The Iceland Guide

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The land and the people

Culture: Painting, sculpture and music

Over the last hundred years or so, with the growth of Reykjavík as a cosmopolitan city with a sizeable concentration of population and increasing exposure to the outside world, several branches of the arts which had languished in Iceland for centuries have gained a new lease of life.

Painting, for so long a poor relation of Iceland's culture, is today perhaps the most vigorous and exciting of the arts. The country's newfound wealth and independence produced a wave of new artists around the turn of the century who established painting for the first time as a significant force in the country`s cultural life. Ásgrímur Jónsson, Jón Stefánsson and Jóhannes Kjarval are generally considered to have made the largest contribution to this transformation. As prosperity and material comfort increased, the Icelanders' attitude to nature appears to have subtly altered; at any rate there has been an increasing interest in landscape painting, once shunned as a genre. The post–war generation have exhibited an enormous diversity of styles, with the various schools of modernism — expressionism, constructivism, surrealism, abstract painting and so on — all well represented.

Sculpture has never had a strong tradition in Iceland, most probably because the traditional raw materials such as stone and wood were for centuries in exceedingly short supply (the craft of carving small wooden domestic objects was, however, well–established, although it is little practised nowadays). With the development of new sculptural media such as wire and concrete this obstruction has been removed, and an increasing interest in the sculptural arts is developing. The most important sculptor of the modern age is Ásmundur Sveinsson whose work ranges from representational to abstract forms in a wide variety of media.

Examples of the work of many of the artists mentioned here can be found in the National Art Gallery.

Music, too, had unpromising origins in Icelandic history. The skalds may have sung some of their poems, and the advent of Christianity introduced chanting and hymn singing. Secular songs were sung, the most common form being the rímur–song, sung versions of the rímur cycles mentioned earlier.

Only two musical instruments are known to be native to Iceland; these are rather similar to one another, both being stringed instruments which were placed on a table and played with a bow. Not surprisingly, Iceland folk music has a distinctive sound of its own, quite unlike that of any other European country.

The growth of Reykjavík and other settlements provided the catalyst for increased musical activity; many musical disciplines such as choir singing, brass bands and orchestras, require group activity (and an audience) that had not really been practicable in the old isolated form of Icelandic existence, with small rural communities scattered throughout the island, and little communication between them.

Since 1970 there has been a biennial International Arts Festival, with music as its principal ingredient, which has attracted many musicians of world–renown to Iceland, and the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera Company nowadays both attract large and enthusiastic followings.

Other communal art forms, such as drama and the other performance arts, have also flourished in recent years.

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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