Curatorial text

Works by Ásmundur Sveinsson and contemporary artists
The Reykjavík Art Museum – Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum
2009 - 2010

The chosen subjects and methods of artists, no less than of others who analyse and offer ideas and theories of their time and historical context, are influenced by the spirit of the age and its techniques. Sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893-1982) realised that art was ever-changing and that changing times shaped artists’ attitudes and work. The idea that art had to maintain a continuously renewed dialogue with its environment was always in the forefront of his thoughts. For the exhibition Rhyme selected works by Ásmundur are presented together with works by contemporary artists which reveal common subjects given different treatment by time and the spirit of the age.

The subjects of Ásmundur Sveinsson’s works originate in Icelandic cultural tradition and nature, on the one hand, and from his interest in technology and science, on the other. They are characterised by the narrative tradition of his youth in Icelandic rural society, where literature and verbal art were held in high regard. Ásmundur’s first steps as an artist are practically contemporary with the rise of 20th-century modernism, and he was shaped by the formal revolution which it brought. His narrative roots and connections with nature, however, would always characterise his work and form an integral part of his struggle with form and material. Ásmundur's subjects are part of Iceland’s cultural heritage, shaped by his own era and person.

As the 21st century begins, Icelandic visual art is shaped by the global influences of Western culture. It is part of the contemporary art world, where subject, form and technique have echoes throughout the world and local characteristics are minimal. Such characteristics are mainly found in works reflecting the cultural heritage of specific areas, although their form and manifestation bear the characteristics of international artistic movements. Such subjects can be discerned in works by the contemporary artists in this exhibition which rhyme with Ásmundur Sveinsson’s works, all of them shaped by the spirit of their age and techniques of different periods.

Creation, symbolized as a mother or with reference to growth and the fertility of the earth, is a traditional focus of artists of all times and at very different locations around the world. This was the theme in works by Ásmundur such as Mother Earth (1934), Birth (1949), Maternity (1948) and Oak (1946). The same theme can be seen in works by Eirún Sigurðardóttir and Kristín Gunnlaugsdóttir, both of which present the image of the mother and examine her connections to children and giving birth. Kristín portrays the image of a mother who is not only nourishing but also shows the way forward, and in so doing places the role of mother in a contemporary context, focusing on her intellectual role. Eirún’s work is more physical, entering realms which were explored only to a limited extent in Ásmundur’s time. She examines woman’s role in giving birth and the physical experience of the birth itself. The mother image therefore becomes very concrete, unlike the idealised image of Mother Earth, where the mother symbolises the earth which nourishes mankind. The work by Guðrún Vera Hjartardóttir presents an image of fertility and growth, focusing on the connection between man and nature, as Ásmundur does in Growth of the Earth (1945) and Oak. Man’s relation to nature was a recurring theme in his work, and appears in another form in the work Weather Teller from 1939, where the connection between man and the earth and land are visible in the strong body of the farmer checking on the weather. In his work Weather Image (1994), Pétur Örn Friðriksson approaches weather with the cynical reserve of a person receiving news of the weather on a television screen, experiencing weather and wind as distant information.

During the 1930s, working people were conspicuous in Ásmundur's work and many of his best known works, such as Water Carrier (1937), date from this time. These works show large, solid figures occupied in traditional, earthbound labours, with physical and mental strength emanating from the build of their bodies. Blond Professions (2004-09) by Birgir Snæbjörn Birgisson not only presents a different view of labour and the status of working people but also the contemporary artist’s view of work, which is very different from Ásmundur’s. Birgir Snæbjörn’s work is based on mass-produced china figurines, where the hand of the artist himself is practically invisible in the work, while on the other hand the actual artistry and working with the clay was for Ásmundur an important part of the creation. This reflects the different attitudes of different eras, where the process of creation has undergone major changes. The artist’s hand is now no longer necessary to give concrete form to artists’ ideas. 

