How Karsh Photographed Europe’s Great
With camera and question he laid bare the personalities of the Men of Peace. And when he met Sibelius he achieved his greatest picture, the one on our cover
YOUSUF KARSH, Canadian, born in Armenia, flew at 24 hours notice from London, England, to Helsinki, Finland, to take what will probably be considered the greatest picture of his career to date. His subject was Jean Sibelius, today’s master of music, whose portrait appears on Maclean’s cover.
Four years ago Karsh released a notable gallery of camera portraits he called Men of War. These included Canada’s Governor - General Viscount Alexander, Churchill, Eisenhower, Montgomery, De Gaulle and many others.
This summer he decided to concentrate on Men of Peace. He toured Europe photographing and chatting with such men as Pope Pius XII, composer Richard Strauss, Dr. Julian Huxley, the biologist, and J. Arthur Rank the movie maker. He had illuminating and powerful experiences with Jean Cocteau, the French writer, painter and producer and Lord Bertrand Russell, the English philosopher, both of whose pictures appear on these pages.
During the summer he worked on a plan he
describes like this: “I’ve made it my life’s work to photograph all the interesting people in the world who are influencing our lives through their work, through art, music, science and social and political services.”
The culmination of his European tour came on July 30 with Sibelius.
Karsh came to Canada as an immigrant from Turkey-hounded Armenia at 15. Today the Canadian photographer has entré to more places the world over than some diplomats. In Ottawa, many a great man would do anything rather than cancel a Karsh appointment, once he’d got it. Karsh feels about his camera as a surgeon would about his scalpel—and he won’t use it without reason.
Yet, though he wished more than anything else in the world to photograph the great Finnish composer, this seemed to be the one “impossible” on his list of miraculous possibles. In the first place, the composer has become a near recluse to all but close, long-time friends. Secondly he had been seriously ill throughout the winter and the early spring.
Diplomatic and official sources had failed to obtain appointment. But what these couldn’t do, the Shell Oil Company could. The manager of the
Finnish office was an old friend of the various branches of the Sibelius family of many daughters and sons-in-law. The permission finally came abruptly, and within hours Karsh, a short dark man with sad brown eyes, a warm intense man of immense humanity, was air-borne for the northern republic.
He reached Finland late in the evening. The next afternoon he was on his way to Ainola, Sibelius’ home outside Helsinki, in a car with an electrician, a chauffeur and 250 pounds of photographic equipment. (This is the absolute minimum Karsh carries. It Includes spotlights, floodlights and camera.)
Ainola (named for Sibelius’ wife Aino) is some 30 miles north of Helsinki, near the village of Järvenpäa, on the shores of Lake Tuusula. At the beginning of the century Sibelius chose the site for its inaccessibility by road (though only half an hour from Helsinki by train). His home became the nucleus of an artistic colony.
From the highway you can see the Sibelius house, partly hidden in pines—a two-story log building only lately covered with planks, painted white, with a red tile roof. Below the house slopes the kitchen garden, Mrs. Sibelius’ dear joy and labor, fenced off from the fields beyond by a. man-high spruce hedge. The main rooms face south, allowing in a vast flood of light.
Over the years, Sibelius (and an admiring nation) have added to his lands—mostly woods where he takes the walks he dearly loves in the solitude of nature or where he can sit under the birches in Iris chair made of roots watching a fine sunset.
There is a wide porch on the north side of the villa and here Sibelius, at Karsh’s ring, came to meet him, smiling. Even at 84, Sibelius is a straight-backed, strong figure, with an almost patriarchal air. His hands shake a little since his illness, but his walk is firm, his conversation to the point, and often humorous. With Karsh he spoke part of the time in halting English, partly in much more fluent French.
Karsh said, “This is a very great moment for me.”
Sibelius said, “Welcome. Would you have some refreshments?”
