Art is a contested space in ‘The Perfect Landscape.’ Public sculptures are graffitied over, a bucket of red paint is sloshed on a museum wall, windows are smashed at an installation, and art experts x-ray and scrape at their gallery’s new marquee acquisition, discovering a hidden painting just beneath the surface.
‘The Perfect Landscape,’ originally published in 2009, is the fourth novel by former Morgunblaðið art critic Ragna Sigurðardóttir and the first to be translated into English (by Sarah Bowen and released by Amazon Crossing last autumn as part of its foray into the Icelandic translation market). Ragna seems to have bestowed some of her own backstory on her heroine, Hanna, an art historian educated and apprenticed on the continent who returns to Iceland at the start of the book (much like the author, a decade prior). Hanna takes a job at a project space within a municipal gallery, and Ragna follows her thoughts in present tense narration always alive to body language and ulterior motives—Hanna’s fencing hobby makes an ever-ready metaphor for her advances and retreats, always en garde through social interactions as fraught as any canvas.
The status of an oil painting, “The Birches,” given to the gallery by a donor their boss is cultivating a relationship with, soon becomes the after-hours project of Hanna and a handsome coworker who believe it to be a long-lost late-‘30s landscape by the renowned Guðrún Jóhannsdóttir (seemingly modeled on Nína Tryggvadóttir). Questions about its mysterious provenance lurk literally just below its surface, but the primary milieu of ‘The Perfect Landscape’ is not the world of high-stakes international art forgery, but one more prosaic, if just as tense: the overlapping responsibilities, misleading job descriptions, axes of communication, back-channel workflow and territorial pissing of a small office. And in a small country, too, as repatriated Hanna also contends with her culture shock (“There is more stress here than in Amsterdam, despite the lack of punctuality”). But Hanna’s wariness begins to thaw with Iceland’s winter.
Perception is a key theme: a coworker’s eye ailment is a key plot point, and though it leads to some forced drama, it’s also one of many moments when new information leads to subtle but definite shifts in Hanna’s understanding of others. Perception is reality, up to a point: parallel chapters, set during the banking boom, trace ‘The Birches’ through an art market where paintings, like other investment assets, become status symbols of inflated value. At the gallery, an art restorer scoffingly quotes a recent newspaper ad: “Wanted: a Kjarval painting, in beautiful colors.” Ragna also muses on aesthetics, considering forged art’s subjective value to its anonymous overpainters even as Hanna and the reader receive a crash course in the engrossing technical details of art authentication.
Ragna’s specialist knowledge is one of the book’s chief pleasures: her recounting of the logistics of art-show logistics and professional networks is instructive and absorbing. She has Hanna reflect sentimentally on the nostalgic value, personally and nationally, of figurative painting, but also locates ‘30s abstract painters and contemporary conceptual artists within their movements with the same easy authority that allows her to blend invented and historical art figures.
At its best though, ‘The Perfect Landscape’ is a dividend of Ragna’s intense attention to the present tense—an attention she herself may wish us to think of as essentially painterly. Early in the book, Hanna sits down on a bench in the woods below Perlan and remembers how, “[f]ive hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci wrote about the nuances of light in nature, about sunlight dappling on leaves, on the surface of running water. How smoke rising from a bonfire in a forest cleaning has a bluish tinge against the dark background. Such as this forest floor. The smoke is bluest if the timber is dry and if the sun’s rays reach it, Leonardo wrote, and his words capture a fleeting moment from long ago.”