Icelandic art, rooted in 19th-century European traditions, evolved uniquely in the 20th century, shaped by its landscapes and rich mythology. Many do not know that Icelanders are considered one of the most creative nations in the world. And this creativity shines through in a myriad of Iceland art forms such as music, the written word, paintings, movies and much more. In this article, we take a deep dive into Icelandic art and its most prominent figures.
Did you know that one out of every four people in Iceland in a creative career? It’s no surprise that the sheer amount of Icelandic art being pumped out of this tiny island is quite impressive. A study that was conducted to find out why Icelanders are so creative. The study concluded that it’s their attitude of independence and tolerance that creates a more open environment. This is known to be one of the key elements needed for innovation. So let’s see what this innovative nation has been up to over the years:
Even in modern times, Icelandic music is very much influenced by its origins. Rimur were tales that were sung during the Viking era. But “sung” might be a strong word for this primal a cappella. If you listen closely, you’ll still find elements of this age-old tradition in the popular Icelandic artists of today:
This is probably one of the Icelandic artists who are most well-known across the world. And whether you enjoy her music or admire the fact that she can pitch up on a red carpet wearing a “swan”, she is clearly an Icelandic force to be reckoned with. Björk’s music is very eclectic and hard to pin down. Whilst it can be described as electronic, classical, experimental or pop, the all-encompassing term Avant-garde probably does this artist the most justice.
Of Monsters and Men
Of Monsters and Men is another group of talented Icelandic artists that made waves across the world. In fact, their music has gained such popularity in mainstream culture that their music has been included in many movies and series. You may have heard their music in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Grey’s Anatomy. But whether you are a fan or it’s the first time you hear their Indie folk pop/rock, their Icelandic roots are undeniable.
Sigur Rós is probably one of the most established groups of Icelandic artists, being on the music circuit since 1994. This Icelandic post-rock band from Reykjavík adopted its name by simply “borrowing” the name of one of the band member’s sisters. These guys have raked in a couple of impressive awards, including a now legendary MTV EMA. But even whilst being a world-renowned post-rock band, the ethereal Iceland elements cannot be mistaken.
Do you feel like immersing yourself in Icelandic music and everything this culture has to offer? You simply need to plan your trip around one of the many (and we do mean many) festivals held on the island. Some of the most popular are:
- Reykjavík Jazz Festival
- Iceland Airwaves (November in Reykjavík)
- Secret Solstice (June in Reykjavík)
- Siglufjördur Folk Festival (July in Siglufjördur)
- Sonar (June in Reykjavík)
Iceland art, especially its painting, is heavily influenced by the Icelandic landscape and surroundings. The country’s rich history and folklore also play a major role. Paintings come in all shapes and sizes and range in mediums such as watercolors, oil and others. Many of the most popular Icelandic art (whether traditional Iceland art or more modern versions) can be enjoyed at the main museums of Iceland. Icelandic paintings can also be found on postcards and other items in Iceland souvenir shops. Some of the most well-known Icelandic artists include:
This Icelandic painter was actually the first on the island to make a living from his art and is considered to be an Icelandic pioneer. Jonsson is mainly inspired by his travels and surroundings, and heavily influenced by the French impressionists. Asgrimur Jonsson’s art became snapshots in time of the Icelandic landscape and towns such as Reykjavík.
Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval
This is yet another important Icelandic painter that is considered to be one of the founding fathers of the Iceland art world. He drew a lot of inspiration from Icelandic nature – from the mountains and rivers to the lava and moss covering the island. In fact, at a certain stage of his career, he made a conscious decision to only focus on the Icelandic landscape and to only paint outdoors.
If you are looking for someone a bit more contemporary, Erró is for you. He is Iceland’s equivalent of Andy Warhol and his pop art takes on commercials, comic books and collages are truly something to marvel at.
Iceland is a country heavily rooted in storytelling. Its rich history sets the benchmark pretty high when it comes to writing. One of the most interesting facts is that the Icelandic language has remained so stable throughout the years that Icelanders today will have no difficulty reading archaic Icelandic writings.
