The exhibition encompasses a period of a little over fifty years in the middle of the 20th century, providing insight into the various periods of the art of sculptor Sigurjón Ólafsson.
Sculptor Sigurjón Ólafsson (1908-1982) was born in the village of Eyrarbakki in South Iceland. Trained as a house painter in Reykjavík he entered the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen in the autumn of 1928. After finishing his studies in 1935 he remained in Denmark working at his art until the end of World War II. Returned to Iceland in 1945 he became one of the leading artists of the country and was entrusted with numerous challenging commissions, portrait busts and free standing statues. He also created modernistic works for public buildings and open spaces. He is represented in museums and private collections in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Italy and the United States. The largest collection of his works is to be found in the Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum in Reykjavík.
The oldest piece in the exhibition, an haut-relief of two sisters, clearly displays the influence of works of art Sigurjón had seen in Iceland before coming to Copenhagen - for instance the sculptures of Einar Jónsson (1874-1954), and two famous reliefs by Icelandic-Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), Day and Night, casts of which were a popular feature of gravestones in Iceland.
The traditional artistic training provided at the Academy suited Sigurjón well. But after completing his Labourer, for which he received the Gold Medal at the Academy in 1930, he made various experiments in his art, like other avant-garde Danish artists of the time who were interested in Cubist and Surrealist trends in mainland Europe. In the flowering of Danish cultural life in the 1930s Sigurjón created powerful spatial works using simplified, almost abstract forms. Many of those works are in collections abroad, while others are in Iceland, such as Footballers and Desire.
At about the time of the German occupation of Denmark in 1940, Sigurjón received his largest commission so far: two large granite sculptures for the town square in Vejle, Jutland. For this work Sigurjón had to acquire a new technique, sculpting in stone, and this heralded one of the most remarkable periods of his artistic career. On his return to Iceland at the end of World War II he started to work with Icelandic rock, developing his own strong personal style.
But breathing stone-dust took a toll on his health. Late in 1960 Sigurjón was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis, and he spent the next two years in a sanatorium. During his treatment he was fortunate enough to be provided with facilities and assistance to work in iron. That period produced works entirely different from anything he had done before.
After that time Sigurjón started experimenting with welding together sheets of copper, with the idea of working direct with a durable material - and hence avoiding the additional cost of casting works in bronze. Four-Sided Form of 1966 presages the large copper-sheet works such as Throne Pillars at Höfði House and Emblem of Iceland on Hagatorg in Reykjavík.
A new period commenced in Sigurjón's art in the 1960s, when he received his largest-ever commission: reliefs for the façade of the powerhouse of the gigantic Búrfell hydro station. For this he developed a way to cast reliefs in concrete; and in the 1970s he applied this method to many new buildings, such as the Sundaborg complex above the Sundahöfn harbour in Reykjavík.
During the last years of his life, Sigurjón made many pieces in wood - both commercial timber and driftwood. He allowed his imagination free rein, and added new dimensions to his art.
1 Two Sisters 1929, LSÓ 191
Sigurjón made this relief of sisters Inger and Ingeborg Pedersen during his first year of study at the Academy in Copenhagen. Their father, Carlo Pedersen, had run the pharmacy in Sigurjón's home village of Eyrarbakki when Sigurjón was a boy. By this time he was living in Copenhagen, and Sigurjón was a regular visitor to the family home. The elder sister, Inger Olsen, presented the work to the Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum in 2009, and it is now on display for the first time in the museum.
2 Labourer 1930, LSÓ 1017
In 1930 the Icelandic nation celebrated the millennium of the Alþingi (parliament), and Sigurjón planned to return home for the event. Due to lack of funds, however, he was unable to do so, and instead he spent his summer vacation in sculpting a labouring man, over two metres in height, wielding a pick. This was the largest piece he had made.
Sigurjón had grown up among seamen and labourers, and this subject was close to his heart. While the motif had overtones of Social Realism, the technical realisation of the piece and the formal concept were rooted in classical art. Influence may also be discerned from Sigurjón's contemporary, the Danish sculptor Kai Nielsen. For Labourer Sigurjón won the Academy's Gold Medal. The following year the work was purchased by the National Gallery of Iceland.
