An “Other” Iceland

Landscape painting is the one constant strain in the art of those two northern countries, Canada and Iceland. Though intermittedly interrupted by the modernist quest for an urban-based aesthetic, it has proven remarkably resilient. In his 1949 study, Kenneth Clark lamented that nature „seemed too large and too small for imagination“ and that we had „lost faith in the stability of what we used hopefully to call „the natural order“, and, what is worse, we know that we have ourselves acquired the means of bringing that order to an end.“

Sixty years on Canadian and Icelandic artists still use landscapes as lodestones in their mediations of experience and imagination. Landscape art of one type or another, from fairly traditional painting to the installations and envirnmental pieces of Ólafur Elíasson, to name only one Icelandic example, has shown itself able to absorb most internationalist and modernist currents, while remaining faithful to the specificities of place and history.
But tempting though it is to discuss the uncultivated expanses of Western Canada or Ellesmere Island on the one hand and the Icelandic highlands on the other in terms of a generic „Northern landscape“ and „Northern mood“ – after all, much of Canada extends considerably further north than Iceland – there are too many other factors at work to make the discussion fruitful. Though both countries can be said to remain at the geographical margins of existence, the geology is different, climate likewise, not to mention the human factors: history, population patterns, culture and so on. All of which affects the way Canadian and Icelandic artists see and interpret their natural environment.
In his great book, Landscape and memory , Simon Schama contends that „all landscapes are culture before they are nature“. He means that they are the elaborate constructs of the imagination of those who first colonize the landscape, with the result that these constructs, or visions, gradually take the place of nature „as itself“, become more real than their references. What the landscapes of Canada and Iceland have in common is that both of them, at different times, have undergone a process of what we might call „mediation by culture“ or „aestheticizing“, before they were „set free“ by later generations of artists who realized that the reality of what they saw did not correspond to the conventions they were expected to abide by.

From the late 18th century onwards, painters from Britain chose to see the landscape of Canada in terms of the European pastoral tradition, or they incorporated it seamlessly into their imported visions of the „sublime“. It took the intimate and interpretative approach of the Group of Seven and Emily Carr, inspired by northern European Expressionism, to redress the balance in favour of nature „as itself“. And as art history would have it, their interpretations have been repeatedly challenged by later generations of landscape painters.

Iceland is home to a handicrafts tradition dating back to the 12th century: in woodcarving, metalwork and textiles. But there was no painting to speak of until the late 19th century, when Icelanders began to shake off nearly two centuries of poverty, bad climate, volcanic eruptions and Danish misrule. Even then Icelanders were without art schools and museums and thus dependent on the Copenhagen Art Academy for their art education. Quite naturally, the paintings by Icelandic pioneers such as Þórarinn B. Þorláksson and Ásgrímur Jónsson show a strong influence from the largely literary 19th century Romantic landscape tradition. Until the late 1920s these paintings are characterized by an idealization of nature which has its roots in Iceland`s nationalist-romantic campaign for independence, not least because by then the country`s landscape had become the emblem of its uniqueness. In effect, these early painters had to transform – „aestheticize“ –  what one art historian has called a „harsh land of whimsical natural forces“, turn it into visions of eternal European summer. It took the conflagration of World War I and the harsh realities of theGreat Depression to dispel this vision and turn artists such as Jóhannes Kjarval, JónStefánsson and Finnur Jónsson towards a more realistic approach to the „real“ landscape of the Icelandic interior: harsh, fantasticand downright dangerous to man.

This is where the story becomes personal. As an Icelandic art historian and critic I had written numerous books and articles on local landscape-based art, from the idealist painters of the early 20th century to the mixed media artists of the 1990s. By the end of the Millenium it seemed to me that the aestheticizing attitude to landscape, which had characterized the efforts of our earliest painters, was making a comeback in our art. Perhaps it was inevitable, given the dominance of arid conceptual art during the 1970s and the aggressive anti-aesthetic bias of the New Expressionism that followed it. But it was an attitude which I was far from happy with; one that I had railed against in a book on a Norwegian artist, Patrick Huse, that came out in Oslo in 1994.

