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

Yours and My Sibelius – an exhibition at the Sibelius Museum

As some of you might have noticed, I run a particular board on Pinterest. Amidst the visual feastful of amazing food, fashion and nature’s scenery, I think mine is quite possibly the platform’s only Jean Sibelius board.

I try not to just pin ANY image of Sibelius, as that would probably result in a whole hoard of black-and-white photos of the man, looking meditative or slightly uncomfortable and invariably either heavily moustached or bald of head. I try to pin pictures of him in colour, in particular new paintings of the composer. This, I think, makes the pins much more unique, my finds much more interesting. But more importantly, new depictions of Sibelius represent a continuing tradition, each artist depicting his or her perspective on the composer, and each one becoming a part of his musical legacy.

Recent paintings of Sibelius are surprisingly forthcoming – every now and then, I’d find a new one, such as this very aristocratic take by Tim Binger, this evocatively indirect depiction of “Sibelius Amongst the Saplings” (2011) by Billy Childish or this 2009 portrait (based on the famous photo) of the young Sibelius by Lorena Bowser, that is closely related to this blog. Follow me on Pinterest as I continue to find them.

Back in December 2012, much to my surprise I received an email from none other than the Sibelius Museum in Turku, Finland.  It came from their educationalist, Ms Toropainen, and she said that she’d found my blog and Pinterest board and asked if it would be ok if they could feature some of the material in an upcoming little exhibition at the museum.

My only regret is that I cannot be in Turku! I tried to plan it in my September 2012 trip to Finland, but alas, could not fit it in my schedule. So, oddly enough, this blog of mine has now gone there in my place.

Yours and My Sibelius – an exhibition at the Sibelius Museum (15 Jan - 30 Apr 2013)

“YOUR AND MY SIBELIUS” – the exhibition opened on 15 January 2013 and will run until 30th April. The intention of the exhibition is to showcase the composer  in a different dimension(s). Not specifically through the man or his music, but through a “variety of phenomena to which Sibelius has been the source of inspiration, [such as] in photographs, drawings, texts and other objects.”

The museum had decided to use this blog, Dust of Hue, in one of the showcases. They are picking out some text and pictures to be put in a slideshow, I am told. It is a small contribution I make, but a huge honour.

In addition, the pupils of Grade 6E of Puolala School (Puolalan Koulu) in Turku – the sponsor class of the Sibelius Museum – have contributed drawings on the topic “Your and my Sibelius”.

Pupils of Grade 6E of Puolala School (Puolalan Koulu) in Turku – the sponsor class of the Sibelius Museum – have contributed drawings on the topic “Your and my Sibelius”.
All pictures courtesy of the Sibelius Museum.

The drawings are a delightful mix of portraits (in varying levels of severity), musical instruments and symbols, everyday objects (presumably Sibelius-branded merchandise), and of course, The Moustache.

But my favourite one, winner by a far, far margin, is this subtle little piece:

Portrait of Sibelius by a pupil of Grade 6E of Puolala School, Turku, Finland

The austerity of the work, the singular purpose of the artist’s line, the organic manner in which the face is built, the rock-like monumental-ness, the perfectly Sibelian stern expression – I’m sure Sibelius himself would’ve smiled at it and Aino would probably have it framed. :)

Sibelius, 1939

“YOUR AND MY SIBELIUS” – An Exhibition
15 Jan – 30 Apr 2013

The Sibelius Museum is located at:
Biskopsgatan 17, FIN-20500 Åbo, Turku, Finland (Google+/Map)
Opening hours:
Tuesday-Sunday 11-16, Wednesdays also 18-20
Closed on Mondays.