When standing directly in front of Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavík’s landmark church, look to the right. There is a building sitting across the street that somewhat resembles a medieval castle.
This castle of a building is one of the most exceptional museums in all of Iceland. It is called Listasafn Einars Jónssonar (The Einar Jónsson Museum), dedicated to one of Iceland’s most celebrated sculptors and it exhibits the most remarkable pieces of art.
Review and photos by Sarah Green.
The entrance to the museum leads into a vast exhibition hall. As I roamed the floor, I felt like a pawn moving across a giant chessboard. The statues that are part of the museum’s permanent exhibition loom as giant white chest pieces, the figures visually symbolizing some tactical influence over the room. I wandered through the statues until finally settling on one piece.
What attracted me to this particular sculpture was the unsettling face of the figure holding the woman. Its teeth and boulder-like head were strange and confusing. The sculpture’s title reads “Dawn.”
It clicked. The woman is drawing the giant titan figure back, as a wave of darkness retracts from the houses below. The sculpture illustrates dawn with a simple yet effective visual language. This representation of myth is a common theme in most of Jónsson’s sculptures, drawing his themes from Norse mythology and Icelandic folk tales.
Jónsson’s sculpture of King Heimir is another example. King Heimir is a Scandinavian character who fears for the safely of his foster daughter and therefore conceals the child inside a large harp. He assumes the identity of a poor musician and travels through Scandinavia with the child inside his instrument.
Through a twist of fate, a poor Norwegian couple murders the king in his sleep, hoping to find great treasures hidden in his harp. When the couple cracks open the harp, they find the king’s foster daughter instead. They decide to adopt the little girl, renaming her Kráka (“Crow”).
“The Wrestlers,” 1912-1927.
By denying himself the influences of other artists, Jónsson had to pave his own creative path and so he experimented with new ways of mixing shapes and sizes. In “The Wrestlers” his composition uses the shape angle of a triangle, then contrasts it with the stability of a rectangle.
It’s hard not to feel a sense of something larger living inside Jónsson’s figures. The sculptures are so masterfully executed that it’s difficult to believe human hands articulated them. The sculpture of “Greif” feels alive, as if the muscles and veins are only outlined in bronze and plaster. As if their shape were born into plaster.
The artist is visually represented as the laborer in Jónsson’s “Sparks.” He worked tirelessly to bring out the creative spark within, representing the strict code he had in regards to his artistic practices.
Jónsson held himself to always produce only the best original work and demonstrated this code on his own sculptures. If they displayed a lack in quality or showed any similarity to other artists’ work, he would break them, revealing a deep respect for his own ability.
Einar Jónsson was born to a farming family in the south of Iceland in 1874. He studied first in Denmark and then in Rome. When he moved back to Iceland he arranged for the castle-like building, which later would become the Einar Jónsson Museum, to be constructed, in return for ownership of his creations.
To begin with, the building served as a gallery, studio, and living quarters. The museum was opened to the public in 1923, as Iceland’s first art museum, and Einar Jónsson became one of the country’s first state sponsored fine artists.
Today, the entire property is open to the public. The indoor exhibit contains three floors; the first two are dedicated to the artist’s plaster sculptures and paintings, and the top floor, which used to be a penthouse suite where Jónsson lived with his wife, has also become part of the exhibit. All the furniture, photographs and paintings in the room have remained relatively untouched since his death in 1954.
All of Jónsson’s pieces of art have been left unmoved. Even under the state’s payroll, he had strict rules regarding what could be done with his sculptures. A clause in his contract stated they could never be moved once he selected their resting place. One of the reasons why Jónsson is relatively unknown throughout the world is namely because none of his pieces have ever been allowed to tour.
The museum charges admission for the indoor exhibit: ISK 400 (USD 4.8, EUR 3.3) for adults, ISK 200 (USD 2.4, EUR 1.6) for the elderly and disabled, ISK 300 (USD 3.6, EUR 2.5) for groups of 10 or more, and children under the age of 16 are admitted free of charge.
The general hours for the museum are Saturday and Sunday, 2 pm to 5 pm. During the summer months of June through September, the museum is open six days a week, closed Mondays. The museum is closed during the slow months of December and January but the sculpture garden has no admission charge and is open all year round.
The museum is located in the center of downtown, at Eiríksgata, 101 Reykjavík. It is easy to find without a map due to the impossibility to miss its neighbor, Hallgrímskirkja.
Sarah Green is an animator and experimental filmmaker whose works have been screened internationally.