To paraphrase myself, I felt that the „aestheticized landscape“ –  what Simon Schama would call “landscape as myth“ , had long ceased to be able to enlighten us, engage us or nourish us. It was like a song „grown old not from time but from wear…a song frayed and worn out“ quoting a line from Ironweed by William Kennedy, a favourite book of mine. Apart from its highly suspect claims to „truthfulness“, this kind of landscape contains too many unresolved problems, too much unfinished business. For one thing, there was – and is – the constant tug-of-war between the prosaic attitude of description and the poetic attitude of interpretation. Also, the whole concept of the „meaning“ of a natural phenomenon, be it a tuft of grass or a mountain, was always too vague to engage the viewer except on a superficial level.

But what bothered me most about this kind of landscape art was that it seemed unable to cope with the precariousness characterizing our present relationship with nature. Just over a century ago Cézanne claimed that only by immersing ourselves in nature could we gain a greater understanding of it. In fact, our ever-increasing understanding of nature only seems to have strenghtened our proprietary attitude to it. We have undermined it from the outside, see the industrialized zones of Europe, Asia and the Americas, and from the inside by scientists tinkering with genes.

In my book on Huse I called for a new approach to landscape painting, one that would take in all the contradictions that modern man is faced with in the face of nature. I saw this painting as having a language of its own, what the great Italian writer Césare Pavese called an „instrument of complete expression“. To him this language stood for a“space full of doubt, possessing its own range of meanings“ which couldn`t be conveyed in any other way. Through this language, the artist would express, with the utmost economy of means,“ a general and comprehensive fact, a core of reality quickening and feeding“ a whole organic growth of passion and human existence.

Implicitly, and perhaps most importantly, this would be a patently „constructed“ landscape, free of all preconceived notions about what such a construct should look like. At the same time it would have enough in common with landscape „as itself“ to make us want to relate to it, to fathom its geography and to find our place within it. To quote Barry Lopez, another great writer on landscape:„It should make us want to discover a way of dispelling our sense of estrangement, now a fact of life in the western world“. It seemed to me that Huse was one of very few painters who believed in the constructed landscape as“an instrument of complete expression“, capable of engaging our deepest emotions.But his paintings are certainly not comfortable to look at. They show landscapes as heaps of organic matter, disembowelled, turned inside out and petrified, suggesting a world emptied of all life and all meaning.
In 1997, as I travelled around Canada, lecturing on Icelandic art to the descendants of the early Icelandic settlers, I was perhaps unconsciously looking for a another landscape painter feisty enough to take on the whole idea of landscape „as itself“ and turn it on its head. Though perhaps not with Huse`s apocalyptical zeal. At any rate, landscape as idea/reality was much on my mind as I made my way westwards by plane, over prairie, tundra and the Rockies. Coming from a mountaneous country, I often wondered how Canadian landscape painters coped with the relentless flatness of the prairie.

In Winnipeg I had an appointment with Meeka Walsh, editor of Border Crossings, a culture magazine I had long admired. In the course of our conversation she handed me the latest issue of her magazine. In it I came across one of Robert Enright`s in-depth interviews with artists, this time with Saskatoon-based painter David Alexander, whom I hadn`t heard of before.That night I read it at leisure in the privacy of my hotel room. In it Enright speaks about the  „unease“ that Alexander`s paintings arouse in the viewer. That was certainly one of my reactions to the illustrations that came with the interview. And to be frank, another was dislike. As a European, albeit a „marginal“ one, I could tell when Alexander`s roots were showing. There was something of Munch`s „vast,infinite cry of nature“ in his in-your-face vistas, others brought to mind Hodler`s bold, luminous colours and coloured shadows. Perhaps most surprisingly – I didn`t think anyone looked at them today – something of the turbulence of Kokoschka`s Scottish landscapes also seemed to have seeped into the work of this very Canadian painter. But this European veneer, if that is the right word for it, was overlaid with brushstrokes of such visceral and relentless energy that that every painting seemed on the verge of dissolution. What unnerved me most was Alexander`s insistence on „feeling“ his way into every bit of landscape that he chose to paint, taking it apart and putting it back together until it looked both familiar and out of this world. He seemed, quite literally, to be pulling the rug from under the feet of the „nature lover“, thus mocking his presumptive right of access to every part of God´s creation.

