Iceland review 4/98
From here to eternity
Landscape artist Georg Gudni works indirectly from Icelandic
nature, using memory and the imagination.
This autumn, the artist Georg Gudni has been landscaping his garden. Setting aside his painting, he has been moving vast piles of earth, laying flagstones and planting small conifers and shrubs.
Georg, as one calls him, moved to this house in Ellidaárdalur, close by Reykjavík's salmon river, a year ago. A short walk from where he used to live as a child, the location is ideal for Georg, his wife Sigrún and their three children. Perfect for putting down roots.
“I wasn’t allowed to dig down at all,” Georg smiles, indicating a border raised to screen
Iceland’s largest electricity distribution station opposite. “Under here runs a huge supply cable for the whole capital. The electricity company insisted on supervising the work and sent in their own team.”
Georg appreciates these little confrontations between man and the environment. They are something he observed from an early age, accompanying his father on field trips, research for hydro-electric dams eventually built between 10 and 15 years later. The experience, as we shall see, helped shape his relationship with nature as an artist.
In his studio, a white, garage-like box in the half-basement, Georg kindly mounts an instant exhibition. At least 25 paintings are shown in two hours, tapestries of mountains and barren waste lands yet woven with rich colour: the essence of Icelandic light in oil.
He works from memory in this near-windowless room. The paintings have ceased to mirror real-life features since the late eighties and all are now untitled. Incomparable with pretty-pretty, identifiable pictures of Icelandic scenery, these paintings demand that even the most anonymous hill or heath can reveal the beauty of the whole island.
Paint is applied in layers, often daily over a period of six months, before Georg is satisfied with the perspective. The mood is mystical, metaphysical and Georg is helpful but apologetic. “I don't find it easy to say what my paintings are about,” he says. “I am aware that if I say something today, I might say something else tomorrow. So the meaning is revealed in layers, like the paintings themselves.”
Georg, who will be 38 in January, was born in Reykjavík, the son of geologist Haukur Tómasson and Karitas Jónsdóttir, a dressmaker from Bolungarvík in the northwest. He continued surveying during summer jobs, taking water samples for the Energy Authority, throughout his teens. “My earliest memories are of wasteland and freedom, running around in the middle of nowhere, the quietness,” he says. “When you are working, you have to be out in all kinds of weather. It inspired me as an artist, standing in the rain all day where nothing was to be seen.”
Despite his parents’ misgivings – they wanted him to keep art as a hobby while pursuing a more secure career path – Georg enrolled at the Icelandic College of Art and Crafts. He has always drawn it wasn’t as if it was an accident or anything” – and early stimulants were zeitgeists like surrealism and pop art. The Icelandic painter Érro's 1978 exhibition at Reykjavík’s Kjarvalsstadir impressed him, as did a 1975 piece by the artist Magnús Pálsson called Flædarmál (Beach) – three movable plaster casts of beach, sea and sky conceptually changing the landscape into a “seamless book.”
At college, Georg tolerated expressionism, the latest trend, and his first joint exhibition reflected this phase. “It was physical, aggressive work, using all kinds of paints to create large canvasses,“ he says.
“I thought landscapes were the last thing I would paint. Not only were they perceived to be the past but they were then Naivist as well – works popular with the masses but despised by many artists.”
He was unable to escape the landscape tradition, however, from Collingwood’s watercolours through to the great period – artists such as Thórarinn B. Thorláksson, Ásgrímur Jónsson, Jóhannes Kjarval, Jón Stefánsson. And being accused of simplicity or naivity by his contemporaries was a risk Georg felt worth taking. “To many of them, my landscapes were a joke. And it wasn’t until I felt more secure about what I was doing that I felt confident in showing the results.”
