Old Masters, New Dude - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Old Masters, New Dude

Old Masters, New Dude

Published August 19, 2014

Eating babies, retroactively redesigning Reykjavík, philosophising...all in a day's work!

Rebecca Scott Lord
Photos by
Þrándur Þórarinsson

Eating babies, retroactively redesigning Reykjavík, philosophising...all in a day's work!

He’s young—only 36—but creates his work using the same methods that artists employed hundreds of years ago. His techniques are like those of the Old Masters (even though it’s impossible to say for certain exactly what methods they employed). He paints in oil with turpentine and rabbit skin glue on canvas, old-school style, and uses a steady build-up of layers to craft his images. It takes him anywhere from a few weeks to several months to finish a painting, waiting for each layer he sets down to dry before he starts on the next. His palette is subdued and rich, naturalistic though the subject matter is sometimes fantastic, and always calls upon some facet of Icelandic history or culture.

His subjects have included Grýla, a mythic giantess mentioned in Snorri’s Prose Edda, historical events like the census of Iceland in 1703, and a series imagining Reykjavík “in theory,” had it had the chance to develop like other Scandinavian and Nordic capitals. The traditional bent of his paintings doesn’t prevent him from maintaining a sense of humour. It’s a grim, Icelandic sort of humour, which makes his work all the more apt.

The ‘Reykjavík In Theory’ series strikes a particular chord with many viewers, he tells me over the phone from Copenhagen, where he currently resides. It was partially him goofing around, and partially a comment on the recent surge of construction in the city. “There is so much hideous architecture in Reykjavík that could have been so much better. And it’s mostly going the wrong way, although there are positive signs. It’s getting more hideous by the minute.”

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A cultural historian

Þrándur has tasked himself with painting all these things that never had the chance to be painted. “There is a huge gap in our art history. Everything was dark before the nineteenth century, so I’m just kind of filling in all the paintings that might have been painted before, if there had been decent painters around.” Þrándur was naturally drawn to the themes woven throughout Icelandic culture and history, being half Icelandic and spending half of his time growing up here (the other half of his childhood was spent in Norway). The Icelandic stories, he says, “make for very visually compelling images. Especially in the folklore with all these folklore creatures and things. That’s usually what I go for when I pick a subject, something that will look quite interesting.”

Despite the fact that the rest of the world isn’t overly familiar with Icelandic history and culture, Þrándur says his work seems to have a universal appeal. He gets a lot of Facebook comments on the paintings he posts, more so on the ones with creatures from Icelandic folktales, he notes. His aim for a successful painting is one where it doesn’t matter if people understand the context and history. “When the story is completely contained in the painting, when you can tell by just looking at the painting what has happened, what is about to happen, and what is happening; I always find that quite an achievement. If you can sort of put a whole story in the painting and you don’t need any additional information to see what’s happening, apart from the title, that’s something good.”

Þrándur has found a lot of success in Iceland, despite still being in a relatively early stage of his artistic career. In the year 2008, he first became able to earn a living entirely from selling his art, which is quite an achievement for anyone—especially during that economically tumultuous era. The advent of the internet has also contributed to his success. For whatever reason, his painting of Grýla eating a baby in all her hag-ish glory surfaced on popular web-portal Reddit—unbeknownst to Þrándur—where it received a lot of attention from all over the world, leading to even more acclaim at home. “It seems to be a pattern in Iceland, whenever people in other countries notice something that an Icelander has done, only then do other Icelanders start paying attention.”

Þrándur’s paintings could be construed as illustrations in the vein of the Old Masters’ paintings. Rarely did artists like Leonardo or Titan or Van Eyck create because they were uniquely inspired to. They painted the things they did because their viewer was already familiar with the subject, most of them being commissions. When viewed in this light, Þrándur’s work assumes a purpose akin to that of the stained glass windows of yore, used in churches and cathedrals to tell the illiterate masses what the hell the guy at the front was saying in Latin. These windows and paintings were there to illustrate a story that the audience already knew and could recognize, usually of a religious or historical nature. The major difference with Þrándur’s work, then, is that he’s not being commissioned, and that he does choose stories and themes because he feels inspired by them. In this sense, the crux of his work is that he sticks to what others are already familiar with, instead of inventing his own stories.