More Power for Sibelius
He took his visitor to the drawingroom where a baby-grand piano and the simplified white nordic version of Louis XII furniture stood upon unpolished, unstained, pinewood floors. Here and there an occasional Finnish hand-woven rug was placed to best effect and one of these, in muted colors, was hung on the wall.
They stood about having coffee, cakes and cognac and then Karsh took some 45 minutes to set up his apparatus.
Sibelius said, “Take all the time you want for preparation. I am ready when you are.”
The electric current wasn’t strong enough for the floodlights. Karsh, having run into this before, had brought with him an electrician who telephoned the power company and obtained special permission to tap the main line. After all, as the company official said, this was for a photograph of Sibelius!
For three hours that Saturday afternoon Karsh worked over photographs. The atmosphere was of good, jovial cheer. There were many laughing asides by Sibelius to his daughter (Mrs. Eva Paloheimo) who was there to translate, if necessary. Every half hour refreshments came and though the composer himself did not partake of much, he would insist on looking after his guests’ welfare. Sibelius would toast with an empty glass, “You see, I never drink before dinner,” he explained.
“He accepted the fact that I knew my business,” Karsh recalls. “It seemed to me he was pleased with my direct approach, and complied with simplicity that carried great dignity. And when you spoke to him his answers came with thoughtfulness as though nothing was too small to give his full attention to.”
“But,” Karsh continued, “he was very jovial too. He pointed with laughter to the fact that his teeth were His own hut for couple of missing upper ones. ‘Je suis un jeune coquet,’ he said with twinkling eyes.
“I replied he had every reason to be proud and that his touch of coquetry could not compare with Shaw’s, for Shaw maintains that the best picture he has ever seen of himself is when he looks in a mirror. Sibelius promptly retorted, 'Moi, je suis un jeune coquet. Mais Shaw est un vieux coquet.’ ”
Karsh’s routine was picture, conversation. picture, conversation. “I asked
him: Do you think music and the art of playing an instrument should be a compulsory part of all child education? He answered : ‘Yes, perhaps it would be a very good thing but, on the other hand, there are some who have no talent at all. Such efforts would lie in vain.’ And then I’d take another picture.”
Once when the photographer noticed that his subject was tiring he told a story about the Finns in a north Ontario lumber camp during the days of the Finnish-Russian war. Output decreased with the increasing bad news from the front. Finally the foreman hit upon an idea. He put “Finlandia” Liy Sibelius over the loudspeaker system. The woodsmen doubled their output.
Sibelius gave a hearty laugh at this, Karsh reports, and said, “You are fantastic. One does not get tired working with you, for you generate energy.”
Karsh says, “Once I expressed the hope that he wasn’t getting too tired and he reminded me that it was not so long ago that he had drilled his orchestra for almost four continuous hours of rehearsal. I said I would very much like to have Dr. Sibelius adopt me as his son, since we have this energy in common. He laughed at that and replied, 'Vous me flattez.’ ”
The afternoon was growing late. Karsh still kept on introducing questions as well as poses (a great many of these) and Sibelius with unfailing courtesy answered. The photographer commented that since Sibelius had been described as the Beethoven of the twentieth century, did he feel special sense of kinship with Beethoven’s music? “Yes,” Sibelius said, “great deal of kinship.”
“I am insatiable in ,my appetite* photographically speaking,” Karsh says, “and therefore with much apparent diffidence I asked the great composer if I could come back on the following day and continue the sitting.”
Sibelius smiled. His smile is always readily forthcoming. “This is my last hope of having a good photograph,” he said. “Yes, you may come tomorrow. For I see you are an artist and I understand.” Under the glass-topped table in the library was a copy of Karsh’s “Faces of Destiny.” (The library is the only “modern” room, with deep, grey-covered chairs, grey-green rug, the glass table and a big Telefunken radio.)
The next day, a Sunday, Karsh asked Sibelius to change from his light suit coat to a dark one. He was deeply impressed by the composer’s immaculate appearance. “The best-dressed artist—not to say person—I have ever seen,” he reports.
