Icelanders are all artists. Or so goes the oft-repeated, yet untrue, cliché. But most clichés come with a kernel of truth; and the creativity of Iceland does indeed hit you in the face.
Traditionally the artistry of Icelanders was an oral one, in the form of poems, sagas and song. An obvious, significant exception to this rule came in the form of religious art and artifacts. The lack of artistry was probably caused by the general shortage of time, training and art materials. But once painting and sculpture finally came to Iceland, they came to stay.
The first of Iceland’s renowned sculptors was Einar Jónsson (1874-1954) – and he remains among the most respected and recognisable to this day. The very striking house he built is next to the Hallgrímskirkja cathedral in Reykjavík, and is now a museum of his works and well worth a visit.
Einar’s work stretches into the hundreds and his style varies; but often the works are distinctively angular and depict fantasy themes in a starkly realistic way.
On the painting side of things, Þórarinn Þorláksson is often regarded as the granddaddy (1867-1924) of Icelandic art, by virtue of being the first to go and study it in Denmark and then applying his knowledge to the Icelandic landscape.
Landscape remains a very strong feature in the country’s artistic life – and if you’ve seen the place you’ll know why!
One name you might have heard of is Jóhannes Kjarval (1885-1972). He’s famous for adding an abstract touch to a lot of his landscape work, and applied himself to all genres of the painted form. He even appears on the 2,000 kr. banknote.
Another international star is Erró, born in 1932 as Guðmundur Guðmundsson and much loved for his bright, bold, comic book inspired tableaux. There is a permanent Erró exhibition at the Reykjavík Art Museum, Hafnarhús, which is also worth checking out.
You don’t need to be in Reykjavík to enjoy art though (imagine how depressing that would be). Akureyri has its own ‘artists’ quarter’ and towns all over the country have regular exhibitions – often in bars and cafés where the works are for sale. But don’t necessarily expect a bargain…art is valued highly.
In art, as with music, Icelanders tend to be enthusiastic to give it a go, meaning that there are a lot of hobby artists doing quite well for themselves, financially speaking; while some better-known career artists struggle. Of course, the struggling artist is no exclusively Icelandic phenomenon…just ask anyone in Paris or New York!