Ólöf K. Sigurðardóttir
A Quiet Journey
There is a profound connection between walking and thinking. Walking awakens an awareness of the environment and nature, of time and human frames of reference. Outdoors in nature, man is more a part of it than a citizen and member of the community. It offers wide expanses and the freedom to be alone with the rain, the wind and the flora. Eggert Pétursson’s paintings originate in nature: the nature of the land and the nature of the man who created them. The works enshrine memories of time spent among plants and flowers, which are committed to canvas in oils, using approaches that demand precision and knowledge of the materials: oils and nature. Their theme is the memory of walks and time spent in nature, the memory of what the mind takes in on a slow journey across the land.
Nature has provided Icelandic artists with ample subject matter and, in many respects, the “ethnic” approach of the pioneers of Icelandic painting has dominated our views on paintings and the arts in general. This still applies despite Kjarval’s explorations of the real nature that surrounds us and his much-quoted achievement of “teaching the nation to look at its land with different eyes.” In his art, Kjarval made people look downwards at the ground, at the nature that bears no name and has no value in Icelandic history apart from its own properties. On first impression it is tempting to link Pétursson’s work with the Kjarvalian landscape vision, and while such an association is certainly warranted, it should be remembered that Pétursson entered the art scene in the second half of the 1970s and is shaped by the conceptual art and experimentation of that time. This exhibition provides an overview of Pétursson’s career from 1980 to the present day. The earliest works are selected with the aim of presenting the foundation on which he stands, as well as links that shed light on the flower works for which he is best known and which have characterised his output for almost twenty years.
Eggert Pétursson took an early interest in Icelandic flora and at a young age was well versed in the natural sciences. He knew the names of plants and their classification into genus and species. As a boy brought up in Reykjavík, his main outlet for this knowledge was at his family’s summer chalet near the capital. There he scrutinised the land and its flora and collected plants that he pressed and dried. For him, nature was a place to immerse oneself, something to collect and classify. An obsession with collecting typifies much of Pétursson’s activity, driven by a longing to discover something new, analyse it and comprehend it to the full.
Visual art was another early interest. He drew prolifically at a young age and visited exhibitions at the National Museum, National Gallery of Iceland and Gallerí Súm. Pétursson took classes at Reykjavík School of Visual Art, including oil painting with Hringur Jóhannesson – his only formal instruction in painting.
His outstanding gift for drawing earned Eggert Pétursson a place at the graphic art department of the Icelandic College of Art and Crafts in 1976 without needing to take the two-year preparatory course. After one year he switched from graphic art to the experimental department run by Magnús Pálsson. There he was introduced to many artists and visiting teachers, including Dieter Roth, who along with Magnús Pálsson was a pioneer in book art in Iceland. Pétursson’s interest was aroused in the book as an art form, and he has produced numerous book works during his career. On completing the college in 1979, he enrolled at the Jan Van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht; the Netherlands were a popular destination for Icelandic art students at that time. At the beginning of his career, Pétursson took part in the progressive young artists’ centre at Suðurgata 7, which was active from 1977 to 1981. It was a dynamic exhibition venue and gave Icelanders the opportunity to discover the works of artists from other countries and forge international links.
Pétursson held his first solo exhibition at Suðurgata 7 in 1980, featuring plant prints on watercolour paper. The works were pairs of paper sheets showing the marks left by plants that he had collected one summer and dried between them. When the plants were removed, their juices remained on the paper. The sheets in a pair were mirror images with the memory of the plant left between them. He also developed this idea in a book, an independent work of art in which the concept is tailored to the form of the book.
Shortly after returning from the Netherlands in 1981, Eggert Pétursson illustrated Icelandic Flora by botanist Ágúst H. Bjarnason, which was published in 1983. Pétursson was able to combine brilliant drawing skills with a knowledge of botany and Icelandic flora in this comprehensive work. Around this time, the arrival of the New Painting movement from Europe led to a resurgence of painting among young artists. Although Pétursson increasingly devoted himself to this medium, he did not do so in the expressionist vein of the New Painting and he did not regard himself as a painter as such.
In 1983, Pétursson held an exhibition installed in a four-room flat, with one work conceived for each room. It is interesting to link his spatial concept at this exhibition with his book art. Interaction of works in space has been one of his preoccupations from the outset. This exhibition was conceived on the same principles as book art, whereby the artist works in the space of the book and one component leads on to the next. Part of the exhibition consisted of quasi-abstract oil paintings portraying the colours of flowers with a heavy layer of oil that would eventually fade. These flower paintings were transitory, since the oil colour would prevail over the colours of the flowers and cause them to disappear as the subject but leave time and memory behind. Pétursson held regular exhibitions in the Living Art Museum on Vatnsstígur. Paintings were prominent at his installations during this period and revealed his interest in material: the oil itself and its properties.