He’s not necessarily looking to educate the viewer on his subjects, though. Even if not everyone is familiar with the Icelandic Census of 1703, for example, it doesn’t matter to Þrándur as long as he’s succeeded in making a compelling image. “I’m just happy to paint and make a living from it, that’s my main goal. It’s not often that I feel like, ‘Oh this, I must tell people this, I must convey this in a painting.’ That’s not usually how I go about it. You know every now and then, I feel like I want to. But then again, if I have a message that I feel strongly about getting across, usually I think painting is not the right medium to do so.”

When asked what he thinks of the sentiment that painting is dead, as is sometimes declared by those who credit the invention of photography with killing it, Þrándur responds that’s simply not true. “I think painting is a very powerful medium; you can do a lot of things that photography can’t. And that’s just almost like saying that, you know, movies are dead after the advent of computer games, you know… whatever.” It has its limitations like any medium does, but it also has its unique strengths.

“Painting has been declared dead so many times and always when people think it is, it has a comeback and becomes very fashionable again, and the really big collectors, like Saatchi and those people, all of the sudden they start buying very expensive paintings.” It’s unoriginal to even declare the death of painting anymore, he says, since the sentiment’s been proven wrong over and over again. However, the issue of money in art is a contentious one. Some argue that it has no place in true art, where others argue that art is a commodity like anything else. Þrándur says, “If no one is buying it, if no one can make a living from it, then it automatically gets reduced to a hobby thing.”

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Dropping out

Þrándur’s education in art has been untraditional, or traditional, depending on how you look at it. He attended Listaháskóli Íslands, the Iceland Academy of the Arts, for a year before dropping out. He says: “it wasn’t that much a disagreement, but rather because it was the Old Masterly painting styles that I wanted, and there wasn’t really any place for that in the school. So I just figured I might as well drop out. Nevertheless, I had a good time in school. The social life and the atmosphere were fine, but I wasn’t really learning what I wanted to.” He also says that “they emphasized concept quite a lot there, and I wasn’t comfortable doing that.”

Indeed, it’s clear that to him, technique is more important, though maybe not overwhelmingly so. As he says, “how you arrange it and how you do it is the same as with a movie. Of course, the script is very important, but if you have a lousy director, it’s never going to amount to anything. A very good director could make a great movie out of a lousy script. I think how you make a painting—the formal parts—is more important than the idea behind it, or the motifs. You can have the best motif or idea in the world, but if you haven’t got the skills or the ability to really get it across, then it won’t do you much good.”

Within the art education system Þrándur thinks that students should have a choice and not be forced one way or the other. “I don’t believe that one should sort of come at the cost of the other. I think that everything should be two different schools. So there should be two different departments or something like that within a school. I think there should be a chance, there should be opportunity for people who want to study technique to do so.”

Discussing Iceland’s art academy in particular, he says, “it sort of dominates the whole thing. It’s pretty much the only serious art school. I know a lot of people who went in there, young people that are good draftsmen and enjoy drawing and painting and sort of come out of the school having left all that behind. I’ve seen it quite a few times. And it’s a bit of a shame. If the talents go to waste. But then again, perhaps one can’t blame the art school because, I mean, it’s true that that isn’t what is sort of relevant today, the big thing. Nevertheless, I always think it’s a shame when people are discouraged from doing what they really enjoy.”

The myth, the man, the legend

Þrándur had a choice: assimilate or leave. And so, in 2003, he left. He worked on his own for a while before running into celebrated Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum, the face of the Kitsch Movement, on the street in Reykjavík one day. As he tells it: “I was walking down Laugavegur with a few friends, when I saw him. They sort of dared me into approaching him, so I chased him into Mál og menning [bookstore]. And he was taken aback that I spoke Norwegian, he thought I was a journalist or something. I told him that I was Icelandic and living here, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, come by the house tomorrow.’ And I did and we spoke a bit, and that’s how it started.”

