From Iceland — Casting A Light On The Artist

Casting A Light On The Artist

Published December 14, 2011

A visit to the Hjálmar R. Bárðarson’s photo exhibition at Þjóðminjasafn Íslands

Casting A Light On The Artist

A visit to the Hjálmar R. Bárðarson’s photo exhibition at Þjóðminjasafn Íslands

Few documents bring a nation’s history and lost beauty more vividly and nostalgically to life than a photograph.  In this regard, Iceland lives in the debt of perhaps its most prolific historian in the photographic medium, Hjálmar Rögnvaldur Bárðarson (1918–2009), a selection of whose black and white photographs is currently on display at the National Museum.

Hjálmar Barðarson is certainly not unknown to Icelanders: his ‘Ísland farsælda Frón’ (1953) was the first book of photographs of this country to be published by a single photographer, and he went on to publish eleven more.  He is best known for his later books, especially ‘Ice And Fire’, and ‘The Birds Of Iceland.’

This exhibit honours the bequest to the Museum of the artist’s 300.000 colour and 70.000 black and white photographs following his death two years ago. It represents a first attempt at making public a massive collection of images that chronicles Iceland as a land and as a nation over the almost 80 years of Hjálmar´s photographic career.

The exhibit features black and white photographs from the 1930s to 1970s, beginning with a voyage he made in 1939 to the desolate Hornstrandir district of his native Westfjords, where he documented the rough beauty of an area that in coming years was to suffer depopulation. These are matched by later photographs of the deserted district from the 1970s that poignantly evoke the triumph of nature over human habitation.

Most eye-catching in the exhibit are his arresting photographs of the eruptions of Surtsey (1963) and Vestmanneyjar (1973), especially the scenes of houses crushed and buried by the unstoppable advance of lava and volcanic rubble.

Hjálmar had a successful career as a marine engineer, but he photographed as an amateur.  The engineer’s preciseness is evident in the annotations he made to each photograph, giving the date, place, and name of the persons photographed—an inestimable gift to future historians of the land.  The amateur nature of his enterprise allowed him great freedom to experiment in artistic ways, for example in the sculptural use of strong light and shadow in his portraits of artists and industrial tradesmen from the 1950s.

“In this exhibition,” says curator Ágústa Kristófersdóttir, “we are trying to cast a light on him as an artist as well as a documentary photographer.”

My personal favourite from the exhibit is the exquisitely balanced ‘Boat on the Beach at Arnarfjörður 1938,’ a simple but strongly composed study of two boats, one beached in the foreground, and its photographic echo moored at a contrasting angle off shore in the middle distance, leading the eye diagonally, with promise, to the mountain valley across the fjord.

This fascinating exhibition will hopefully stimulate further interest in one of this country’s most remarkable photographers, and the moving tribute that his work pays to his native Iceland.

Exhibit open until April 8, 2012. Tuesdays – Sundays, 11:00 to 17:00. Closed Mondays.

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