At the Sævar Karl Gallery in Reykjavík in 1989, Pétursson exhibited paintings on themes from the plant kingdom, focusing on the small and transitory in Icelandic nature. The underlying concept commanded much attention: monotone repetitions of part of the vegetation cover of the land. A critic in Morgunblaðið newspaper described the works as containing a hypersensitive lyrical strand and huge amounts of philosophy. The philosophical allusion was not new in discussions of Pétursson’s works, because they had previously been described in terms of oriental philosophy and Taoism. Pétursson had found an outlet for combining strong personal characteristics with an artistic concept shaped by conceptual art and a powerful device for engaging the spectator through the quiet and the small. Many exhibitions have since be dedicated to the theme of Icelandic flora.
From 1991 to 1998, Pétursson lived in Leeds in England. There he roamed the moors on the lookout for subjects for paintings and he made several attempts with local flora, but was constantly searching for something reminiscent of Icelandic varieties. He felt that his ideas did not work out properly using English plants, and he likened the sensation to the experience of a poet writing in a foreign language. Instead of working in an English environment he devoted the period 1993-1995 almost entirely to two paintings of Icelandic heather, which demanded near-superhuman concentration. These are virtually monotone works in which the picture plane has an almost flat effect and is covered with heather. The heather covering is continuous and the light smooth, creating the impression of a mechanically produced pattern on a carpet or wallpaper. The spectator is drawn towards the work and, close up, can discern the precise drawing and almost obsessive technique. Since the monotone works have neither a beginning nor an end and are at once incredibly simple and infinitely complex, they draw the spectator’s attention into them. Over time his flower paintings have more roughly and freely executed with more visible brushstrokes, but could never be described as coarse.
The artist has always created his works in several stages, beginning with a book for ideas. He carries around a notebook in which he enters initial ideas that will be elaborated on later in a larger sketchbook where he works on the overall construction, proposes colours and decides the size. At this stage the works give an abstract impression with the colour shaping the overall image. The sketchbook also contains descriptions of the exhibition context for the works, along with dried flowers and a variety of cuttings and pictures that he uses in the production process. Once the colour has been laid down and the total form of the work is clear, he writes in the names of the plants that will fill the respective colour planes and also adds topographic details if it refers to specific places. The painting is then made in several workings, edging the colour layer by layer towards the natural colour, often from bright to a dark, heavy hue, or vice versa. The light has not been separated from the dark until the spectator makes that mental distinction.
Pétursson rejects the suggestion that he surely needs to travel a lot. However, he has examined certain areas very closely and regularly visits a chalet that he owns in south Iceland and is his base for walking and hiking. The most recent part of the current exhibition is an installation based on the area above the chalet. Four works create a whole to reveal Pétursson’s perception of the area. A large painting, showing a fissure splitting the length of a whole slope, forms the focal point of the installation. Alongside the fissure are plants that can certainly be found by the real fissure, but their arrangement, light and colour invoke many seasons and times of day. The canvas documents the time Pétursson spent by the fissure and in its immediate vicinity, accumulated memories. The four paintings allude to places in the same region, giving the spectator an impression of the artist’s voyages across the land, its colours and light, without imparting any knowledge of geographical landmarks.
The works of this contemplative artist imply a dedicated quest for new experiences of familiar places. Pétursson has pushed the pictorial subject to its limits with both microscopic work on small surfaces and precise, inspired work on large surfaces that seem to require no less a superhuman effort than when he captures the heather in his first flower paintings. These works are Pétursson’s thoughtful rendition of what the eye sees and the mind perceives while treading familiar paths at the speed that the body allows. On his walks, Pétursson abandons all practical viewpoints and values. The destination of his walks in Icelandic nature is in the paintings and the spectator’s physical experience when face-to-face with microscopic or all-encompassing dimensions..
Ólöf K. Sigurðardóttir, curator
Notalegt sjónarhorn, Bragi Ásgeirsson, Morgunblaðið, August1989. Print
Taoísk náttúruspeki, Hannes Lárusson, Vísir, January 11,1980.
Eggert Pétursson, interview with the author, November 2006.
Eggert Pétursson, exhibition brochure, Living Art Museum, April 1991.