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Sibelius Monument turns 50: From vision of "drunk photographer's wife" to tourist hotspot

When artist Eila Hiltunen won the Sibelius Monument competition with her design for an abstract sculpture, she became the subject of a torrid hate campaign. Fifty years later, her tubular steel memorial stands strong as one of the top tourist destinations in Helsinki.

Eila Hiltunen ja Sibelius-monumentti.
Eila Hiltunen after the unveiling of the Sibelius Monument, on 8 September 1967. Image: Otso Pietinen

Artist Eila Hiltunen won the design competition for a memorial to Finland's world-renowned composer Jean Sibelius in 1962. To the considerable consternation of many of the beloved musical genius' most devoted fans, the winning monument was to be an abstract piece made up of 600 steel tubes.

"People wanted a statue like the ones outside the Parliament, a regal likeness with a score in his hands. They didn't understand that a monument could also be modern art, a work that could speak to people in a different way," says the artist's daughter, Piia Virtanen.

The indignant crowd strongly opposed Hiltunen's vision. Dozens wrote in to the jury to demand that the competition be annulled. The content of the missives were ruthless in their condemnation.

"The people of Finland don't want that monstrosity of Hiltunen's, that jumble of junk that some drunk photographer's wife has thought up" one letter read, while another called her design "the work of an insane person".

Eila kept her head high

The artist was also the target of a hate campaign that reached her personal address. She received irate letters and packages filled with excrement. The postal service eventually stepped in to censure some of the more questionable mail to her home.

"There was no social media in those days, but it was still possible to torment people. People played mean tricks and said awful things," Piia Virtanen says.

Fortunately, Eila Hiltunen believed in herself and kept her head high. She had seen a dream as a child that wouldn't let her be.

"A glittering, scabrous spacecraft landed over her bed, communicating something to her in Swedish. In the Sibelius Monument competition, Mum knew what she wanted to do. She began to weld steel pipes together," explains her son, Markku Pietinen.

She worked long days on the sculpture in the same industrial hall in Lauttasaari where Aimo Tukiainen once created the equestrian bronze statue of Marshal Mannerheim that looks out over Helsinki's Mannerheim Square.

Ykityiskohta Sibelius-monumentista
A close-up of the sculpture. Image: Janne Lindroos / Yle

Art came first

"Mum was strong, determined and very self-centred. She knew what she wanted out of life. Art came first, family and rest was far behind," says her daughter.

Arriving home after a long day at the hall, Eila would smell of metal and welding gas. She would head straight for the bathtub, to soak and forget about the day's worries. 

"It was a very intensive time and Mum just wasn't tuned into us. She was thinking about the next stage of her work and how to push past the problems that had arrived," Virtanen says.

On one issue, Hiltunen has to give ground. She was obliged to add a sculpted relief of the Finnish composer's face to the sculpture to appease her vocal critics.

Hiltunen hahmottamassa kasvokuvaa.
The artist works on her relief of the famous Finnish composer. Image: Otso Pietinen

"She had no choice. It was added to the terms after the competition. It was the easiest part of the work for her, but also the most unpleasant," says her son.

A sexist invitation

When the 24-tonne monument was officially unveiled on 7 September 1967, Hiltunen met several distinguished visitors, including the President Urho Kekkonen, his wife Sylvi, and Sibelius's daughters.

Her own invitation to the event was addressed to Mrs Otso Pietinen, as was the protocol during that era.

An exhibition of photographs tracing the 50-year history of the Sibelius Monument takes place at the Helsinki Music Centre starting September 7.

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