Sibelius Exhibit at Ateneum

Sibelius bust at the entrance to the exhibit
Sibelius bust at the entrance to the exhibit

I have swans in my mind all the time, and they give brilliance to life. It is odd to see that nothing in the world, not in art, literature or music, affects me as much as these swans + cranes + bean geese. Their calls and their being! – Sibelius’ diary entry on April 24th, 1915

The Sibelius exhibit marking the 150th birthday of the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius just opened on Thursday at the Ateneum Art Museum and it is definitely worth seeing. The exhibit is a multi-modal representation of Sibelius’ life and work, a vibrant interfusion of paintings, sculptures, video, music, and photographs that evoke Sibelius’ synaestheticism and the vibrant community of artists that he worked among and created with (many of whom painted him). The portraits of Sibelius as a Bohemian young man, with a thick mane of hair pushed jauntily off his forehead and bushy mustache, getting drunk with his artist comrades in cafés, and the documentation of his domestic life at Ainola, the timber-built villa where he lived with his devoted wife Aino and five daughters, all served to humanize my impression of Sibelius as the venerable father of Finnish nationalism.

I got a sense of just how strongly Sibelius lives on in Finland’s cultural identity as I chatted with some of the curators of the exhibit over glasses of champagne at Hotel Kämp following the opening. As we discussed the launch of the exhibit, how it came together and was received, everyone who was involved in creating the exhibit expressed his/her heartfelt desire to capture Sibelius’ brilliance and share it with the public. As one of them put it, Sibelius’ music is “a view to the soul.” The exhibit opening was followed up with an awesome hackathon (#SibHack2014) inside the hallowed halls of Ateneum, in which a team of artists (including some of my fellow Media Lab students) built an interactive audiovisual experiment called Amazibelius:

Some fun facts that get to core questions of the relationship between cultural heritage, memory, and representations of reality:

  • Sibelius was very free with personal information in his letter correspondences. His wife Aino burned many of his letter after his death to prevent the personal details written in them from becoming public knowledge. A pre-digital “Right to be Forgotten?”
  • Sibelius was always a very neat dresser, so one of his artist friends purposefully (and inaccurately) painted a portrait of him with his top shirt button unbuttoned. Apparently Aino was furious.

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