Iceland and art
by Aðalsteinn Ingolfsson
Iceland´s art world is more troubled than usual. It has of course had
its periods of crisis in the past. In the Thirties it was a shock for Icelandic
artists to discover that landscape painting, which had helped them to forge
their cultural identity at the beginning of the century, was no longer taken
seriously by the arbiters of taste in the world at large.
And in the Fifties, having embraced the latest trend in European art - concrete
art - with almost Messianic fervour, the next generation of Icelandic artists
found their own public eschewing or reviling their work as unnecessarily esoteric,
even unpatriotic. Then finally, after persuading their Icelandic audience to
take them seriously, these same artists were suddenly cast aside as so much
chaff by a group of aggressive anti-artists who called themselves SÚM.
This was in the late 1960s. Such are the cruel ironies of art.
Today, the old certainties - Marxism, historical inevitability, the lot - have
been lost, which means that battles are not being fought along the same lines
as before. As it happens, apart from the cries of a few bitter painters of middle
age, who think that there is a conspiracy afoot to root out painting, there
is little intergenerational or interdisciplinal strife within the Icelandic
art world. Like most other Western artists, Icelanders live in a polyglot world,
where various visual languages compete. If there are any guiding principles
at work, one thinks of fluidity, ambiguity and deliberate instability. In a
number of cases, some of whom are to be found in the present exhibition in the
North Atlantic House, those old enemies, abstraction and representation, come
together in a heady mix, emphasizing the mutable nature of our civilization.
Thus, like artists everywhere else, Icelandic artists are struggling to develop
a visual language adequate to the demands of the present, while seeking values
that will endure.
The crisis that I mentioned at the outset is definitely not a crisis of confidence.
If anything the present generation of Icelandic artists is more sure of itself,
more convinced of its role in the wider world of international art than its
predecessors. Artists such as Ólafur Elíasson, Georg Guðni,
Finnbogi Pétursson or Ragna Róbertsdóttir are major players
on the international circuit. They in turn are able to build on the success
of older people like Louisa Matthíasdóttir, Erró, the Guðmundsson
brothers and Hreinn Friðfinnsson. Come to think of it, with a population
of under 300,000 Iceland really has no business producing more than half an
artist of more than local interest at any given time.
At the same time these artists, along with some four or five hundred of their
colleagues, feel themselves increasingly marginalized by the society that produced
them. Capitalism is now rampant in Icelandic society, reducing most forms of
human endeavour to the status of marketable commodities. The biggest firms in
Iceland change hands in a day, like so many slots on a Monopoly board, with
huge sums of money whizzing from one computer terminal to another. The general
population seems to be adrift in mortaged goods and obsessed with accumulation.
Yet no one, neither public bodies nor the private companies reaping the benefits
of the present boom, seem to regard art as something to be coveted, either for
itself, as investment or for its social cachet. The sales of works of art by
Icelandic artists under the age of 40 are at an all time low. In recent government
budget proposals, the acquisitions fund of the National Gallery, for long the
lifeline of many avant-garde artists, has even been cut by about 20%.
One can almost hear young artists begging to be taken seriously as producers
of marketable commodities, sentiments which would have horrified their idealistic
colleagues of the Seventies.
This state of affairs has been a long time in the making. For a start, the
indifference of the young captains of industry and the stock market wizards
to contemporary visual art is an indictment of the Icelandic school system at
A young Icelander can go through the entire school system without once being
confronted with the works of art that have shaped modern Icelandic culture and
society, let alone being made to engage in a serious dialogue with "difficult"
works by young artists. In the public domain there is likewise no
medium, neither newspapers, magazines or TV, ready to instigate and sustain
such a dialogue.
On the other hand, our young high-flyers will most likely be able to remember
who killed who in the major Sagas and have a nodding acquaintance with the translated
novels of Isabel Allende or Milan Kundera. We are the products of a culture
heavily biased towards literature. Literary culture even infiltrates the visual
arts to an extent, in that narratives of one sort or another form the basis
of the works of art that you´ll see in Iceland, not forgetting the frequent
references to myths and legends. I think this is true of some of the Icelandic
work that you´ll find in the exhibition in the North Atlantic House.
Even if there were hordes of art lovers in Iceland, they would be hard put
to find recent works of art to look at. Perhaps because of Iceland´s small
population, there´s always been a personal dimension to art commerce in
the country. Artists would hire exhibition rooms in different places, hang their
work themselves, sell directly to their friends and admirers, thus cutting out
the middlemen. Or they let it be known that interested parties were welcome
to visit them in their studios. The major public galleries and museums even
had an "open door" policy, whereby artists of repute could hire exhibition
spaces and the necessary services that go with them.
This easy access to art and artists is now a thing of the past. With increased
specialization and alienation, not to mention the increased competition from
the digital media, there are more barriers, real and imagined, between Icelandic
artists and their public than ever before. Still keeping in mind our high-flyers,
the visitor to their ultra modern homes will most likely come across whole libraries
of DVD films, but hardly any art except the odd print or poster.
Like public galleries and museums elsewhere, public art institutions in Iceland
now have their own exhibition programmes, where a handful of major artists are
invited to show their latest work. Other artists, including the 20 or so would-be
artists sent into the world each year by the Icelandic Academy of the Arts,
end up competing for small exhibition rooms that are run on an ad-hoc basis
by some of their colleagues, unsuitable rooms in community halls, churches,
even coffee bars. Moreover, these places seem to change from one season to another,
making it difficult both for the media and the public to keep up with the exhibition
activity. Which doesn´t help sales. It´s a vicious circle.
I think it´s fair to say that most, if not all, of the Icelandic artists
in the North Atlantic House show have had to eke out their living with other
activities, teaching, illustration, design- or theatre work. Or they have been
supported by their significant others.
For many Icelandic artists, "abroad" is the key to better appreciation,
better sales, better life. Which is why exhibitions such as this one are so
important to them.
Then again it takes a long time for artists from a far-off island to infiltrate
themselves into the art scene in Sweden, Holland or Germany, let alone to catch
the eye of gallerists and exhibition curators. It´s often forgotten that
artists like Ólafur Elíasson or Erró were virtually brought
up in the countries where they found their success.
It is easy to blame Icelandic governments, past and present, for not doing
enough for the country´s visual arts, considering the money annually spent
on Icelandic literature and theatre. They are the only ones with the clout to
put art history and art appreciation on the curriculum of schools at every level.
It would also be easy for them to offer private companies tax incentives to
buy art, thereby reducing the strain on the budget of the museums.
But there are things that even they can´t do, despite the optimism of
some cultural commentators. They can´t make anyone famous abroad, no matter
how much money is spent on promoting him or her at all the world´s biennales
and triennales. It is even doubtful whether a small society like Iceland can
ever guarantee each and everyone of its 500 artists his 15 minutes of fame at
Despite all of this, Icelandic art continues to be guardedly optimistic, imbued
with a respect for the world of feelings, yet intrigued with the governing logic
of thought. Figurative artists, such as the bulk of the Icelandic artists in
this show, proclaim the need for direct, unmediated experience. Those who turn
to the Icelandic landscape, tend to see it as depopulated and imaginary, suggesting
both an alienation from as well as a reverence for nature.
This art, as accomplished, multi-faceted and contradictory as the society we
live in, continues to surprise us and sustain us with its vital, regenerative
power. It deserves a better deal.
(The author is indebted to an introduction by Richard Armstrong in the 1989
Whitney Biennale for some of the insights in this article)
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