Written In Stone: The Statue Walk Around Reykjavík

Written In Stone: The Statue Walk Around Reykjavík

Photos by
Art Bicnink
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Published May 18, 2016

There are many ways to get to know a city. Some chose to check out the flavour of the local restaurants and bars, while others prefer to go on shopping sprees for a hand-knitted lópapeysur (“wool sweater”) or a somewhat less authentic toy puffin. But if one wants to delve a little deeper and learn something about a nation, the best and fastest way to do that is to experience the art displayed around the city. It’s a less populist option, but the ones that try it will get a rewarding crash-course on the history and soul of a nation that has braved the storms of a millennia. This tour of our favorite statues is for those people.

1. The Black Cone, Monument to Civil Disobedience (2012) – Santiago Sierra

Location: Austurvöllur, in front of Alþingi

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This sculpture was unveiled to mark the anniversary of the Pots and Pan Revolution, and was a part of the artists performance piece commenting on the capitalist economy.

2. The Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat (1993) – Magnús Tómasson

Location: Northbank of Tjörnin, by entrance of City Hall

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This sculpture blends together the figurative and abstract to comment on bureaucracy as a whole, and the workers within it. Originally it was located on a pedestal behind Hótel Borg, but in 2012 it was moved to this more fitting location, on the route most of the city’s council people and officials take to go to work. To better portray this idea the bureaucrat was also taken of its pedestal.

3. Tómas Guðmundsson (2010) – Halla Gunnarsdóttir

Location: Westbank of Tjörnin

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Here Tómas Guðmundsson is portrayed as a young man, around the time he published “Fagra Veröld (Beautiful World)”. Tómas was one of the first of poets here in Iceland to see the beauty in the city landscape and was considered “The Reykjavík’s Poet”. This location and portrayal is therefore especially beautiful, because you can sit down with him and take in the view that he is looking at; the town he loved and inspired him, Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík – the school he went to at the same time as Halldór Laxness – and the City Hall were two of his poems are written on the windows.

4. The Spell Broken (1916) – Einar Jónsson

Location: Westbank of Tjörnin

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The main theme of this piece is the inspiration that can be seen in many of the artist’s works; the spiritual evolution and the divine nature of man. Here, Einar references a legend of early christianity in which St. Georg of Cappadocia slayed a dragon who symbolises evil and heathen ways of thinking. The sculpture can also be interpreted as an expression of Einar’s desire to shake of orthodoxy and create his own artistic path.

Perlufestin statue garden, west bank of Tjörnin, Hljómskálagarður
This part of the tour features a statue garden of female artists that was opened on June 19th 2014 to commemorate 99 years of women’s suffrage in Iceland. It got the name Perlufestin (“The Pearl Necklace”) because of the circular position of the sculptures, like a string of pearls.

5. Boy and Girl (Kata and Stebbi) (1968) – Þorbjög Pálsdóttir

Location: East Bank of Tjörnin, “Perlufestin”, Hljómskálagarður

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This sculpture is inspired by the teenagers in the artist’s family, Kata and Stebbi. They are portrayed as a carefree boy leaning against a lamppost while his sister sits still, deep in thought.

6. Man and Woman (1948) – Tove Ólafsson

Location: East Bank of Tjörnin, “Perlufestin”, Hljómskálagarður

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A beautiful depiction of man and a woman in an romantic embrace.

7. Settler (1955) – Gunnfríður Jónsdóttir

Location: East Bank of Tjörnin, “Perlufestin”, Hljómskálagarður

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Here Gunnfríður references the strong Icelandic women depicted the Sagas, who settled this country 1000 years ago. It has also been speculated that she was commenting on female artists who were working within the quite sexist art world of the time.

8. Sculpture (1968) – Gerður Helgadóttir

Location: East Bank of Tjörnin, “Perlufestin”, Hljómskálagarður

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This three-dimensional abstract piece had the objective of working against the mass or pruning the mass. Gerður pioneered the 3D abstract sculpture in Iceland.

9. Son (1920) – Ólöf Pálsdóttir

Location: East Bank of Tjörnin, “Perlufestin”, Hljómskálagarður

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“Son” portrays a young man, his arms thrown wide open to greet life and all its opportunities. The artist once said in an interview that the sculpture symbolises the youth of Iceland, but she dedicated it to her mother.

