The name Erró is often followed by the phrase “Iceland’s most famous artist,” a custom which can leave the uninitiated perhaps feeling a little under-informed, or even philistine. After all, Erró’s work isn’t given the unmissable civic prominence awarded, say, to Miró or Gaudí by Catalonia.
Thankfully the Reykjavík Art Museum is perfectly placed to bring the unenlightened into Erró’s warm glow, given that it possesses over four thousand pieces of his work. The newly-opened ‘Raw Power’ exhibit displays a selection of these alongside work from 15 other Icelandic artists, encouraging the viewer to draw comparisons, discover connections and witness Erro’s influence on the collective creativity of his native culture.
Pop art brought into its flamboyant baroque
Erró left Iceland as a young man to study art, eventually relocating to New York in 1964 where he befriended pop-artsters Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, and began to develop his own style of painted collage appropriation. Later on, he ventured back across the Atlantic to find himself appropriated by European creative culture, eventually becoming subsumed by the French art scene while residing in Paris.
Birgir Snæbjörn Birgisson—Reykjavík artist, and erstwhile technician at the Reykjavík Art Museum—curated ‘Raw Power’ at the request of his former employer. He remembers being lectured on Erró when he was an art student in France.
“I was studying in Strasbourg at the time,” he recalls. ”They were covering the French art scene, and Erró was mentioned. By chance, the professor remembered that I was in the class, and pointed out to the class that actually Erró was Icelandic. And that told me how embedded he was in the French art scene.”
Art philosopher Arthur Danto once described Erró as “bringing pop art into its flamboyant baroque,” a description which further cemented his place in the continental European tradition (and reportedly delighted Erró). This appropriation by other cultures—and Erró’s absence from Iceland for most of his life—have perhaps tended to foster the perception of a remove between the artist and his homeland.
“I never felt that the separation was at his request,” says Birgir. “I mean, he regularly gives his works to the City of Reykjavík. When the decision was made to house his archive here and have a permanent show, maybe the separateness comes from that. Maybe it’s because mixing him with other artists was never an option, until now.”
The chance for ‘Raw Power’ arose when the museum announced similar shows focussing on Icelandic painter Jóhannes S. Kjarval, and Icelandic sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson. The Erró exhibit completes this triptych.
“I had pointed out the idea behind ‘Raw Power’ to the museum a few times, and I’m not the only one,” Birgir points out. “Hopefully this exhibition will open up the chance for more Erró shows tackling narrower themes, such as politics.”
Iggy pop art
The show is named after a small post-pop-art collage produced by Erró in 2009, featuring an appropriated cartoon depiction of Detroit musician Iggy Pop. Fittingly then, the title of the exhibition is itself an appropriation. ‘Raw Power’ is the title of the third album released by Iggy and his band, The Stooges, a record that was hugely influential on punk and on which Iggy famously claimed the title “world’s forgotten boy”. ‘Raw Power’ was Kurt Cobain’s favourite album—a love shared by Birgir.
“It didn’t start with the title, of course, but the title came soon and it hit the tone,” he reflects. “Power is something I’d say that we all relate to when we think of Erró’s work, and the rawness is maybe the extra spice to it.”
Juxtaposed with Erró
The work of the fifteen chosen artists in Raw Power is interspersed with that of Erró himself, arranged in ways that encourage the viewer to make connections and draw threads between pieces.
The presence of Erró’s ‘The Tomato Soup’ in the exhibition gives a clear nod to arguably the world’s most famous piece of pop art—Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’—and is a reminder of Erró’s role in that scene. Erró produced his own soupy opus the year after his partner-in-appropriation Warhol put his cans on display. In doing so Erró not only cheekily re-appropriates an appropriation, but also draws our attention to a piece rooted firmly on the other side of the Atlantic—serving up a reminder of his lack of concern with concepts of artistic nationality.
Þórdís Aðalsteinsdóttir’s ‘Shrimp Cocktail’ is hung next to Erró’s ‘The Tomato Soup’. The works are connected in an uncomfortably visceral way through the naked, pink shellfish of Þórdís’ work echoing the exposed human intestines laid bare by Erró.
Seafood is one of Iceland’s cultural touchstones and, in addition to Þórdís’ shrimps, fishy motifs are repeated around the room. Pieces by Helgi Þorgils Friðjónsson and Arngrímur Sigurðsson—depicting blue lobsters and cephalophilia, respectively—both echo the cycle of human and piscine death portrayed in Erró’s painting ‘Green Mother’.
Icelandic Creative Diaspora
Reflecting the idea of an Icelandic creative diaspora, a couple of decades ago Icelandic artist Sara Riel went to Germany. ‘Mausfrau’—one of her contributions to ‘Raw Power’—represents her time dodging the polizei as a tagger in Berlin. She now divides her time between Reykjavík and Athens, but even during her Berlin period Sara’s connection to her homeland remained strong.
“I don’t ever want not to be an Icelandic artist,” Sara explains as she sits in the Greek sunshine. “That’s why I moved back to Iceland from Berlin. I wanted to write this into my own cultural history.”
When asked about Erró’s influence, Sara says that the generational gap between the master and the younger artists creates more of a remove than any geographical situation.
“I think Erró has influenced us all,” she suggests, “even though we don’t want to admit it. He’s like a grandfather to us, which makes him something of a distant character.”
Lukas Bury, another ‘Raw Power’ artist, is a new Icelander with Polish-German roots. His self-portrait ‘Lithuania, My Fatherland!’ sees him dressed in a traditional Icelandic sweater, surveying an Icelandic landscape.
The title, etched into the painting in Polish, is from a 19th century poem by Adam Mickiewicz. The poem touches on the notion of national borders—and identities—shifting due to politics and conflict. Mickiewicz considered himself to be Lithuanian, but from a modern perspective he would be Belarusian.
“But then Mickiewicz wrote in Polish,” Lukas expands, “and he is a national poet of all of those countries. So already his artistic identity is pretty complex.”
To connect Lukas’ work with an overtly political aspect of Erró, Birgis places it next to ‘United Army’, one of Erró’s appropriations of Maoist propaganda.
“This is about creating, or rewriting, history through painting,” Lukas says of the connection between the works. “Mao is visiting Venice; something that never happened. But it is something that could have happened if world history had gone a different way.”
Erró—the world’s acclaimed artist
Iggy Pop may lay claim to being “the world’s forgotten boy,” but through ‘Raw Power’ Erró reinforces his legacy as Iceland’s most globally-recognisable artist. Having said that, his blazing the trail for an Icelandic creative diaspora renders such definitions redundant. Erró’s energy, power and influence extend beyond descriptions of nationality to exist universally.
The Raw Power exhibit will be at the Reykjavík Art Museum, Hafnarhús, until May 30th.
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