3 Hunchback 1934, LSÓ 003
The oldest extant example of Sigurjón's portrait sculptures is a small relief of his tutor Aðalsteinn Sigmundsson (LSÓ 169, 1924). Sigurjón's interest in the human visage and unusual characters persisted throughout his life, and his oeuvre includes about 200 portraits.
Hunchback is a work of such remarkable psychological insight and artistic value that it must be deemed one of the artist's best portraits.
4 Footballers 1936, LSÓ 247
In the early years of the twentieth century, the Nordic countries experienced an awakening of public interest in a healthy lifestyle, sport and outdoor activity, under the slogan A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body - Mens sana in corpore sano. The period from 1900 to 1940 has been identified with the concept of vitalisme: many artists of that time - painters and sculptors - sought inspiration in the vigour and vitality of youth. Sigurjón had practised glíma (Iceland's ancient and unique form of wrestling), an experience which stood him in good stead later, in Copenhagen. In 1933 or 1934 he made a sculpture of two men wrestling (Glíma/ Icelandic Wrestling, LSÓ 002) and in 1936 and 1937 he followed this up with his sculptures of footballers, which caused a sensation both for their bold composition and simplification of form. The work displayed here is a fine example of Sigurjón's quest to glorify the law of gravity, to create images which float, while remaining in absolute equilibrium.
The original of the piece remained in Denmark for many years, before being purchased in 1997 by Ólafur Ó. Johnson and his wife Guðrún, and presented to the museum. On display here is a bronze cast of the original. A bronze enlargement of the work was set up in 2001 in Akranes, one of Iceland's leading football communities.
5 My Mother 1938, LSÓ 007
This is undoubtedly Sigurjón's best-known work. Casts of the portrait are in the collections of three national art museums in the Nordic countries: Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, and the National Gallery of Iceland. A fourth cast is displayed here. See wall panels in the gallery for more discussion of the piece.
6 Children at Play 1938, LSÓ 206
With its simplified, rounded forms, this work may be seen as a direct continuation of the Football period in Sigurjón's art. It was part of a larger work made for a Children's House which was to be constructed in memory of Hans Christian Andersen in the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. The proposal for the structure was developed jointly by architect Henning Teisen, artist Egon Mathiesen and Sigurjón Ólafsson. The project received an award, but was never executed; many years later Sigurjón reworked the motif for a mural for the Landsbanki bank. It has been in two branches of the bank in Reykjavík, and is now in the Akranes branch.
The original of the sculpture, first owned by Danish architect Finn Juhl, remained in private ownership in Denmark for many years. In 1991 it was purchased by the Eimskip shipping company and presented to the museum.
7 Desire 1939-40, LSÓ 234
Following on from the Football period of 1936-37, Sigurjón developed new approaches to form and material. He worked both subtractively, i.e. by cutting into the material, and additively, i.e. commencing at the centre and working outwards, adding clay or plaster of Paris. Desire is an example of the additive method, using clay and plaster of Paris. It has now been cast in bronze.
In 1994 the Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum purchased the original of the piece from a private collector in Denmark who had owned it for fifty years. It had only once been on public display, in 1941 at an exhibition of furniture by Danish architect Finn Juhl.
Juhl took a keen interest in sculptors of his time, and sought inspiration in the work of Sigurjón and others such as Erik Thommesen and Jean Arp. In recent books about Juhl, Desire has been incorrectly attributed to Arp. A bronze cast is currently exhibited with the work of Finn Juhl at the Trapholt gallery in Denmark.
8 Sculptures on Vejle Town Square 1941-45, LSÓ 1062 & 1063
In 1941 Sigurjón was commissioned to make two large granite sculptures for the town square in Vejle, Jutland, to depict the four pillars of the local economy: Agriculture, Handicrafts, Commerce and Industry. Sigurjón made the sculptures during World War II, mostly working alone, using hammer and chisel in the old way.
This was his last project, and also the largest, in the 17 years he spent in Denmark; it also heralded an important era in his artistic career, the stone-sculpture period, which continued into the 1960s.
9 Girl 1945, LSÓ 1081
Girl was Sigurjón's first work after his return from Denmark in the autumn of 1945, having lived there since 1928 when he entered the Academy. Here we see clearly how the artist worked with the mass or "clump", preserving the outlines of the rock and cutting into only two surfaces, never deeply.