“After he started painting with Odd, people would frequently ask him if he was going to paint his erect penis, too.”

For the next three years or so, Þrándur joined Odd’s informal school of painting. Odd wasn’t a teacher and no one was taking classes, it was more of a mentorship where everyone painted together in his house, the old Reykjavík Library. The best way to learn something is to watch someone better than you do it, and that’s exactly what Þrándur did.

Odd Nerdrum is a strange and talented guy who has inspired some weird stories about what goes on in his informal schools. One of the more persistent rumours is that he would make everybody get naked to do their painting. When asked about this, Þrándur laughed and said, “No we never did that. Though I did pose for him quite a lot. Everybody, all the students posed for him, especially the first-year ones. He would give the senior students a break and let the newcomers do all the heavy posing.”

Although Þrándur says that Odd is very sociable, charismatic and interesting to talk to, he notes that the stories that circulated about him are understandable, given that the posters plastered all over town for his first Icelandic show, at Kjarvalsstaðir, featured his painting “Self-portrait in Golden Cape,” which shows him gazing at the viewer while lifting up his dressing gown, revealing a very erect penis. It’s not a revolutionary thing to paint a penis, even a whopping boner as is depicted in Odd’s piece, but people will make assumptions about anything. Þrándur says that after he started painting with Odd, people would frequently ask him if he was going to paint his erect penis, too.

As he describes it, the way that Þrándur learned from Odd was similar to how the Old Masters learned back in their time. Instead of going to an academy, they’d apprentice with an established artist and learn by observing and practising. Odd usually had young artists from around the world but mainly Americans, Norwegians and Icelanders during Þrándur’s time, and they would paint with him wherever he was in an informal sort of school. He didn’t teach, necessarily, just allowed others to paint with him, giving advice when asked. As is inevitable and natural when working closely with someone whose talents one admires, Þrándur absorbed many of Odd’s painting techniques. Because his goal was to learn techniques, he says, “I never had any sort of problems with that, or with the idea that I should not try to be doing what he’s doing. I wouldn’t paint his motifs, just his style.”

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Since leaving Odd’s artistic company in 2008, Þrándur has moved away from emulating his methods, incorporating them into something that is very much his own. He says it’s quite alright to take your time in finding your style, but that Odd’s perhaps dominates that of his students’ to a greater than desirable extent. Indeed, many of his former students’ work falls into the Kitsch Movement, a movement defined by Odd in his 2000 book ‘On Kitsch’ as the techniques of the Old Masters combined with the motifs of romanticism and emotionally charged imagery, all tied up with a narrative thread. Þrándur says that when going to a Kitsch Biennale, “the paintings are for the most part all very close to each other in look and in subject matter.” To some, it could be difficult to distinguish who did what.”

Þrándur doesn’t quite see himself in that school. There’s too much emphasis on the emotional, too much heartfelt subject matter. It’s kind of like sappy emotional poetry about feelings: fine for some people, not for others. When asked why he wouldn’t want to paint in such a way, he laughs and says, “It’s just that my Icelandic mentality doesn’t fit quite well with it. I don’t know, I’m more into Grýla eating children.” His style certainly draws an influence from Odd, but he’s not copying like a student would. “I guess I’ve pretty much immersed his style into my own. I’m sure that I could spot something that’s very Nerdrum-esque in my paintings now, but style evolves naturally. Sometimes you’ll see a painter that makes a decision to break entirely from what they have done in the past and do something completely new. I’ve never really done that. It’s grown naturally. But I guess my paintings are much less obviously Nerdrum-esque than they were five years ago.”

Philosophising on art 

“I don’t know, I’m more into Grýla eating children.”

Þrándur says he’s fascinated by the idea of originality, having made originality in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries the topic of his recently completed bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Iceland. He says the term wasn’t used in reference to art (be it music, fine art, or literature) much at all before the eighteenth century. He says he “just wanted to learn whether anybody who, for instance, was accused of being unoriginal, though the word did not exist, and if it was seen as a virtue in the creative arts, if something was outstandingly original.” What he found is that it didn’t figure much into the discussion either way, and that competition between artists was more about trying to outdo one another in quality. He found that “stealing ideas from other people was just seen as a natural and positive thing. If they could take an idea and do it better, that would be fine.”