Some of the most important writings in Iceland are undoubtedly the Sagas. The Sagas were written in the 13th and 14th centuries. And what exactly is fact and fiction remains a mystery to this day. The Sagas undeniably touched on the history of Iceland. These writings recount the settlement, the structuring of society, the creation of laws, etc. But it was written in such an engaging way that it reminds one of a modern-day novel. No wonder, you can find an entire museum dedicated to these legendary tales.
But in a country where one out of every ten people boasts a published book, the Icelandic writing did not end with the Sagas and when it comes to making art in Iceland, the island has plenty of authors up its sleeves. If you’re ever looking to broaden your library, these Icelandic authors will be wonderful additions:
His novels were so popular that he ended up being the first author whose novels were translated into other languages. One of his books even made it to the big screen with one of Iceland’s most well-known actors, Ingvar E. Sigurdsson, playing the lead. Arnaldur Indridason’s books are all crime fiction starring one main character: Detective Erlendur.
This Icelandic author was a true legend and the only one to have won a Nobel Prize for his writing. He was multi-talented and wrote anything from newspaper articles and poetry to plays and novels. One of his plays (Under the Glacier) was also turned into a movie. Today you can visit this author’s home which is now the Laxness Museum conveniently situated next to the popular Golden Circle route.
Audur Ava Olafsdóttir
This Icelandic author (and professor of art history!) has a number of award-winning novels, plays and poetry under her belt. Yet, you might know her from her world-renowned fiction novel called The Greenhouse. Audur Ava Olafsdóttir’s novels have proven to be so popular that they have already been translated into more than 20 languages!
When delving into the architecture of Iceland, you will find a country rooted in its traditions. Icelanders are dedicated to the environment and deeply devoted to design as an art in Iceland. Traditionally, the architecture in Iceland consists of low-rise buildings made of wood and metal with pitched roofs. Many of these elements can still be seen in Iceland’s modern architecture. And as a country that places a high value on sustainable living, many of its building designs are very “green”. People come from all over the world to marvel at some of the architecture Iceland has. Popular sites include:
Hallgrímskirkja aka the Church of Iceland in Reykjavík
This building is the largest church on the island and is still very much active today. But it’s not just the majestic tower rising against the Icelandic blue sky that makes Hallgrimskirkja so impressive. If you look closely, the inspiration becomes clear; the famous Basalt columns found all over Iceland due to its volcanic activity.
Asmundarsafn Museum in Reykjavík
As the previous home of sculptor Asmundur Sveinsson, it should come as no surprise that Asmundarsafn Museum can only be described as true Iceland art. Taking its cue from the Mediterranean and Arabic architectural styles, the building is unique with its rounding bulges and cubistic lines, with Sveinsson’s sculptures scattered around to give the final effect.
The Nordic House in Reykjavík
The Nordic House is the epitome of modern architecture. Designed by modern architect, Alvar Aalto, it not only has a minimalistic take on it but was also built to emphasize the building’s natural surroundings.
The mere fact that Iceland hosts an annual international film festival should tell you that the movie industry on the island is alive and well. In fact, it’s astounding to learn that a small island such as Iceland releases an average of 2 movies each year!
Over the years, Icelandic movies have been more in the spotlight, with famous Icelandic actors and actresses playing roles in Hollywood blockbusters as well as streaming platforms such as Netflix making Icelandic movies more accessible. If you would like to broaden your knowledge of Icelandic movies or just gain a new appreciation for this Iceland art form, then here are a few favorites you can watch:
Angels of the Universe (2000)
Angels of the Universe is a dramatic comedy that tells the tale of a young man’s struggle with mental illness and how that impacts himself and the people around him.
Children of Nature (1991)
Children of Nature nearly took home the Oscar for foreign film, and is about a man who has grown too old to take care of himself and his farm any longer. He ends up in a retirement home, but after meeting another resident called Stella, what was a sad and lonely ending to his life turns into something else entirely.
The Sea (2002)
The Sea is a very typical big powerful family drama, so if you love those kinds of movies, this one’s for you. An infamous big family in a small town needs to deal with their fish company as well as their family drama.
Experience Iceland Art for Yourself
To really do Iceland art and all Icelandic artists justice, you’ll need to write multiple books on the topic. But there’s no doubt that the Icelanders are a unique and creative bunch. But don’t take our word for it. Book your trip and come see for yourself. Come and immerse yourself in all the art in Iceland!