Sibelius went upstairs to change from a well-cut white coat to a still nattier blue job—something in the style of a perfectly tailored higher naval officer’s jacket. As he came into the room his eyes twinkled. “Well,” he said, “how do you like the sailor?”
That day another daughter, Mrs. Margareta Jalas, was also at her girlhood home. There is a story that the cook, Helmi Vainikainen, who has been with the family since 1907, has always had a specially soft spot for this second youngest of the six (five living, one died very young) Sibelius daughters, and so, whenever Mrs. Jalas turns up, the dinner table groans with
the weight of good things. Sibelius has been known to say, time and again, eyeing the feast, “You really must visit us more often, my daughter.”
The inherent simplicity of the home to the eye of a North American visitor is, in a way, an illusion. Here are many of the art treasures of Scandinavia, with special stress on Finnish folk art, painting and sculpture. Sibelius himself knows the painters and the paintings he owns. He has a couple of favorites. One a Kasper Jarnefelt oil of a sunset, another a small occasional scene by a great Finnish painter Gallen-Kallela, and still another dreamy, drifting thing of swans by Lennart Segerstrole.
The music master will lead his visitors around to these, point at them for a moment and often regret the light isn’t right. “A painting is entirely dependent on its lighting,” he’ll say. “Each painting lives for that half an hour in the day when the right light awakens it.”
Once, speaking of his home with its dignified, comfortable, uncluttered air, he remarked, “Sorrows make home a home. It is as though a man might forget those deep rich happy moments he knows with his family. But all the difficulties, all the sorrows which through long life and the multiplying years, we share among our own, give birth to our love of our home. We— why, we’ve lived at Ainola for 40 years.” The significance lay in the suggestion.
As a matter of lifetime habit, Sibelius only begins to work after dinner. But lie may go on until four in the morning in his bare, wide, upstairs workroom. Even when not working, he never retires before one. He will work long hours for days, only seldom confirming chords and sequences on the piano.
Though he still works consistently, no one outside of his wife knows what he is working at. And she is as silent as a mountain, as the Finns say. His last known work written in 1929 was a concerto for violin and piano. It has not been published. (His concerto in D minor for violin and orchestra is one of the world masterpieces, heard often with symphonies here.) His last published symphony came out in J927. His last public appearance was just before the bitter Finnish winter war of 1939-40 when he directed a concert radioed to North America.
As Karsh’s second visit neared its end after two and a half more hours of work the Canadian photographer presented his host with the autographed Vaughan Williams symphony score he had been given to take along when he photographed that British composer. “I’ve listened to this composition over the radio and now I am happy to have the score,” Sibelius said, cheerily.
Karsh had also brought Sir Ronald Storrs’ autographed copy of his RAF books—Storrs had been a recent visitor—a box of cigars and a bottle of whisky from some Canadian visitors and a letter of admiration from the American music critic Olin Downes. These were supposed to have served in way of introduction. Karsh preferred to stand on his own feet and brought them out last.
To Karsh perhaps the most satisfying personal thing about the long meeting was that he had not wasted the great master’s time. He had been given a thoroughly generous lot of it, in which to try to take a true photograph, and when he came to look at his many shots he found that the final shot was the great one—the one appearing on the cover of Maclean’s this issue.
It is a strong rugged picture with the monumentalism of the man coming forth in the stern outline of the jaw, the nose, the deep-set eyes and the thought-lined forehead.
In an odd way, Karsh has caught in the portrait the sound of Sibelius’ music, the deep unanswerable call to the truths of eternity and man’s longing for reassurance through faith. Something of the humanity of Jean Sibelius—his love of laughter, of children, of lakes at sunset, of sun over spring-flowered meadows—has been lost here. But the photographer has caught a more latent truth. Here is Sibelius’ deeper heritage. Here the melancholia typical of his countrymen; the searching after that inherent quality which through suffering, love of earth, love of someone else, hearts’ pain, might for a brief moment present to us the sense of God.