But what finallywon me over was Alexander`s way with the prairie. Instead of seeing it as a non-landscape, because of its lack of verticals, mountains, big trees, whatever ( rather like we Icelanders denigrate the flat landscape of Denmark), he seemed to regard it almost as the „mother of all landscapes“. As he explained to Robert Enright: „In the prairie you can generally stand in one spot and take it all in. It comes to you but in the mountains you have to go to it.“ And what comes to Alexander in the prairie is the vast architecture of the heavens (what the artist calls „the craziness that`s up in the sky“). Not only does he paint what he sees in the skies, the thousand dramas that herald violent changes in the weather, but also what he would like to see happen up there. This gives his prairie/sky paintings a visionary quality that one associates with artists like Hercules Seghers or El Greco .Moreover, Alexander frequently takes liberties with the horizon itself, tipping it this way or that, or he changes its shape from convex to oval in order to mimic a birds-eye vision of the firmament. Or he compresses the prairie and sky into narrow vertical structures, forcing us to question our habitual horizontal reading of wide open spaces.

Once I got „into“ Alexander`s approach to landscape, what appealed most to me was his respect for it as“the other“, an entity quite separate from our puny selves; mysterious, supremely indifferent to us and quite deadly when crossed.This comes out in what Alexander calls his „enclosures“, a fitting name for his paintings of forests. There is no concession to the pastoral or picturesque in them; the trees with their spiky branches are there to enclose, entangle and eventually swallow up anyone venturing into their midst. The mountain paintings, especially the vertical ones, also present us with one dangerous view after another; rock faces prone to unleashing deadly avalanchesof ice and boulders at any moment.
I wondered what Alexander would be able to do with the landscape of my native Iceland, where you find the most spectacular cloud formations as well as some of of the most unforgiving „natural attractions“ on the European side of the Atlantic. I got his address from the people at Border Crossings, and on my return to Iceland I wrote him a letter, asking him whether he would like to come to Iceland.

Dave Alexander came to Iceland twice, both times as a guest of the Hafnarfjörður Arts Centre, an institution I was affiliated with. The first time was in the autumn of 1998, the second was four years later. Hafnarfjörður is a town of some 20.000 people,built in the middle of a lava field fifteen minutes away from Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. Even further out, situated on a barren coast, with a view of interminable lava fields as well as Iceland`s only aluminium smelter (now owned by Alcoa of Canada…), is the former farmhouse of Straumur. This had been turned into a artists`workshop with a couple of studio apartments for visiting artists from abroad. The manager was an exuberant and highly eccentric sculptor named Sverrir Ólafsson, who did well by Dave, taking him on a number of hair-raising day trips into the country in his supercharged and very fast SUV.

I went to greet Dave as soon as he had settled in. He turned out to be exhilarating company, warm and engaging, full of opinions, knowledgable about the history of art and inquisitive about everything that he saw: the age and precise formation of the lava all around us, the type of boats that Icelanders of old used to fish from off the nearby coast ( I didn`t know about his early life on tugboats…), the moss and lichen coating the pseudocraters and hollows in the lava and the colours of the sheep that were grazing wherever there was a patch of green. Odd things seemed to delight Dave, not least names; for instance he was intrigued as to why a farm would be called Straumur, i.e. „sea current“. Our bit of coast was also called „Vatnsleysuströnd“, i.e. „coast-without-natural-water“ This pleased Dave to no end, because it reminded him of Indian place-names back in his native Canada. Out of that arose a lot of good-humoured and quite absurd banter about the early Indian tribesof Iceland.

