Published August 22, 2003
Jóhannes Kjarval is one of those names in Icelandic art that made it even to the briefest of brief tourist brochures, and not only because he, just like his literary Nobel-prize-winning counterpart, uses a surname that is easier to remember than the usual patronymic.
At the beginning of 20th century and along with Þórarinn B. Þorláksson and Ásgrímur Jónsson, Kjarval was one of the first Icelanders to devote themselves fully to painting. He followed the usual route of Icelandic artists of that time: studied in Copenhagen, travelled to Italy and Germany but returned regularly to Iceland and eventually settled down in Reykjavík for good in 1922. In his work, however, Kjarval ignored the mainstream twists and turns of his times and developed his very own characteristic style.
The texture of his paintings evokes the texture of tight-growing moss tuft or loose locks of wool, and the freedom he takes in handling the paintbrush brings to mind the swirling outlines of El-Greco’s figurative painting four centuries ago. A milky mist of pale cobalt blue seems to veil the colours in most of Kjarval’s oil paintings, in particular those that take their inspiration in the realm of the supernatural. Visions of the supernatural side of the Icelandic landscape and the semi-visible beings that inhabit it play an important role in Kjarval’s work, in addition to realistic landscape paintings and portraits.
Kjarval donated a large collection of his works to the city of Reykjavik and part of this collection now makes up the permanent exhibition at Kjarvalsstadir, an art gallery built in 1973 primarily as a place to house the donated paintings. Acqusitions through donations and purchases followed and the collection now proudly states the incredible number of 5000 works. Kjarval’s works can also be found in private collections, they decorate a number of churches and are owned by companies and institutions. Landsbankinn, for example, presented their collection of 40 paintings at the Culture Night festival on August 16, and had considerable difficulties keeping the crowds of art-hungry visitors at bay, which only proves what popularity the artist still enjoys among the general public. A double en-suite with some Cubism, please
An opportunity to see works owned by an individual is at the moment offered by the art gallery of the city of Kópavogur, a suburban area of Reykjavík. The works come from the private collection of Þorvaldur Guðmundsson and his wife Ingibjörg. Þorvaldur was a successful businessman who conveniently consolidated the profitable business of food proccessing and an individual’s love for art, and his collection reads like a list of the most prominent Icelandic artists of the first half of 20th century. Fortunately, the works are not shut behind the draped windows of the family’s living room: Over 300 of them, for example, decorate the public areas and private rooms of Hotel Holt in Reykjavík, built in 1965 by Þorvaldur and his wife and today owned and operated by his family.
The works presented at Kópavogur art gallery include some of Kjarval’s masterpieces, such as The Course of Life, a mural from the artist’s studio at Austurstræti, where Þorvaldur actually made frequent visits in the 1930s. The mural was painted in 1933 and has been presented to the public only three times since. Other well known exhibits include a portrait of the artist’s daughter Ása and portrait of Erró, an Icelandic painter famous for his pop-art compositions and their outspoken political message. A woman’s touch: Steel and stone
Kópavogur art gallery is also known under the name of Gerðarsafn, literally Gerður’s collection. The name refers to Kópavogur’s collection of the works by Gerður Helgadóttir, an Icelandic sculptor who died in 1975 at the age of 47, and whose 1400 works, donated to the gallery two years later, gave the impetus to the rise of the gallery building. Gerður Helgadóttir chose to work with form and material that was rather unusual for a female artist to adopt: instead of filling the ceramics oven with carefully glazed miniatures, she worked with metal, stained glass and concrete, and instead of producing cute mantle-piece statuettes, she was the pioneer of abstract art sculpture in Iceland. Like many Icelandic artists, Helgadóttir played an active role in the continental art scene: She studied in Italy, lived in France and cooperated with workshops in Germany. Her metal sculptures are strictly geometrical, often reminiscent of clear-cut mineral formations. The influence of a trip to Egypt in 1966 showed itself in a more robust form and the adoption of concrete and clay as material, both of which takes inspiration in the monumental art of ancient Egypt.
Gerður’s sculptures can be found in many public places in Iceland. Her stained glass windows decorate, among other buildings, the Kópavogur church and the church of Skálholt, and a large wall mosaic decorates the Customs House at the Reykjavík harbour, a building that is probably better known for housing the largest flea-market in Iceland. Despite the fact that her works are so easily accessible and so openly on display, or perhaps because of it, Gerður Helgadóttir is an artist whose name not too many are familiar with. Gerðarsafn is the ideal place to give the lack of knowledge a considerable patch, and a well-worth reward for the fifteen-minute strætó ride to Kópavogur.