The Icelandic sagas and literary heritage served as a source of inspiration for Ásmundur throughout his career and have also been a stimulus for contemporary artists. The contemporary approach, however, often involves dethroning the saga hero. This is true, for instance, of the work Icelandic Vikings (2009) by Finnur Arnar Arnarson, in which he portrays contemporary people assuming the role of saga heroes. His work relates the
setbacks which these men have encountered in their lives and in so doing they grow more and more distant from the saga heroes fighting great battles. On the other hand, the exaltation of the hero characterises Ásmundur’s 1928 works The Death of Grettir and The Viking, which are also clear examples of the artist’s traditional struggle with the classical form of the human body.

Icelandic folk tales and popular beliefs are presented in Ásmundur’s works of fantasy, such as Giantess, In the Troll’s Hands and My Mother in the Fold, Fold all of which date from the 1940s. The images stem from folk tales which were an integral part of Icelandic cultural traditions and deeply rooted in folk beliefs. Works by contemporary artists dealing here with folk beliefs and folk tales do not refer to specific stories but rather to a consciousness of such tales, supernatural beings and fatalism. Ólöf Nordal has explored many aspects of Icelandic narrative tradition and superstition. Her work Iceland Specimen Collections (2003) refers to the belief that the birth of deformed animals predicts crop failure or other natural disasters. Steingrímur Eyfjörð has also used Icelandic folk tales in many of his works. In the work Bones in a Landslide (2005) a collection of trolls take their irregular shapes from lava rock and stone cliffs. The work is put in a contemporary context with a traffic sign, warning against the danger of landslides or unrest, unrest which could even result from the actions of the country’s supernatural beings. 

A transformation occurred in Ásmundur’s works in the 1960s, when he discovered iron. He began welding together metals and other objects which he collected and used with little or no modification. The works became less figurative and the role of space in his works increased steadily. For contemporary artists, grappling with space is no longer restricted to the inner space of traditional sculpture or painting, but instead has in many instances been transferred to the exhibition space, with the result that the viewer enters the artistic creation and becomes part of it. Visual creations by Davíð Örn Halldórsson slide off his paintings' surface and take over the space, creating colorful installations. Davíð’s formal world is a merger of abstract forms with an imaginary world of fantasy.

The museum building is one of Ásmundur’s creations. Here he lived and worked from around 1943 onwards. Both the form and space of the building remain original and challenging architecture in an Icelandic context. The Dome, which he utilised as his studio, has very special acoustics. Sara Riel’s work Secret (2008) is interwoven with the space of the Dome and underlines both its form and unique acoustics. Ásmundur gave visual form to sound in his work Song of the Sea from 1950, in which he explores the symbolism of visual art, portraying the sound of the sea in an almost abstract female image, where the shape of the waves and strings produces an idea of sound.  

Towards the end of his career Ásmundur turned to stone chiselling, continuing to create works with his own hands but selecting materials that were manageable. He used soft stone, working into it gentle variations on the stone’s natural form. Hrafnkell Sigurðsson uses similar sized stones in his work Painted Landscape from 1996. He has the stones processed using a technique that alters their colour to resemble metal ore. This transformation reflects his study of the relationship between man and nature. In many of his works, however, a view that man’s existence transforms and threatens nature can be discerned. Ásmundur’s contemporaries admired scientific knowledge and man’s ability to tame the forces of nature for his own ends. Our own time questions this admiration, as nature is now considered highly endangered by human activity.

The Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum is dedicated to the work of Ásmundur Sveinsson. The dialogue between his works and those of contemporary artists renews their content and deepens their relationship with the surrounding environment. Although the works on exhibit are shaped by the spirit of varying eras and techniques, they have an internal resonance stemming from a common source, which seems to provide an inexhaustible font of new ideas.

Ólöf K. Sigurðardóttir and Sigríður Melrós Ólafsdóttir, curators



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