Life in Art

The Kjarvalsstadir branch of the Reykjavík Art Museum is holding a retrospective exhibition of Bragi Ásgeirsson (1931- ), an artist who is often credited with popularization of printmaking in Iceland. During his career, he has explored different styles, manners, materials and techniques. The present exhibition “Visual Symphony” features his work from the early 1950s until present time.
Bragi Ásgeirsson (1931- ) is a person, who through being an artist, an art teacher and an art writer, devoted his life to art. “Visual Symphony” reflects not only on his artwork but also on his role as an art educator, who with endless energy stimulated the interest of students and the public at large in art and its values.
Review by Victoria Cross, photos courtesy of Kjarvalsstadir Museum.

General View of the exhibition.

The exhibition presents around 100 works of Bragi Ásgeirsson; their placement—the works spill out from the halls to a corridor, from corridor to the walls of the cafeteria area—is a testament of his fecund career.

By turning left from the main entrance of the museum, visitors are brought to a little room, covered from top to bottom with newspaper pages of Bragi Ásgeirsson’s articles or articles about him—a very direct way to represent the volume of his writing.

When Ásgeirsson started to write about art or cultural happenings on the international arena in the early 1960s, Icelanders didn’t have much access to such topics. But through his words and eyes the exhibitions of Paris, Germany and Norway came closer to home; the faraway mysterious places like China or Japan became more familiar.

Leafing through the collection of his articles and family albums, you feel as if you are holding history in your hands. Feeling Ásgeirsson’s passion for art makes it even more enticing to see what his paintings are like.

 

“Ljósbrot” (“Refraction”), 1991; “Hryn,” 1990-2001; “Klidur i Vori” (“Ripple in Spring”), date absent.

 The exhibition of Ásgeirsson’s artwork is divided into four periods: formative years (1947-1954), the years of printmaking and geometric abstractions (1955-1960); assemblage period (1960-1980) and return to painting (1980-present).

Like many Icelandic artist, Ásgeirsson’s started his art education in Iceland (Icelandic College of Art and Crafts) and continued it in Europe, at first in Copenhagen and later in Oslo.

To compliment his studying and get acquainted with different cultures, Ásgeirsson traveled to Rome, Florence and Grenada. He entered the art stage in a very exciting period when the world had just recovered from the devastating war and a sense of collective exhilaration, at what seemed be the dawn of a new era of possibilities, was still in the air.

The works created by Ásgeirsson in his formative years mirror the broad variety of styles existing in the art world at that moment. This is interesting to observe in his treatment of female forms, to which he returned again and again in different manners from realism to cubism. One also cannot help but noticing his keen sense of color and desire to experiment with it.

“Fyrirsæta” (“Model”), 1950.

 During his studies in Norway and Denmark, Ásgeirsson discovered printmaking, an art form that wasn’t widely practiced in Iceland. Upon returning home he became one of the leading experts in this field.

At the same time Ásgeirsson explored the world of abstractions, which flourished in the 1950s. He chose to concentrate on the geometric abstractions. From 1958 to 1960 he studied under the mentorship of a prominent artist of this genre, Jean Jacques Deyrolle (1911-1967), although his earliest geometric abstractions appeared as early as 1955.

“Kyrrd” (“Stillness”), 1960; “Myndbygging” (“Structure of a Picture”), 1960.

 Geometric abstraction is an exceptionally interesting genre because each viewer responds, visceral and reflectively, very differently to the various colors, scales, visual rhythms and moods of different paintings.

If you look at the 1955 painting “Dagur himinsins/Himinleikur,” you notice that three white rectangulars, varied in sizes hold the focus of the composition. Each of the rectangulars hold the yellow-colored shapes, which suggest the source of light.

Ásgeirsson uses stripes of different width to accentuate each rectangular. The different directions of the stripes (horizontal in the lower rectangular and vertical in the upper ones), and their varied width, create a very different effect on the colored shapes inside them. (It is interesting that he uses stripes in this early work because later in the 1960s it became very popular among avant-garde artists to create so-called stripe paintings with Gene Davis being the most prominent example of this genre.)

The use of the diagonal lines creates a sense of movement as well as a placement of the rectangulars slightly off center. The red color elements serve as a divider of the plane of the painting and since the bright color inevitably attracts our attention, we shift our gaze following it, which bring our eyes to the upper level of the painting towards vibrant blue and yellow.

Although it is a non-presentational painting, the arrangement of colors and shapes suggest the sky, the sun and movement. Unexpected details like playful black and white dots here and there create a carefree mood.

Every art work is a mini-ecosystem. If you remove all the stripes from the rectangulars or imagine unmodulated red instead of different shades of it, the balance of the composition will change entirely. Looking at other geometric abstractions in the hall, you will notice that the artist was constantly experimenting with different colors, shapes, proportions, and arrangements, honing and intensifying skills he had already possessed.

“Dagur himinsins/Himinleikur” (“Day of the Sky/Sky Play”) 1955.

 The hall on the left is devoted to the assemblage period of Ásgeirsson’s work, which he approached with same creativity and zest as his geometric abstractions. The work presented in this hall belongs to a different kind of abstract art where “found objects” (shells, stones, pieces of fabric, bones, toys, etc.) are incorporated in the picture plane.

Most of these objects were found on the Selsvör beach, by the artist and his children. Again, the artist effortlessly engages the viewer and coaxes him in coming closer for further inspections. Two portraits, “Madame X,” 1977 and “Frúin ofeimna,” 1978, stand out among other pieces. The focus of the faces are on scarlet lips while other traditional features like nose and eyes, which give character to a face, are missing.

Those portraits can be viewed as an ironic take on commercial beauty as a form without substance. I was drawn to the vivid blue of the “Madame X” dress. It looked as a gorgeous lace from afar. Up close I discovered that it consists of broken toys, springs, zippers, and sea weed. In a spirit of “parting with tradition,” Ásgeirsson did not sign this work in the corner as usual, but put the first letter of his name, “B”, as a medallion on the Madame’s necklace.

“Madame X,” 1978.

After the end of the 1970s, Ásgeirsson returned to experimentations with colors and shapes. In his most recent works he explores the possibility of a singular color, using its different shades, various strokes, and texturing.

“Rautt i raudu” (“Red in Red”) 2006.

“Visual Symphony” is a very well organized exhibition, which creates a wonderful retrospective for those who are familiar with and fond of the work of Bragi Ásgeirsson and a great introduction for those who are not familiar with his art.

Photo portraits of Bragi Ásgeirsson.

The exhibition is on display until November 16.

Tel: (+354) 517-1290
Flókagata, 105 Reykjavík
Open daily 10 am to 5 pm
Free admission

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