Published August 8, 2003
It seems that once an Icelander gets his hands on a paintbrush or a chisel, there is no stopping him. The same hunger for new discoveries that drove Icelanders to the American shore a thousand years ago forces their 20th century offspring to take untrodden paths in art and inevitably become the enfants terribles of all conservative still waters. In 1944, for example, the municipality of the little town of Vejle in Denmark decided to pay for the sculptures they had commissioned for the city hall but wished they had never set them up, indeed, they would best like to see the sculptures sunk to the bottom of the sea. The expected outcome is, of course, the sculptures standing now where they were meant to stand, being Velje’s main tourist attraction.
The creator of these sculptures is the Icelandic sculptor Sigurjón Ólafsson. He was born on the south coast but soon moved to Reykjavík, where he received artistic training from the best Icelandic artists of the time before proceeding to Denmark for further education. Neither Denmark nor Iceland was a bed of roses for a man of innovative ideas and it took time and effort for the artist to get his art recognized by art critics and the public alike.
Sigurjón Ólafsson’s art covers an incredible range of material, technique and style. The artist seems to be searching high and low for the most appropriate means of expression sculpture can offer for each particular work, eagerly and without discrimination. The material and the resulting effect are inseparably interconnected, depending on and influencing each other. The two portraits of the Icelandic painter Ásgrímur Jónsson, one carved in stone and the other a metal cast originally modelled in clay, traces of which are still visible in the surface structure of the sculpture, are textbook examples of how two works of an identical model can differ depending on the different kinds of material used.
Stylistically Sigurjón’s work ranges from realism through the simplified forms of cubism to abstract art. Cubism is particularly prominent in Sigurjón’s stone carving, while the metal sculptures of sportsmen and the plaster casts from 1930s acquire a rounded shape of melted material. In 1939 Sigurjón presented his first fully abstract work, which was a sign of the artist’s discovery of a new media, wood, and one of the many wooden sculptures that followed, some of them abstract, others inspired by primitive art. In mid-1950s the harsh working conditions of the artist’s studio took their toll on Sigurjón’s health and the artist was diagnosed with major lung problems that eventually resulted in tuberculosis.
The event did not, however, dampen the artist’s creative energy. On the contrary, it lead to a new chapter in Sigurjón’s art as he was introduced to the technique of metal welding at the TBC sanatorium’s workshop. The sculptures that follow are abstract works, the shapes of which are a clear reminder of the fact that the first Nordic emissaries to Iceland were not humans but two high seat pillars washed ashore on the spot that was to become Iceland’s first settlement. It has been actually commented on elsewhere that the vertical form of a pillar makes recurrent appearances in Sigurjón’s work and the sculpture that is located in front of the famed Reagan-Gorbachov rendezvous building, Höfði, is indeed called High Seat Pillars.
The very first minutes an art-inclined tourist spends in Reykjavík actually provide a nutshell tour through the variety of Sigurjón’s work: having been deposited from the airport bus in front of Hotel Saga, the visitors are confronted with another abstract monument of welded metal, Emblem of Iceland, finished in 1973. A ten-minute walk to the other side of the Pond leads to the National Gallery of Iceland, where two very different works are on display. The bronze cast of The Football Player (1936) is one of the works that explore the liquid-like forms reminiscent of the work of Jean Arp. The colour of the air-exposed metal and the shape of the sculpture bring to mind the image of the antique sculptures scattered on the bottom of the
Mediterranean Sea and thus create a curious contrast to the thoroughly modern topic of the sculpture. The armless look was actually not the artist’s original intention, as an earlier version of the sculpture shows, but a later alteration the sculpture itself seemed to demand as it was taking shape. The other sculpture in front of the gallery is The Viking (1951), a work of totally different material and technique: a stone carving that was created by subtracting the mass instead of forming it the way a metal cast mould is created. The Viking shows a shape quite typical for Sigurjón’s stone carvings, as it suggests a real-like form in its outlines but at the same time remains under the spell of the rectangular shape of the original block of stone, like an insect trapped in a drop of golden amber.
Several other sculptures by Sigurjón are located at various places in Reykjavík. The largest concentration of the artist’s works, however, can be found at Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum, a place quite different from the monstrous classical museums of mainland Europe. The building was originally the artist’s studio, located on a patch of wild land simply forgotten by the land administration authorities, and it was converted into a museum at the initiative of the artist’s widow, Birgitta Spur. Conveniently situated far from the maddening crowds, the museum offers a unique combination of pleasure and education. On my last visit to the museum I could enjoy the peace and quiet of a sunny Saturday afternoon, with the sea splashing against the promontory’s rugged shore, wild geese waddling among the outdoor do-touch-the-exhibits and Birgitta Spur, the museum’s manager, weeding the lawn in front of the building.
The amazing view of the open sea can also be admired from the museum’s cafeteria, which in addition provides a selection of publications to leaf through, including the comprehensive two-volume artist’s biography and, as it is good manners in most Icelandic museums, a large compilation of articles that document the reception of Sigurjón’s art by the Danish and Icelandic press over more than fifty years. The current exhibition at the museum focuses on portraits and abstract works and gives visitors the opportunity to see some of the works that brought the artist fame and recognition, such as the portrait of the artist’s mother or the primitive art inspired Queen of the Mountains.
The captivating atmosphere at Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum together with the art works on display are sure to make for an enjoyable afternoon outing. And for those who do not feel like going back to the manic downtown Reykjavík in the evening the museum offers a series of classical music concerts, giving the visitors’ ear and eye equal enjoyment at the same time.