masterpieces. More importantly, we know of Sibelius’s particular way of letting the music almost compose itself – and in this sense, it relates to the experience of realizing a work of art has been completed at an unexpected point in its crafting, in its time.

Sibelius in 1949, photo by Yousuf Karsh
Sibelius in 1949, photo by Yousuf Karsh