Critics admired Georg’s first solo exhibition in 1985, applauding his courage in adopting a genre considered passé. The works were all of mountains around Reykjavík and at Thingvellir. Although the mood is uncertain, the rugged Icelandic landscape is never threatening. “Somehow, I feel relieved by the landscape,” Georg says. “It is the opposite of this noisy, fast world in which we live. Where everything has to be done quickly, where houses and roads have to be everywhere.”
Later, Georg entered the liberal Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastrict, Holland, recommended to him by his teachers in Reykjavík who had developed the “Dutch connection” first initiated by SÚM artists in the seventies. There, he extended his ideas about memory and the imagination. “I discovered that I didn’t want to paint from direct observation,” he explains. “When I decide on a particular mountain, by the time I begin to paint the subject becomes mixed with impressions of others. I sometimes think it is not the reality of the landscape I am seeking to reproduce but the emptiness, the space within.”
“I have problems looking at other landscapes in other countries. Even if it is magnificent to look at, it takes time to get to know things such as different times of the year and day, different weather. I am like the farmer going around his land who comes into contact with nature in a completely different way than the traveller seeing something for the first or perhaps only time.”
During vacations, Georg returned to Iceland and travelled alone around the country seeking inspiration. “Sometimes I was painting valleys in my head before I actually saw them,” he recalls. He was aware of having to create something new. “I could paint mountains endlessly. But I knew that they were not necessarily going to be any more interesting than what had come before.”
In 1987, Georg began experimenting with abstract geometries. The period is marked by an obsession with a mountain close by his mother’s birthplace in Ísafjördur fjord, and the resulting canvasses contain what one Icelandic critic defined as “the perfect line.” “I tried to unite the earth and sky; painting the landscape without anything except two halves meeting each other,”
Georg says. “And from this I got very interested in the line which divides and the nothing that is between. I am trying to paint the air, the invisibility, between me and the horizon, between myself and infinity.”
By the early 1990s, Georg had returned to more formal compositions, but the geometric style was evident still. His brushwork was applied horizontally and vertically, weaving the painting together inside the frame, using the spaces between the layers of paint to emphasise perspective. At the same time, valleys and mountains were painted as if forming walls in a room, with the observer being invited or challenged to step inside this illusory three-dimensional world.
“You don’t stop at the varnish, the painting on the canvas,” Georg says. “You go past the materials and into the painting itself.”
These works confirmed Georg Gudni’s reputation both in Iceland and abroad, although he had exhibited in Sweden as early as 1984. Michael Tucker, professor of poetics at the University of Brighton in England, praises Georg Gudni’s “distilled poetry of subtly modulated tones” in the catalogue for a 1990 exhibition which toured the UK called “Landscape from High Latitude.”
Comparing his treatment of light to the English painter J.M.W. Turner and Germany’s Caspar David Friedrich, Tucker suggests that Georg is re-discovering the sublime in art. “This may yet prove to be essential in our consumer-crazy, mega-visual world of limitless, yet utterly limiting material ambition,” Tucker concludes.
In Iceland, Georg Gudni is revered by art.is, the Icelandic critics’ forum whose web site on the Internet (www.art.is) displays one of his works as its frontispiece. Indeed, such is his stature that Georg now has several imitators but this does not seem to worry him. “I don't waste too much time thinking about it,” he says. “If anything, it just makes me more determined to push on. For the last two years I have wanted to go into the landscape more than ever before.”
At his most recent exhibition, held at Kjarvalsstadir last April, it was clear that Georg’s style and form have undergone another change. The works, some of which are illustrated on these pages, are smaller, less exhausting emotionally, perhaps, both for the viewer and artist. “When my painting becomes too technical, I try to develop something else,” he says. “Even though I am making it simpler, I am painting for the spirit – not to be admired for the craftsmanship.”
On my way out of the house, we pause to admire some tall Norwegian pines, planted by a neighbour about 70 years ago. “Nature inspires, me but it is the painting itself which directs me,” he says. “It is a two-way thing, like a conversation.”
This interview is taken from Iceland Review quarterly magazine, issue 4/1998.