In 2002 poet Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir composed a poem inspired by Girl, which may be heard on a CD issued by the museum to accompany the exhibition WOMAN - Mistress, crone, damsel, wife.
The original stone sculpture is in a private collection. The fine bronze cast displayed here was made in 2007 by Pangolin Editions (UK).
10 Queen of the Mountains 1947, LSÓ 010
In the first half of the 20th century, many painters and sculptors followed Picasso's example in using the mask motif in their work, in order to create a new and more powerful imagery. They looked to the past, studying "primitive" art. Works of this type have been termed Primitivism.
In 1947 Sigurjón made three pieces based on the same mask motif. This mask-piece was later given the title Queen of the Mountains in reference to a symbolic female figure embodying the spirit of Iceland. Made of wood and painted in bright colours, the sculpture became faded and weathered as it was exposed to the elements for many years. Another version was enlarged after Sigurjón's death, and erected by the Reykjavík City Theatre in 1995.
11 Embrace 1952-53, LSÓ 014
For the first twelve years after his return to Iceland from Denmark, Sigurjón worked mostly in stone: a total of 26 large-scale pieces. Embrace, chiselled from German sandstone, is a smaller version of a piece of the same name worked in Icelandic dolerite (LSÓ 1102) by Sigurjón in 1949, which stands adjacent to the museum building. The original intention was to send the piece to Great Britain, in a competition to create a memorial to the unknown soldier.
The original, which is two metres tall, was made in the year when Iceland became a member of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), a "defensive" Western alliance led by the USA. The government decision to take Iceland into NATO was hotly debated in Iceland; the nation had only been an independent republic since 1944, and many Icelanders, Sigurjón among them, were strongly opposed to joining this alliance. He gave this work the alternative title NATO.
In the sculpture two heads are discernible - two bodies and four legs, tensed together like wrestlers. The lines are straight and sharp, and the forms hard and flat. Most striking are the forms which twist and turn around the piece like elongated arms, or like serpents.
12 Cow's Head 1955, LSÓ 022
The work was made in the summer of 1955, when Sigurjón was staying with his father-in-law at the rectory in Husby on the Danish island of Fyn. Sigurjón was always keen to sculpt living models, and in this case the subject is a prizewinning cow on the farm. He first modelled a sculpture in clay (LSÓ 1135), working in the cattleshed, then chiselled a granite version into a rock he found in a nearby wall. The bovine theme was familiar to him, as in 1933 he had assisted Professor Utzon-Frank in making a vast relief of a bull, Tyr, for the Copenhagen Meat Market.
13 Steinn Steinarr/Infant 1955, LSÓ 1137
This granite sculpture, like Cow's Head, was made on the island of Fyn in Denmark in the summer of 1955. The subject is a naked, helpless infant, still attached to a rounded rock (the womb) by a symbolic umbilical cord. Sigurjón sketches in cords around the rock, which is otherwise left in its natural state.
The sculpture was later dedicated to the memory of poet Steinn Steinarr (1908-58), whose name has been cut into the stone. The work is part of the ASÍ (trades union) art collection, but is located in the Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum.
14 Reformation 1956, LSÓ 1148
Sigurjón had previously worked in copper wire, for instance in his mural for Búnaðarbanki/the Agricultural Bank in Reykjavík in 1948, (LSÓ 1097) but here for the first time he uses sheet copper, which is cold-hammered into shape.
Guðrún St. Halldórsdóttir gave the work to the museum in 2006 in memory of her brother, Rútur Halldórsson, who had purchased the piece in 1958 after Sigurjón's birthday exhibition at Listamannaskálinn. The piece has not been on public display since then.
15 Mother Earth 1961, LSÓ 1177
Working in stone, Sigurjón had inhaled quantities of stone dust, which adversely affected his health. Late in 1960 he was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis, which had been a major public-health problem in Iceland in the first half of 20th century. He was admitted to the Reykjalundur sanatorium outside Reykjavík, where he spent the next two years. During his treatment he was fortunate enough to be provided with facilities and assistance which enabled him to work in iron. He made works quite unlike anything he had done before. During his time at the sanatorium Sigurjón made a total of fifteen pieces in iron and other metals.
