On Art, Books and Women: Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir


On Art, Books and Women: Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir

Review by Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine. Photos courtesy of the museum.

rjuntitled1976Untitled, 1976.

I saw the iconic work of the Icelandic veteran graphic artist Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir (b.1933) for the very first time at The Reykjavik Art Museum, Kjarvalsstaðir, in a historic exhibition about the Redstockings feminist movement in Iceland which took off in the 1970s (click here to read my article History Lesson in Icelandic Feminist Art). Now, the retrospective exhibition Mindplay and Fingerdance (in the same museum and curated by Eiríkur Þorláksson) got me by surprise where she also shares criticism of the movement and exhibits completely new works since the 1990s—in style and spirit. The first positive thing which caught my immediate attention is the abundance of explanatory texts in English accompanying the artworks, despite the lack of a catalogue. A true blessing when doing research for this review.

I always try to give as much useful information about the artist as possible, but most of all show how the artist thinks and what kind of personality they have (if possible), based on the research. But I wish this text was available on an A4 print-out for people interested in art and taking a part of the exhibition with themselves as a memory.

rj24okt1976October 24, 1976.

There is a short background presentation of the artist on the website of Kjarvalsstaðir but with the lack of a few important details, such as year of birth. The most disappointing part is that the Icelandic version points to the website of the artist but not the English version.

The Icelandic version states when the exhibition ends (January 20, 2013), but not the English version. Also, there are four photo samples of art works in both versions, but they are different and they all represent older works (traditional representational etchings with symbolism heavily influenced by feminism). My guess is that this is perhaps because the artist is most famous for those early works.

I wouldn’t go into discussing feminism at length in this article, but her expressed attitude of conflicted feelings resonated with me. To me, the hard-core early feminists divided the female world into two clear-cut types: career women and housewives. Тhe majority of women today, as myself, belong to the third type: to those who are equally driven to have a satisfying career and yearn to raise their children. And the balancing act is almost impossible, especially if you are a single mother!

The artist remembers, “At this time the feminists [the Redstockings movement] were beginning to give their radio talks... I agreed with them wholeheartedly on these issues. But I also felt that they belittled housewives working at home, hinting that such women were somehow narrow-minded and isolated... I was very happy with my lot until I begun listening to this... I wanted to express my own feelings, this great yearning to have children, and a feeling of anxiety at the same time. You feel a great responsibility, as you now have more roles than before, and are no longer free.”In her early works from the time of the Redstockings, the artist loved to use the symbolism of a dress (as the female role in society) and chairs (as authority figures), as seen in the work ‘October 24,’ 1976. In particular, the ‘Untitled I’ image (1976) of a dress hanging on a string with pegs and imitating the invisible body of a pregnant woman is carved in stone into my memory.

rjvbook1980Book, 1980.

The artist explains, “I was very tied down, and that’s why I hung the dresses on clotheslines or tied them to chairs. And some of them were of course were very bloated... Everything was registered in the name of the husband, and the wife was kind of in the background.”

To my delight, Jónsdóttir’s professional website displays only the newest charcoal-on-canvas works which are quite different in abstract and minimal forms, even though she has never abandoned her early fascination with working only in grayscale.

They remind me somehow of the Catalan veteran artist Antoni Tàpies’ latest works with their refined elegance and meditative quality (inspired by Eastern philosophy), whose posthumous retrospective exhibition also took place in Kjarvalsstaðir a year ago.

Personally, I feel that the most beautiful quote from the exhibition Mindplay and Fingerdance is Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir’s explanation what art means to her (keeping in mind that she has repeatedly used images of female body shapes in the past, has done book illustration and is obviously interested in the book form):

“I have sometimes said that visual art is not unlike reading a book. It’s always exciting to find out what is on the next page, what will be added to the picture. Anything can happen next... Perhaps the book has a lot in common with the woman. You find her interesting. You acquire it. You stroke it. You are filled with anticipation. You open it. You lose yourself in it. You find it exciting. You read it from cover to cover, again and again. You put it aside. You think nothing compares with it... You read it again and again. You think it is empty, trite, an insipid tatters of a book, so that you get rid of it, or lend it to someone else.”

We may become trite to our partners as struggling wives on the verge of breakdown, but art never fails as an instant remedy and escapism into a fantasy land of unlimited beauty–for nurturing and invigorating the bored soul, female or male. In particular. Jónsdóttir’s latest untitled works since the 1990s are a perfect spot for quiet meditation. Catch the last week of Mindplay and Fingerdance – Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir’s Career in Art/Hugleikir og fingraflakk – Stiklur úr starfsævi Ragnheiðar Jónsdóttur, which runs until January 20, 2013.

The Reykjavik Art Museum, Kjarvalsstaðir is located on Flókagata 24, 105 Reykjavík. The museum is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm.

Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine – kremenan (at)

Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine is a passionate collector of art books, dedicating every spare moment to learn more about art while dreaming about having an exhibition of her own. She studied graphic design at the School of Visual Arts in Akureyri from 1999 to 2002. In college she realized that she didn’t want to be a designer or commercial artist but rather an illustrator and writer. She’s currently experimenting with her first graphic novel.

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