Raphael, one of the greatest Old Masters, is a classic example of the patchwork technique method that was celebrated. As Þrándur explored in his thesis, “in painting, Raphael is often cited as the unoriginal one. He mostly took from Leonardo and Michelangelo and a few others, borrowing the best aspects of their work and combining it into a unified style. None of those aspects were really his, but he just did them really well, and that’s why he became so popular.”

He says he’d like to incorporate his philosophical studies into his paintings, but hasn’t gotten to a point with either to where it would be natural. Right now, he’s starting to think about his master’s thesis in philosophy, but hasn’t quite narrowed down his topic. He’s thinking about immigration, freedom of movement and open borders, but hasn’t actually sat down to write it yet. His motifs and subject matter have all been Icelandic history and mythology, but he says he’d like to channel what he’s been researching for his thesis into a more political vein for his paintings.

He says of his long term goal: “Well, the big ambition for me is to paint a—this is pretentious—but I just want to paint a masterpiece. That’s the thing I’m sort of burning for.” When asked what “masterpiece” means in this regard, he laughs and says: “Wow, a masterpiece… It’s just being very… I can’t define masterpiece, but just painting something I feel like I’ve managed something, or did something really… yeah, did something that I’m very pleased with.”

That goal seems easy enough to attain, but creative people are a notoriously critical lot. He sometimes feels pleased with what he’s done. “But I’m always comparing it to the paintings I love the most and I come up quite short every time.” The ultimate, ultimate goal is to be able to look over all his work as an old man with lucidity and be satisfied that he’s created his masterpiece, however that ends up being defined.

Þrándur On Some Of His Paintings

“Grýla”  The general idea here was to paint Grýla the way she might have looked if she were a real person (as a vagrant, more or less). I thought it would make for a more interesting painting if I would show her having broken into a house, and eating a child right there and then.

“Grýla”
The general idea here was to paint Grýla the way she might have looked if she were a real person (as a vagrant, more or less). I thought it would make for a more interesting painting if I would show her having broken into a house, and eating a child right there and then.

 

“Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir” This work is part of a series (that I never completed) of “cover paintings,” i.e. paintings based on other peoples’ paintings and images. The picture on the back of the 5,000 krónur bill served as the basis for this particular painting. I just thought it was a fascinating image—I especially like the headgear that the ladies are wearing.

“Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir”
This work is part of a series (that I never completed) of “cover paintings,” i.e. paintings based on other peoples’ paintings and images. The picture on the back of the 5,000 krónur bill served as the basis for this particular painting. I just thought it was a fascinating image—I especially like the headgear that the ladies are wearing.

 

“Sunnan til Herðubreiðar” This work belongs to a series, made from the poem "Áfangar" by Jón Helgason, where I made a painting to each verse. This painting corresponds to a verse that describes the hardships endured by one Iceland’s most celebrated outlaws: Fjalla-Eyvindur, who spent winters alone, in a hole in the ground, up in the highlands.

“Sunnan til Herðubreiðar”
This work belongs to a series, made from the poem “Áfangar” by Jón Helgason, where I made a painting to each verse. This painting corresponds to a verse that describes the hardships endured by one Iceland’s most celebrated outlaws: Fjalla-Eyvindur, who spent winters alone, in a hole in the ground, up in the highlands.

 

“Óðinn and Gunnlöð” There is a story that tells how Odin put on a worm outfit (“orms-hamur”) in order to dig himself into the place where Gunnlöð, the guardian of the mead of poetry, was staying. Odin stayed with her for three nights, and each night he would have a sip of the precious mead. What appealed to me here was the chance to paint a beautiful nocturnal scene of a loving couple, wrapped up by a rather disgusting, Cthulhu-esque worm.

“Óðinn and Gunnlöð”
There is a story that tells how Odin put on a worm outfit (“orms-hamur”) in order to dig himself into the place where Gunnlöð, the guardian of the mead of poetry, was staying. Odin stayed with her for three nights, and each night he would have a sip of the precious mead. What appealed to me here was the chance to paint a beautiful nocturnal scene of a loving couple, wrapped up by a rather disgusting, Cthulhu-esque worm.

