Published September 6, 2017
Þrándur Þórarinsson is a notable painter who has more than once caught Icelanders’ attention with his often sharp and grim view of national folklore and the city of Reykjavík. His powerful painting of the primeval figure Grýla has also impressed the rest of the world. He also painted Björk for the cover of Grapevine, and in our previous issue’s cover depicted, in a very effective way, the new reality of tourism in iceland.
Hugleikur Dagsson, ‘Beastie,’ crayons and pencil on paper, 1990.
The first, and arguably greatest, artistic influence in my life came from my first cousin, Hugleikur Dagsson. We would draw together as kids, and whenever we lived far apart I eagerly awaited the moment we would meet again and compare sketchbooks. My mother brought me this drawing of his at a time when I was living in Norway, and we had it framed and hung on the wall where it stayed well over a decade. I believe it to be among his earliest surviving drawings and I dare say it’s a fairly representative work for this period.
Agnolo di Cosimo aka. Bronzino, ‘Venus and Cupid,’ Oil on Panel, 1546.
As a teenager I would seek out great drawings and draftsmen, mostly in comics and role-playing art, but eventually it dawned on me that the greatest draftsmen of them all were these so-called old masters. I read “Aldateikn” (1974), a history of western art written by Björn Th. Björnsson (godfather to the field of art history in Iceland), with images in black and white, and was completely captivated. I particularly favoured the passage explaining this famous allegory by the Florentine mannerist Bronzino. This painting is densely layered with obscure symbols and references that have eluded art historians to this day, although Björn had no trouble figuring it all out. The idea that a seemingly incomprehensible painting like this could be “deciphered” appealed to me and thus started my undying love affair with the old masters.
Odd Nerdrum, ‘Death of Andreas Baader,’ Oil on canvas, 1978.
In this early masterpiece by my mentor Odd Nerdrum, we see the supposed murder of Andreas Baader, one of the leaders of the terrorist organisation Red Army Faction, in the Stammheim Prison in 1977. According to official sources, Baader committed suicide in prison, but rumours quickly spread that he had been murdered by secret agents. I was very taken with this picture when I saw it as a young man—the pronounced tenebrism and strong composition coupled with contemporary and controversial subject matter really struck a chord that has reverberated in my mind ever since. I quite like the fact that the painting depicts a speculative event. It is often stated that naturalistic oil painting became obsolete with the advent of the camera, but this painting showed me how well it’s suited for hypothetical depictions.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, ‘In bed,’ Oil on cardboard, 1893.
Lautrec’s work attracted me at an early age due to it’s superb draftsmanship and colouring, and its often seedy nightlife subject matter had a particular appeal. Henri painted numerous scenes from the brothel where he lived for weeks at a time, and among the most puzzling are his intimate and delicate portrayals of lesbian lovers. In the Belle Époque of Paris there was no shortage of titillating lesbian imagery, but in Henri’s treatment of this subject we are faced with plump, plain women, washed out, past their prime, showing each other tenderness and care. Living in the brothel he would see them clinging together for solace and affection. Outcasts from society, much like himself. You don’t generally get much affection in Lautrec—he is not a sentimental artist—but he gets sentimental and affectionate when he paints his lesbians in love.
Käthe Kollwitz, ‘Woman with Dead Child,’ Etching, 1903.
I first encountered Käthe Kollwitz’s works as a child, looking through my parents’ bookshelf, and this encounter turned into a life-long fascination. Most of her works depict the hardships suffered by the working class. Themes of war and poverty dominate her oeuvre, and images of women grieving dead children are a recurring theme—an experience that Kollwitz suffered herself when her son died in WWI. Kollwitz’s exploration of human suffering amounted to a damning verdict of social conditions in Germany. This particular image is atypical for her in that all external references have been omitted. There is no clue as to the setting, or identity of these figures—even their clothes have been left out. This is stark naked grief, boiled down to its bare essentials. Käthe has underscored the primal element in this work by giving the women slightly ape-like features.
Read the makings of more artists here.