Karsh has always claimed that careful study of his sitter was an essential part in capturing the man and his most characteristic mood. Here was proof. He had done his work well.
The last thing Karsh remembers of his days with Sibelius is a small blond child, a great-grandson, who kept wandering around barefoot after the great man and who always crossed his hands when he looked up to address him.
“The little fellow expressed my own feeling,” Karsh says. “Reverent and worshipful.”
The Unco-operative German
Karsh began his European tour in England, went to Italy (where he photographed the Pope), then back. With him were Solange, his wife, and Monty Everett, his assistant. The entire trip, except for the flight to Helsinki, was made by car, a steel-grey Chrysler he had brought with him from Ottawa. It was quite a sensational sight on the European roads, loaded to the last inch with luggage and photographic equipment and the three passengers.
His success with Sibelius was not repeated with Richard Strauss, the German composer. To get his picture, the Karsh party made a rushed trip from Rome to Garmisch, in the American occupation zone in the Bavarian Alps where Strauss lived. But Karsh found him “unco-operative to the ultimate degree” and the sitting was a failure. St rauss died soon after.
In France Karsh photographed, among others, Vincent Auriol, the President of France, Henri Bernstein, dramatist, Francis Poulenc, composer, Louis Jouvet, actor, Georges Braque, painter, François Mauriac, writer and Averell Harriman, U. S. Ambassador at large. He particularly concentrated on today’s toast of Paris, Jean Cocteau, writer, painter and producer.
This lean, temperamental, highly intellectual young man, whose plays and novels are gaining increasing popularity on this continent, proved an apt subject, falling into dramatic poses with immediate ease.
Karsh did not find Cocteau’s own rooms at all suitable for photographing. They are located over Maxim’s and were small and crowded. So they set out to a house of a friend, Cocteau’s coterie of admiring young men following.
The writer-producer and the photographer found themselves in complete agreement that people mostly did not know what to do with their hands. “It’s an occupational disease with actors,” Cocteau said. “And when they become conscious of their hands all gestures tend to become stylized in
striving for the natural.” After which he took a vastly awkward but obviously typical pose, completely unconscious of his own hands.
Karsh traveled with his photographic equipment to Wales to take a portrait of Lord Russell, the British philosopher and sage. He posed him sitting listening to his old-fashioned phonograph and brooding on the fact that the world had become more evil since he was a boy.
“How?” asked Karsh.
“Well,” said Russell, succinctly, “to take only one example. We can consider the torturing of small children to make them betray their parents as is currently done in a very large country.” He added morosely that people in all walks of life—except wage earners—had less leisure than ever before.
Can Women Be Great?
While Karsh tried various poses he introduced the subject of happiness. Russell brushed it aside. “Happiness,” he said, “comes from pandering to one’s own self-esteem.”
At another point Karsh asked, “Why are there no great women philosophers?”
“Women haven’t the singleness of purpose needed, which demands they give up everything else in the way of human relationships,” Russell said.
Madame Karsh couldn’t take any more of this. She came out with a story about the woman dean of an American university who said the reason there were no great women in most arts and science was that “they had no wife.”
Lord Russell looked her up and down. “I’ve known quite a few geniuses who never married,” he said.
British composer Vaughan Williams, whom Karsh saw on a sunny July day at his home White Gates, in Dorkin, Sussex, turned out to be disarmingly courteous though he had a reputation of being difficult.
In his customary way Karsh spaced the sitting with questions. “Why,” he asked, “is there no tuneful, graceful music composed today?” .Said Vaughan Williams, “There are no Mozarts today.”
“Great mathematicians often make good musicians. Does it apply vice versa?” Karsh asked.
Vaughan Williams smiled, “I cannot add two and two,” he said.
Did the composer think there was an improvement in public taste in music? “Yes. The wireless has played a twofold part. One, many persons listen, which is good, but few perform, which is bad. I dread the thought of television. People will have to look as well as listen.”