10. Mermaid (1948) – Nína Sæmundsson

Location: East Bank of Tjörnin, “Perlufestin”, Hljómskálagarður

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Nína used a lot of mythological references in her work, and here depicts the mermaid who lured sailors to her with her song and, ultimately, drowned them in her briny embrace. The original sculpture had been placed for only a few months when it was destroyed by explosion on New Year’s Eve in 1966—probably, because its resemblance to a famous Copenhagen landmark angered the newly independent Icelanders. In 2001 it was put up again by Smáralind shopping mall, then it was given to the city in 2014. Its unveiling was Jón Gnarr’s last official duty as a mayor.

Check out more photos from the Perlufestin statue garden below:

11. (Self Portrait) Thorvaldsen with the Goddess of Hope (1839) – Bertel Thorvaldsen

Location: East bank of Tjörnin, Hljómskálagarður

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This was the first outdoor sculpture in Reykjavík, and was a gift from the city of Copenhagen. Given to Iceland in 1874, it was intended to celebrate Iceland being an inhabited island for 1000 years. The sculpture used to be located on Austurvöllur, and was the first Thorvaldsen sculpture owned by icelanders. It is meant to symbolise Thorvaldsen as an artist downing his tools and relying on the Goddess Of Hope for support. We don’t know what he’s looking at in the distance, but he’s focused. He takes his work seriously.

12. Jónas Hallgrímsson (1905) – Einar Jónsson

Location: East bank of Tjörnin, Hljómskálagarður

Sculpture Tour

This is a sculpture of the poet and naturalist, Jónas Hallgrimsson. Einar was never happy with the statue—it wasn’t perfect enough for him, and didn’t properly show his admiration of the poet, Jónas. The statue is typical of the prevalent style of that time: masculine, and on a pedastal.

13. Adonis (1808) – Bertel Thorvaldsen

Location: Hallargarður (Palace Garden), Fríkirkjuvegur

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This is a cast of the sculpture, which was gifted to Iceland on 1974 to celebrate 1100 years of people inhabiting this little windblown island. The original is in Munich, Germany. Adonis, like many good-looking men after him, had two lovers: Aphrodite and Persephone. Adonis was the God of ground and vegetation and Zeus decided Adonis should be with both lovers. In spring, he would be with Aphrodite bringing the harvest to life. In the autumn, the harvest would die because Adonis would return to Hell to visit Persephone.

14. Boy and Girl (1931-1933) – Ásmundur Sveinsson

Location: Hallargarður (Palace Garden), Fríkirkjuvegur

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Ásmundur started this piece in Paris in 1931, but completed it in Reykjavík. The sculpture is simple, but also marks, significantly, the artist’s shift towards realism. The sculpture shares a title with a Jón Thorodssen novel, which was widely read during Ásmundur’s childhood.

15. Girl (1950) – Ólöf Pálsdóttir

Location: Hallargarður (Palace Garden), Fríkirkjuvegur

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Here we have an interesting depiction of a young girl of an undetermined age. What is interesting about this sculpture is that its body is realistic for a young girl, but the head is too oval shaped to be called normal and doesn’t correspond naturally to the rest of the body. This detail makes a realistic picture of a kneeling young girl intriguing to look at.

16. Motherly Love (1924) – Nína Sæmundsson

Location: Mæðragarður (Mothers Garden), Lækjargata

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This was the first statue in Iceland erected in a public space that was not a monument to a man. Though not particularly innovative at the time, the sculpture was considered to be modest and intimate. This cast was purchased in 1927 and placed in Mother’s Garden on Lækjargata.

17. The Face of the Sun (1961) – Ásmundur Sveinsson

Location: Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík, Lækjargata

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Ásmundur liked creating the symbolism out of the form. Here the circle is the sun, the triangle is the earth and the lines that cut through are the rays of the sun. This piece is an ode to the sun’s precious warmth.

18. Water Carrier (1937) – Ásmundur Sveinsson

Location: Bernhöftstorfan, Lækjargata

Sculpture Tour

Originally, in 1948, the location of this statue was strongly opposed, as Ásmundur’s style was considered controversial in the eyes of Icelanders. It has been in two other locations around Reykjavík, until it was recently moved to here, where it was originally intended. Its pyramid form suggests strength and stability, which is important, since the image depicts the women who carried water year-round to every household in town, whatever the weather.

19. The Musician (1970) – Ólöf Pálsdóttir

Location: Harpa

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This sculpture changes location based on the home of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. It was first erected on Hagatorg in Vesturbær when the orchestra resided there in Háskólabíó. The model was the cellist Erling Blöndal Bengtsson, who played constantly for the artist as she worked on the sculpture. Ólöf later said that she had never enjoyed working on any piece as much as this one, because few models could give so much back. When Harpa was opened the statue was moved there when Erling’s widow requested it. He belongs with the orchestra, so it was the right move.