Reykjavík: a City of Sculpture Gardens and Public Monuments

Sculpture Nature

April 19, 2017

 SIGURJÓN ÓLAFSSON, EMBRACE, 1949. PHOTO: KRISTEN BROWN

SIGURJÓN ÓLAFSSON, EMBRACE, 1949. PHOTO: KRISTEN BROWN

Iceland’s parliament, the oldest functioning legislative body in the world, currently meets in a small brick building in downtown Reykjavík. A towering statue of 19th century independence figure, Jón Sigurðsson, looks over the parliament house, Alþingishús, from a modest park across the street. This is the sort of nationalistic sculpture that is expected in front of government buildings, but even closer to Alþingishús is The Black Cone, Monument to Civil Disobedience (2012), a sculpture by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra (1966–) commemorating the 2008-09 anti-government protests held in the same park. The sculpture is a giant boulder cracked down the center by a small metal cone, which is meant to resemble the conical hats worn by individuals convicted by the Spanish Inquisition. Together, these sculptures are a reminder that both civic traditions and an active populace are the safeguards of democracy. Though the controversial placement of Sierra’s work pitted some members of Parliament against the Reykjavík Art Museum and the Reykjavík City Council, The Black Cone’s location illustrates the prominence of sculpture in Reykjavík.

The city is also the home to three sculpture museums and gardens dedicated to individual artists. The statue of Jón Sigurðsson was created by Einar Jónsson (1874–1954), one of Iceland’s most prominent sculptors. The Einar Jónsson Museum sits next to Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavík’s monumental modernist Lutheran church. Einar’s work is largely in a classical style indebted to Norse, Christian, and Greek mythology. Working from the late-nineteenth century through the 1950s, however, the increasing influence of modernism is evident in much of Einar’s work, with the appearance of abstract forms in many pieces. A leafy garden behind the castle-like museum showcases highlights from the artist’s oeuvre, such as Elli og Þór (Thor Wrestling with Age) (1939–40), depicting the young god grappling with the outstretched body of the personification of age drape of a dozen anonymous bodies.

Just outside the city’s core is Ásmundarsafn, a branch of the Reykjavík Art Museum dedicated to sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893–1982). The museum is a stark white building topped with an observation dome, and it once served as both the artist’s home and studio. Because of Iceland’s lack of wood and trees, Ásmundur opted to build the house out of stone, which is also a common material in his work. The museum exhibits smaller pieces and work by other artists, while a sculpture garden surrounding the building displays many of Ásmundur’s large-scale works. Only 19 years younger than Einar Jónsson, Ásmundur fully embraced modernism, creating works of curved figures that are equal parts Neolithic sculpture and Picasso-esque. Helreiðin (Hell-Ride) (1944) is an enormous four-legged, one-armed creature with both a human and a horse head that looks like it crawled out of Guernica (1937). Like Einar Jónsson, Ásmundur’s work can also be seen all throughout Reykjavík, including his iconic Vatnsberinn (Water Carrier) (1937), versions of which are installed at Ásmundarsafn and a major downtown intersection.

Like Ásmundur Sveinsson, Sigurjón Ólafsson (1908–1982) worked firmly in the style of modernist sculpture, but his work is more abstract and employs a number of materials, including non-indigenous wood. The Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum, a division of the National Gallery of Iceland, occupies a piece of land on the Reykjavík coast. The garden in front of the museum is breathtaking, with Sigurjón’s totem-like wood sculptures and blocky metal and stone works set against the Faxa Bay and snow-capped mountains in the distance. A few of Sigurjón’s more representational works can be found around town. Admission is required for all three museums, but the gardens are free and open to the public.

These three gardens are all worth visiting, but they leave viewers without an understanding of the significant contribution of Iceland’s many women sculptors. Much of this work can be seen around town, but in 2014, the city council also dedicated a portion of Hljómskálagarður park, on the southwest corner of Tjörnin lake, to the work of female sculptors. The most prominent work is Nína Sæmundsson’s (1892–1965) Hafmeyjan (Mermaid) (1948), a bronze mermaid on a pedestal submerged in the lake. Reminiscent of Edvard Eriksen’s famous The Little Mermaid (1913) in Copenhagen, the work alludes to both Iceland folklore and the Hans Christian Andersen story. This is a copy of the original that was blown up by vandals in 1960. þorbjörg Pálsdóttir’s (1919–2009) 1968 sculpture, Piltur og stúlka (Kata og Stebbi) [Boy and Girl (Kata and Stebbi)], is an excellent example of the artist’s unique contemporary style of roughly sculpture individuals with concave chests and faces.

While the city’s various sculpture gardens present concentrations of work, often in stunning landscapes, the majority of sculptures are best viewed by exploring Reykjavík on foot. The Reykjavík Art Museum provides an interactive map documenting dozens of public works in their collection. Near the parliament house, on the north shore of Tjörnin, is one of the city’s most distinctive works, Magnús Tómasson’s (1943–) Minnisvarði um óþekkta embættismanninn (Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat) (1993). In a more traditional style, the piece depicts the legs, torso, and arms of a man wearing a suit and holding a briefcase. His head, however, is entombed in an enormous chunk of unsculpted stone. The work succinctly sums up the experience of many office workers, weighed down by nebulous monolith, and many passersby openly identify with the nameless bureaucrat. Though situated on the picturesque Tjörnin, the man is fittingly walking in the direction of Reykjavík City Hall.

Notable works also include several by Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir (1955–), who is most well known for her life-sized, anonymous, and nude sculptures. Diverging a bit from this norm, Rætur (Roots) (2000), installed on the sidewalk of a busy shopping street, features on the torso and head of two such figures, who are encased in rectangular blocks of bronze. These subjects are like the inverse of the unknown bureaucrat, and though the two figures face each other, one gazes upwards and the other peers at the ground. They are incapable of moving as thousands of works, residents, and tourists buzz around them.

Though most of the public sculpture in Reykjavík was created by an almost overwhelming number of Icelandic artists, there are a handful of works by international artists, such as Sierra. Most notable are Yoko Ono’s (1933–) Imagine Peace Tower (2007), a tower of light beamed into the sky and unveiled on John Lennon’s 67th birthday, and Richard Serra’s (1938–) Áfangar (1990), a collection of 18 basalt columns. Both Imagine Peace Tower and Áfangar are located on Viðey, an island off the coast of Reykjavík, and require a ferry to reach. The commanding sculpture of Leif Erikson at the entrance of Hallgrímskirkja was created by Alexander Calder (1898–1976).

Iceland is famous for its waterfalls, glaciers, and volcanoes, but Reykjavík is without a doubt a city of art and culture, with numerous museums, galleries, and music venues. For sculpture enthusiasts, some time exploring the city is a must. And Reykjavík’s cultural offerings are not so disconnected from the island’s geological wonders. When building his home and studio, Ásmundur Sveinsson opted to use stone rather than wood to better reflect the materials available in the country, and in a broader sense, it seems reasonable that a nation forged from molten earth would enjoy a strong and diverse sculpture tradition.