 

“Reykjavík Pavilion in Theory” The basic idea behind this series was to make an idealised version of Reykjavík, one that does not correspond with any particular moment in time. I essentially replaced all of the ugly buildings with something better looking. As you can see from this one, I have no love for City Hall, and I would be perfectly happy to see it torn down to make room for a grand mosque.

“Reykjavík Pavilion in Theory”
The basic idea behind this series was to make an idealised version of Reykjavík, one that does not correspond with any particular moment in time. I essentially replaced all of the ugly buildings with something better looking. As you can see from this one, I have no love for City Hall, and I would be perfectly happy to see it torn down to make room for a grand mosque.

People Fucking, Elves Watching

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What went into the cover painting?

When I originally conceived of the idea, I wanted it to be the same composition of Hugleikur’s comic, but because I was doing it for the cover of the Grapevine, I thought it should be in a vertical format. I had wanted to paint transparent ghostly pictures of people for some time, and all of the sudden, I thought, maybe I could do it for Hugleikur’s Huldufólk thing. It’s often that an idea for a painting springs out of an effect that I would like to use. It’s quite easy to render these half-transparent things in oil paint.

For the Huldufólk, I thought that they should probably look like people from the old times in Iceland. I could have put them in contemporary clothing, but I think that would just be confusing. So I dressed them in old garments and gave them expressionless faces. It didn’t really turn out the way I foresaw it, but it was close enough, I think.

Are you satisfied with it?

Yeah, I am quite satisfied with it. I hadn’t seen it in a while when Haukur sent me a photo of it, and I saw it again a couple weeks ago and thought: “Yeah, it’s not bad.” I’m very rarely completely satisfied. It was close enough to the mark.

Are elves a common narrative in Icelandic culture?

… No.

Is it more foreigners thinking, “Oh those Icelanders and their elves!”?

Yeah, I think so. I sometimes get the impression that some Icelanders want foreigners to think that of us. They try to tell people that. For instance, I was in Reykjavík this summer and I came across a group of tourists and a guide who were walking along. When they came upon a big rock in Grjótaþorpið, I heard him telling the tourists: “Yeah, most Icelanders believe in elves and faeries.” Like, two out of three Icelanders or something, he said. Which I don’t really think is the case. I don’t know anybody who believes in them.

I remember reading something about how 90% of Icelanders believe in Hidden People and how you guys even diverted the construction of a highway so the elves wouldn’t be disturbed.

I don’t know where they get these statistics from. I don’t know anybody who believes in them. Not that it matters that much. I think, if anything, more people are inclined to believe in ghosts. There are quite a few people who aren’t really that superstitious, but still won’t rule out the possibility of ghosts. Not that I’m one, though.

So is there a connection between the hidden people and the sagas. Do they feature heavily in those at all?

No, I don’t think so at all.

I’m still trying to figure out where this elf thing came from.

I think that like with most of these folklore creatures in Iceland, it’s something that’s common to other Nordic countries in general. I don’t think there are really any of these creatures that one couldn’t find some variety of in other places. And the distinction between the elves and the hidden people, I don’t know if that’s clear either.

Yeah, they seem to be interchangeable. But I’m not really an elf expert or historian or anything like that.

I think it’s mostly a nineteenth century belief that became really popular.

Are you a fan of Hugleikur Dagsson’s work? Do you have a favourite drawing of his?

Yes, I am a big fan of his work. I have a drawing that he made when he was about ten years old, of an armed to the teeth alien with several mouths, eyes, a peg leg made of gold, and alien skulls tied around its neck. I guess that would be one of my favourites.

You’re cousins, right? Do you feel like you might have similar approaches to art, even though the methods you employ are drastically different?

There are quite a few similarities in our output, most notably with regards to our subject matter. Folklore creatures and legends feature heavily in our works, and we share an affinity for the Norse mythology. We used to make drawings together when we were kids, so it is no coincidence that our works would overlap.

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