The Iceland Guide

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Books by David Williams
These include travel guides to Iceland and Scotland.

The land and the people

Culture: Culture in the Icelandic environment

A society`s cultural achievements are always shaped by the geographical, economic and social circumstances under which they are created and Iceland is far from being an exception to this rule. The country's isolation, its Norse traditions, the long winter nights and the lack of building materials have, among other factors, all contributed towards the development of an unusual cultural heritage.

A discussion of this heritage is perhaps best prefaced by a brief description of what it is not, for Iceland's special circumstances have until recently precluded its people from pursuing excellence in many artistic fields that the populations of other countries are fortunate enough to have been able to enjoy for centuries.

As he or she travels round the country, the visitor to Iceland will soon notice that there are no old castles, keeps, walls or other fine buildings or architectural monuments. Most of the buildings are new and Reykjavík does not boast a single building that is more than two hundred years old. Lack of suitable building materials (due to a great extent to the geological youth of the country) has prevented the development of architectural skills until the most recent times. There are few public buildings made of stone; the Parliament House in Reykjavík is one notable exception. The turf, wood and corrugated buildings seen at the beginning of the century have been replaced by concrete, but there are (happily, perhaps) few buildings more than several storeys high.

The absence of substantial buildings designed to stand for generations inhibited the development of painting, for there were no walls permanent enough to decorate with frescos or murals or splendid enough to serve as settings for fine works of art; nor, thanks to the poverty of much of the island`s history, were there rich patrons to encourage artists and provide commissions.

All the same, it is perhaps surprising that the spectacular Icelandic scenery did not inspire a greater response from Iceland`s artists. However, the Icelandic attitude to Nature was a very practical one (born no doubt of the vicissitudes that she so frequently showered upon them) and she was regarded more as an adversary than an artistic inspiration. It was only those artists who went abroad for an education that painted landscapes of their homeland — and these were usually romanticised. On returning home, these painters found little public interest in their work.

Such art as did exist was instead largely religious in inspiration, and centred around the painstaking work of illuminating manuscripts.


What`s in the website ?


The land and the people

The first explorers
The Age of the Settlement
The conversion to Christianity
The discovery of Greenland and America
The collapse of the Commonwealth
The Dark Ages
The nineteenth century
The twentieth century
Culture in the Icelandic environment
Old Icelandic literature
Eddic and skaldic poetry
The Sagas
Later literature
Modern literature
Painting, sculpture and music
The Icelanders
Traditional living conditions
The seasons
Changes in the modern world
Independent minds
Superstition, morality and the media
The land
On the edge of Europe
The shape of the land
The volcanoes
The glaciers
The natural world
The climate
The economy and infrastructure
Industry and energy