During that first time in Iceland, Dave was mostly without transport. Thus he spent a lot of time hiking in the vicinity of Straumur, following old tracks in the lava made by farmers ,fishermen – and sheep. The lava landscape and the violent forces that had created it were a source of endless fascination. That it was a relatively „young“ landscape –this particular stretch of lava dates back some 12.000 years  –clearly appealed to him, both emotionally and intellectually. Coming from a country with a bedrock dating back billions of years, Dave imagined himself standing on what he called „earth`s egg-shell crust“, as close to the forces of creation as he was going to get. He talked about feeling „giddy“ in some of the lava-encrusted trenches that he came across, looking down into narrow rifts so deep that they have never been fathomed. Then there were the unexpected sound effects: „Steam vents; there`s burbling and hissing everywhere“. Dave was also suprised – and impressed – by the Icelanders` equanimity in the face of possible volcanic eruptions or other natural disasters. After visiting painter Gunnar Örn on his farm close to Iceland`s most famous (and quite active) volcano, Hekla, he mused: „People don`t seem to fear the inevitable; they live with it quite comfortably and even joke about it.“ Dave also liked to think that this potentially violent landscape would be able to withstand the encroachment of „culture“ to a greater extent than most of the places that he had visited.

Like philosopher Arthur C. Danto, Dave was „fascinated by what looked like low abstract sculptures punctuating (the lava) surface. If naive minds could have read the skies as a stage for deities, these protrusions might just be visible evidence of hidden artisan gnomes.“ Strange, anthropomorphic  imagery quickly found its way into his drawingsand coloured sketches. In them we find constant interaction between figurative and natural elements, something which I hadn`t seen in the work that he`d done in Canada. Drawings of dark,fantastic coagulations are worked and reworked until they start to sprout eyes, eyebrows and noses, or conversely grotesque figures coalesce into jagged lava spires. At one point Dave began to collect lava rocks that looked like small „troll“ heads, with the intention of placing them in a neat row in front of a painted landscape (I wonder what became of that wacky idea?).A day trip to Kleifarvatn, a desolate place in the vicinity of Straumur and the site of heavily weathered tufa formations, yellow-rimmed hot springs and emerald-coloured lakes, yielded Dave`s only pure „supernatural“ painting ,what looks like a view of a ghost tumbling into a crater. The geological formations at Kleifarvatn have also worked their wonders on other visiting artists, among them Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum, who has repeatedly used them as backdrop to his mythological narratives.

Looking at the drawings and coloured sketches that Dave did during that fruitful month at Straumur as a whole, as well as the finished paintings that he brought to his Hafnarborg exhibition of 2002, I now realize that not only was he pitting himself against a landscape unlike any other that he had encountered, but he was using this landscape to probe into the relationship of Icelanders with nature. The ambivalence that characterizes the Icelanders`attitude to the so-called „hidden beings“ within nature is brought out in the fine balance between the „natural“and the „supernatural“ in Dave`s drawings of geological oddities. Then there is his tendency to draw peoples` faces in terms of weathered boulders, complete with surface cracks and ungainly protuberances: as if they were extensions of nature. The works of man: old dwellings, rusted fuel tanks, disintegrating rowing boats, and even a country graveyard with one fresh grave fenced off by rope, all of these are seen not as additions to nature, welcome or unwelcome, but as integral to it. In one funny drawing Dave sees the people sitting in the milky waters of the Blue Lagoon – now one of Iceland`s biggest tourist attractions – as denizens of the deep, with only their disembodied heads and shoulders emerging from what the artist calls a „High-Tec Primordial Swamp.“

I am left with an image from Dave`s 2002 exhibition in the Hafnarborg Cultural Centre. He had hung some large canvases with Icelandic motifs in a row on the central wall of the gallery. What distinguished these paintings from others in the show were the flowers that Dave had painted in the foreground of some somber and desolate landscapes, huge luxurious red poppies swaying in the front of jagged lava cliffs, an orchid bursting with fecundity on top of bubbling hot springs and a bunch of lilies engaging in a graceful dance on the edge of a northern crater called Víti (Hell`s cauldron). To me these paintings seemed to encompass Dave`s philosophy to landscape in general, and to the Icelandic landscape in particular. In general terms they question man`s attemps to cultivate every bit of uncultivated nature that he visits, either physically or through art, but also, through the very discordant juxtapositions of the hothouse flowers and the unhabitable landscapes behind them, Dave seems to hint at the absolute „otherness“ of the Icelandic landscape.For someone such as myself, who thinks that civilization is overrated when it comes to the natural world, this is a heartening conclusion.

Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson