Monday, August 13, 2012

Artist unknown (Views of Iceland)

The Listasafns Íslands (National Gallery of Iceland) is currently exhibiting a group of some fifteen paintings by an unknown artist or artists, possibly done in Denmark before 1785, and purporting to depict the volcanoes and other natural features of Iceland. The paintings are rarely shown and appear not to have been reproduced in any form except for the single image above, which is taken from the museum's website. They are part of an excellent small exhibition called Inspired by Iceland, which includes everything from 19th-century landscapes by recognized Icelandic masters to contemporary video and multimedia presentations.

According to information available at the exhibit (but apparently not on the museum's website or anywhere else), the canvases were donated to the museum in 1928 by the heirs of Baron Tage Reedtz-Thott, who was prime minister of Denmark from 1894 to 1897. They were probably once owned by Count Otto Thott, a noted 18th-century antiquarian distinguished by a bequest of 200 Icelandic manuscripts to the Royal Library in Copenhagen.

Though the paintings are inscribed with identifying place-names, their topography doesn't correspond to the real world, and it is thought to be unlikely that the artist or artists ever actually set foot in Iceland at all. In addition to the fifteen pieces that are currently displayed, there are apparently nine others in the museum's collection; numbers inscribed in the corners suggest that they may have once been part of a series of 32 or more.

The example shown, while striking, is somewhat atypical in its use of livid red; its strangeness, however, is shared by the entire series. As in many or perhaps all of the others (I am working from memory so I can't be sure), some tiny human figures have been included, perhaps to provide scale, but most of these figures have their faces obscured or turned away. This may or may not have been because drawing faces was beyond the technical skills of the artist(s), but in any case the effect is distinctly uncanny. One of the more interesting examples shows three white conical forms, which seemingly spiral up like the Tower of Babel; I'm not even clear what these forms are supposed to be — ice mountains? giant stalagmites?.

The Listasafns has wisely shown great restraint in restoring the paintings, which are presented unframed. They are pockmarked and blemished here and there, and the canvas on some is frayed a bit where it attaches to the backing, but if anything these reminders of their age and previous neglect only increase the impact of the images. Pending further research (which is reportedly underway), it's too soon to classify these works with a facile label such as "naive art," but it's not too soon to declare that they are both very beautiful and very, very odd. Hopefully the entire series will be fully annotated and reproduced before too long.

Update (February 2013): Below are thumbnails of two other images in the group.

These two were taken from a document entitled "List of objects proposed for protection under Part 6 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 (protection of cultural objects on loan)" prepared by the Compton Verney Art Gallery in preparation for an exhibition in 2010.

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