Mother Earth has at its core a vertical sheet of iron, with another intersecting it. Sigurjón made several iron sculptures using the same motifs - fantastical creatures resembling the basalt piece Man and Animal (LSÓ 018) of 1951 which stands at the entrance to the museum.
16 Búrfell Wall Relief - Maquette I 1966, LSÓ 207
This is the first draft for the reliefs Sigurjón was commissioned to make for the powerhouse of the Búrfell hydro station. Bronze cast of an original made in plaster of Paris.
17 Búrfell Wall Relief 1966-69, LSÓ 1232
When Sigurjón's reliefs were made on the Búrfell powerhouse, they were by far the largest works of art made by an Icelandic artist, and also in the most remote location. The reliefs are five metres high and total 67 metres in length, covering 335mē of wall. In these works Sigurjón developed an entirely new technique: he cut out "negatives" of the forms in expanded polystyrene, which were fixed inside the shuttering before the concrete was poured.
In addition to being Sigurjón's largest work, the Búrfell reliefs also herald a new period in his art, when he made reliefs in concrete walls, e.g. on the Sundaborg complex above Sundahöfn harbour in Reykjavík (LSÓ 1274), Stórutjarnir school in north Iceland (LSÓ 1283) and apartment buildings in Reykjavík and Kópavogur.
18 Four-Sided Form 1966, LSÓ 224
From 1964, following on from the Iron period, Sigurjón had been experimenting with welding together sheets of copper, thus working direct in a durable material, and avoiding the expense of casting in bronze. Some of the first of these works are Circulation (LSÓ 1198) in the Nordic House, Reykjavík, Banister (LSÓ 1197) at the Keldur Institute, University of Iceland , and Cardinal Points (LSÓ 1214) in the collection of the National Gallery.
Four-sided Form is thus not among the first works using this technique. It is on a monumental scale, and points the way to later outdoor works such as Throne Pillars (LSÓ 1269) at Höfði House and Emblem of Iceland (LSÓ 1278) on Hagatorg, both in Reykjavík.
19 Storm Petrel 1975, LSÓ 1300
Birds are a recurrent theme in Sigurjón's work, for instance in The Bird (1939, LSÓ 1043), Swans (1954, LSÓ 021), Arctic Tern (1956, LSÓ 024), Migratory Birds (1961, LSÓ 1180), and Greeting (1973, LSÓ 073). In 1975 he made two mahogany pieces, Bird of the Night (LSÓ 1293) and Storm Petrel.
The sculpture was presented to the Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum in 1988 by the previous owners, Valborg Hallgrímsdóttir and Kristján Guðmundsson.
20 Creation 1976/1988, LSÓ 072
In 1976 Sigurjón made a model in expanded polystyrene of a work he intended to have cut in marble. By that time he was no longer working with stone himself. It was not until after Sigurjón's death that his long-time assistant Erlingur Jónsson carved the marble sculpture. At that time (1985 -88) Sigurjón's studio was undergoing restoration and conversion into the present museum. The museum sought funding and financial assistance from many parties; with great generosity, wholesalers Ó. Johnson & Kaaber purchased the completed sculpture from the museum, and returned it as a gift on the occasion of the opening of the Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum on 21 October 1988.
The forms which make up the pieces have parallels in other works by Sigurjón; references to vegetation and life, a fertility goddess and a water creature with eyes and fins.
21 The President 1980, LSÓ 118
The work is made up of rough offcuts of timber, delicate tropical woods and metal. The core is a fragment of shipbuilding oak reminiscent of a throne, on which sits a delicate crowned figure with ornaments, protected behind a curved piece (a stave from a barrel). It was probably no coincidence that Sigurjón made this piece in the same year that Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was elected Iceland's first female president.
22 Soft forms 1981, LSÓ 129
Columns are a recurrent theme of Sigurjón's visual world, from the very beginning of his career in Denmark. Most of his works - including the abstracts - maintain human proportions. The column works are no exception to the rule.
Sigurjón himself never imposed symbolism or predetermined meanings on those who viewed his works, leaving them open to different interpretations.
In the last years of his life Sigurjón made many works of a variety of material that came to hand, such as driftwood, as in this case.