Published April 14, 2016
“From Iceland’s Frigid Shore, Where Women Vote, Come Wondrous Fairy Tales.” Thus read a headline in the Evening Sun on November 3rd, 1915. The occasion was the first visit by Icelandic painter Guðmundur Thorsteinsson, or Muggur, to New York City. He was not there, however, to exhibit his works. This was in the middle of World War I and the waters around mainland Europe were infested with German submarines. For the first time ever, a trade mission was sent from Iceland, still a Danish dependency, to the still neutral United States to gather supplies for the isolated island nation. The ship Botnia set sail for the New World, carrying on board 5000 barrels of herring to exchange for goods. Leading the mission was the merchant Ólafur Johnson, and he had invited his brother-in-law Muggur along.
As is usual for Icelanders abroad, even in times of crisis, only the best was good enough, and Ólafur and Guðmundur stayed at the Hotel Astor on Times Square, where they soon caught the eye of the local press. The journalist in question was impressed by Muggur’s paintings of large-limbed trolls, and no less impressed by the fact that in Iceland, women could not only paint pictures but houses as well.
A Life in Pictures
When women in the US finally got the right to vote in 1920, much had changed. The war was over, but Iceland, along with many other countries, had been decimated by the Spanish flu pandemic. The by now 29-year-old Muggur had gotten married and divorced again, which drove the previously life-loving artist to depression and drink. However, 1920 also brought the first exhibition of Icelandic painting abroad, in the royal capital of Copenhagen. Five artists were represented, and the one with the most works on display was none other than Muggur.
His good looks had also been put to use in ‘Sons of the Soil’ (‘Saga Borgarættarinnar’), a major Danish motion picture shot in Iceland. It would be released in the following year to good reviews, but film actors at the time were badly paid, and in any case, Muggur preferred to paint. This was not very lucrative either—but Muggur had for a long time been supported by his wealthy father.
Man vs. Horse
Muggur should have been riding high as Iceland’s best-known international actor and painter, but events soon took a different turn. His father became bankrupt, as is often the case with the wealthy in Iceland, and as Muggur was known for giving away his money to friends or the poor, he found it increasingly hard to make his way in the world. In any case, he was not long for it.
In the summer of 1923, his health already deteriorating due to hard living, he was ignobly kicked in the back by his own horse. He never fully recovered, but still made one final trip abroad to France and then Denmark, where he died in early 1924 at the age of 32. His body was sent to Iceland and now rests in the old cemetery by Suðurgata.
But his story was not over. In the first major retrospective of Icelandic art in 1927, also held in Copenhagen, his work was well represented. Paintings from this very exhibition are now on display at the National Gallery of Iceland, overlooking the pond. Here, alongside a host of other artists, you can see Muggur’s paintings of elves and other creatures, his impressions of New York in 1915, as well as more social-realist works depicting such scenes as the one of women carrying coal at the harbour, perhaps his masterpiece.