Bearding the Beaver
To see Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian-born newspaper publisher who has time and again set England on its ear, the Karshes drove to Cherkley, the Beaver’s country place near Leatherhead, about an hour from London. This picture was requested by a London magazine. Permission for a moment was hesitant. Perhaps Beaverbrook remembered his own comment on the 1943 Karsh portrait of himself: “Karsh, you’ve immortalized me,” and thought repetition of the feat impossible.
They arrived at the vast, windy stone house, standing upon its formal gardens and among the contorted trees on a height overlooking Sussex Downs, at 10.30 on a May morning. The cuckoos sang in the clipped cypresses and a huge dog ambled up the wide garden steps. The party was ushered to a vast library dominated by almost a wallwide fireplace, and offered grapefruit and sherry. Beaverbrook was in rollicking humor and joined Madame Karsh in recalling the naughtier antics of some mad, lusty and fabulous Armenian financier, keeping an impish eye on Karsh, meanwhile.
Said Karsh, sighting the camera, “Which do you consider the three most successful newspaper enterprises of our time?”
Beaverbrook: “Henry Luce’s magazines, Wallace’s Reader’s Digest, and my own Daily Express.” He went on to point out that all three had been started and were run by sons of Presbyterian ministers.
Between shots Beaverbrook would answer his phones. These, scattered liberally in every room, rang frequently. He would discuss editorial policy, make abrupt decisions. Refreshments were brought out to the terrace. He expected the party to stay for lunch. This was, Karsh recalls, gastronomically the most interesting meal he had in England.
The Karshes came away with some handsome shots, impressed with the attention and utmost care their host receives from his household, and with the tidings that Beaverbrook thinks Churchill will again be the Prime Minister.
In London Yousuf Karsh photographed those two amiable enemies Sir Alexander Korda and J. Arthur Rank. Karsh conversationally asked Korda whom he’d like to be if he weren’t himself. “Myself,” said Korda, “at the age of 28.”
“Would you not make the same mistakes again?” Karsh asked.
“No doubt,” said Korda. “And more.”
Rank said somewhat pensively that the only reason for not making films in Canada was lack of dollars.
Air Marshal Lord Tedder had to come in from his country place two hours out of London to be “Karshed.” He had been reluctant to have himself photographed in the first place. And when he arrived, at 8.30 a.m. a few minutes late for the appointment, he introduced himself crisply, thus: “Here
I am, 8.30, and I am late and I hate your guts.” Karsh had particularly wanted to get this picture because, when he was compiling his “Faces of Destiny” collection, Tedder had always been on operations.
So the Karshes, their Chrysler, and I their vast amount of uggage wandered through Britain and the Continent for the three golden months of the past summer. There was little rain, much sun, and an incredible number of celebrities and men of significance to welcome them. There were memorable occasions from Ainola in the north to Vatican in the south.
Reunion in a Monastery
But perhaps the simplest memory , will keep the warmest in the heart of Yousuf Karsh, the boy from Armenia, now man from Canada.
En route from Rome to Venice Karsh decided on a short pause at the Adriatic Island of San Lazzaro, for j George Mardikian of San Francisco had told him that there lived there in an Armenian Monastery a priest from Mardin, the town where Karsh was born.
The two townsmen met by the still, white chapels on the vine-green island with the Adriatic breeze scudding the clouds about the hot sun. The quick, energetic Canadian, in his natty suit, and the slow-moving, long-bearded monk, bis long robes swinging, hurried to embrace each other like long-lost brothers. “Yousuf Karsh!” “Father Sarkissian.”
They remembered the Arabic they had always spoken as children in the mountain village of Mardin, they remembered the echo of the massacres, and the taste of melons—there were nowhere in the world melons like the melons of Mardin!
Even after 30 years Yousuf Karsh could taste them, sitting there at the common refectory table of the sunbright dining room of' the San Lazzaro Monastery, having bread and milk. The peace of the place somehow bridged the years, and the sorrows, the struggles and joys, to that other world and other life that was no more and could never be again.