From Iceland — Outside and Off the Grid

Outside and Off the Grid

Published July 13, 2007

Outside and Off the Grid

“In the incessant, obtrusive drone of our technological age, we sometimes begin to yearn for whatever is original, simple, and sincere in existence – for anything that is genuine.” So begins the introduction to Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson´s book “Naive and Fantastic Art in Iceland,” published by Iceland Review in 1989. If Aðalsteinn was feeling alienated from technology in 1989, I can only imagine how he’s coping now. I’m guessing that Myspace, mobile phones and the whole technological grid is leaving him yearning for a simpler life – much like it has done to Miss Hilton and Richie. But he was right, of course. We seem to want simple and original things, a break from the mass-produced uniform culture that surrounds us. Why mass produced culture even exists is a paradox I won’t even try to explain – mainly because I do not know the answer, and also because it would make me look more foolish than I already do.

Aðalsteinn´s book focuses on Icelandic naive or ‘outside’ painters, profiling 11 artists. Most of them are fairly unknown to the average Icelander who never steps into a gallery or a museum. That is, of course, part of their “outsideness” – they are outside the conventional art scene. Then again it could be argued that the whole art scene is outside of almost everything except itself, at least it does not seem to be a part of the mainstream discourse in Icelandic society. So naive or outside artists truly are outside. They are outside a cultural niche, that is, outside of the common culture.

But how does one recognise this type of art? To define it is almost as hard as defining beauty – it is in the eye of the beholder and all that. The simplest explanation is that naive art is created by untrained artists: it is simple and it lacks the quality found in the works of formally trained artists. Trying to define quality is equal to finding a towel for sale in downtown Reykjavík – next to impossible so let’s leave the definition like this: you’ll recognize it when you come across it.

The biggest name in the naive Icelandic painting world is, or more accurately was, Stefán from Möðrudalur. Stefán was an eccentric farmer from one of the most remote farms in Iceland, Möðrudalur, approximately midway between Egilsstaðir and Akureyri. He was a colourful character, often seen riding around on a bike with his paintings, stopping here and there and putting up a show and selling his pieces. He mostly painted the same motives over and over again, the mountain Herðubreið (often called the queen of Icelandic mountains) or other landscapes from his home tracts in Möðrudalur. Horses were prominent in his paintings – often specific horses that Stefán owned, like the stallion Burstafells-Blesi which was the motive for a controversial painting which got Stefán arrested. The painting, named Vorleikur or “Spring Play”, shows the stallion mating with a mare. Stefán put the painting up on Lækjartorg on one of his shows and the police promptly showed up and arrested him. Reykjavík in the sixties was a prude town.

Iceland has produced some naive musicians as well as painters. The king of outsiders music in Iceland is the country artist Hallbjörn Hjartarson who lives in the small northern town Skagaströnd. Since he released his first album in 1981, aptly named Kántrí 1 or “Country 1”, he has been relentless in trying to introduce country and western music and culture to Iceland. He runs a Texas style restaurant called Kántríbær (Country-Town), complete with swinging doors and wagon wheels. In the restaurant there is also a miniscule country museum. Hallbjörn´s country music is simple in form and style. Many songs sound the same with only the lyrics, which he writes himself, changed. The lyrics are truly naive, one song details the comic book character Lucky Luke and another Hallbjörn’s dog, Hugo.

It is a surreal experience stepping into Kántríbær. Equally surreal is meeting Hallbjörn, all dressed in cowboy clothes with a big brimmed hat in the middle of nowhere Iceland. He is original and sincere in his quest to bring the Wild West to rural Iceland. So are his songs and his albums. Hallbjörn felt that he was so outside the musical culture that he was forced to open up his own radio station in 1992, which played only country music, often his own. For 16 years he endured, losing money every year. Last year he gave up and moved it entirely online and, according to its web site, it receives about 500 hits a day. It is fitting that the technological grid that, according to Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson, fuels our want for simple artists like Hallbjörn, is providing the same artists with a creative outlet. Maybe we need the mass-produced cultural hegemony to allow us to spot the simple and original things in contrast. What do I know? Go ask Paris…

Check out Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson’s book at the local library. Browse Hallbjörn Hjartarson’s web and listen to Radio Country-Town online at:

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