interview with Halldór Björn Runólfsson 
Director of Listasafn Íslands - National Gallery of Iceland

Reykjavík, August 2008

HALLDOR BJORN RUNOLFSSON - The National Gallery of art in Iceland was established in 1884, by a member of the parliament who had been living in Denmark and felt that we should have a museum of art just like the Danish had. We were still a Danish colony then, and it happened that there was a good connection between Icelanders and Icelandic cultural figures and Danish artists, so a lot of them came and gave works to this newly established gallery. We have a very short art history, in the sense that as in so many countries that became Protestant— and we were forced to take Protestantism in 1550, this is no secret, the king of Denmark forced it upon us—the Church, which of course had been the greatest buyer of art, was taken away, and so all that was left in Iceland wereamateurs, smiths and people who wanted to do art on their own. So we have a lot of quite naďf art of Baroque origin, even of Renaissance origin, but we usually say that it was only around 1900 that we came into professionalism again, and that was after the first generation of Icelandic artists went to Denmark in order to study at the academy. So it is only after 1900 that Iceland came full-blown into the arts; the first two professional artists, the first artists who completely dedicated themselves to visual art, were a painter and a sculptor, and they were only born in 1874 and 1876. Of course, in the beginning it was not very well-established and the museum didn’t start operating on its own for decades; we were a section of the national museum, on its top floor, until 1951, when the first separate national gallery was established. But we can say that after that the wind starts really turning and in 1987 this building here was reconstructed, the old section which is by the lake, is an old ice house, it was used to refrigerate fish with ice from the lake and the house was build, was completed in 1920. In 1987 to 88 we got this section which was constructed as a prolongation of the old section, but it was supposed to be only the first section of three, so we envisage still two sections that are forthcoming. We have had problems with the house because it’s so small.
PIER PAOLO CORO: This museum, althougt small, follows the lines of the concept of the new contemporary art museum.
How do you combine, for an example, the modernism and the contemporary in one exhibition?
HBR - The reason we call this a small museum is that we are not able to have a permanent collection on display together with separated exhibitions, what we do is we have concentrated the display of the collection in the so called summer shows and you are witnessing one of these summer shows. It goes from the summer down into the autumn and this is supposed to give a good display of Icelandic art from 1900 until contemporary time, but we cannot have it as a permanent show and so we have to rely on the summer in this case.
RITA CANAREZZA - So, the museum is a moving display program…
HBR - Especially in the summer because we know the fact that it is the tourist who would above all appreciate seeing Icelandic art, this is not to say that Icelanders don’t love their art and they think highly of it but they don’t think so much about a permanent display, they get bored with it and they would say we would like something else, but for tourism and for the summer it is very important to be able to show at least a reasonable retrospective of Iceland art in the 20 and 21 century.
RC - We have seen the strong feelings that the Icelandic artists have with the natural environment and the presence of nature.
What can you tell us about?
HBR - Icelandic art is very much art of the landscape. It was in fact from the very beginning, the first professional artists to really start painting they somehow made the landscape their point of departure. It may come from the fact that then Iceland was such a small community, and it was scattered, there was no big city, Reykjavik was just a very small town, perhaps 5 to 10 thousand inhabitants the most, so landscape was everywhere and it was the most impressive thing. And one thing also that is possibly very important, is that Icelandic landscape is so totally different from the landscape of continental Europe. Especially Danish landscape where most of our first artists were formed because they went to the royal academy in Copenhagen and of course they found this terrible difference between the wooden landscape, the sort of cultivated landscape in Denmark and then suddenly the rough and very wild and mountainous landscape in Iceland. They had to attack this, this was definitely what they felt they would have to really bring up out a new way of looking at the land. I think that is the reason why they, with the help of especially the French post impressionism school, especially Cezanne, they were able to express this rough and tough landscape. And do many of the 1st generation artists, loved to go into the wilderness and they would stay there maybe in a tent for a week and paint outside. For instance this most beloved artist… he would even just live outside like, he was an enormous man and very healthy and would just live outside in the countryside and paint. And he was possibly the first artist to have Icelanders love lava. Because before peasants hated the lava zone because you couldn’t use it, it was unusable land, so it was for him to get Icelanders to understand the beauty of their country, Icelanders didn’t understand that their country was beautiful, they felt that it was rough and tough and rather happy.
PPC - I have seen in the book shop a catalogue of Parmeggiani? Do you have recently a exhibition of Italian artist?
HBR - We had. recently, just this spring we had a group exhibition of 3 Icelandic artists and 2 foreign artists and 1 of them Monica Bonvicini and she made a beautiful installation in our biggest room downstairs, a beautiful installation.
PPC - Could you explain more about the landscape?
HBR - I can tell one more thing. My first exhibition that I curated here in this museum and this was in 1993, long before I became director of the establishment, there was this mainly Nordic exhibition but also artists coming from outside. And then I had Giovanni Anselmo, he did an installation in one of our rooms and I just before I did an exhibition in Finland about Michelangelo Pistoletto, I know a little of Italian art.
PPC - We did’nt know much, before to came here in Icelnd, about an artist really interesting for the new art generation his name is Fridfinnsson.
HBR - We are good friend Helgi and me, as a matter of fact he has sometimes exhibited with Italian artists, I can say that when he started he was also introducing Italian art of the 2nd generation in Iceland, he was one of the first to understand the art of Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi.
PPC - His work is conceptual, minimalist…today many young artist are doing almost the same works.
HBR - We could be doing one error. You are referring possibly to Hreinn Fridfinnsson who had a show to the Serpentine gallery, he is a little bit older.
PPC- Yes, but every green like Louise Bourgeois!
HBR - As a matter of fact I met him yesterday, there was a small party, he lives in Holland, I think now in Amsterdam, and he has been doing fantastic works from, he comes out of this generation of fluxes artists who then was somehow influenced mostly by arte povera, and you are right there, doing very poetic conceptual things, so you are probably referring to him.
PPC - Yes, he is. 
HBR- He is now here, you could arrange a meeting with him.
It so happens that our best conceptual artists from this generation they are here, it is him and another one called Kristján Gudmundsson he uses drawing all the time but in a very conceptual way. I can say that he started by taking the abstract line and really training himself to draw on a bloating paper with ink a straight line measuring the time that it took him to draw the line and then he trained himself to do what he called a minute lines and he confines them to a A4, so each A4 would have 6 lines so he could see that he took him 1 hour to do exactly one paper and then he did 24 hours work on 24 separate line papers and then he did the longest night in Iceland which is 21st of December up in the north in 22 line papers but left out a little bit of the last paper and 2 extra papers that were missing and which were the only light that day, so he is absolutely with Hreinn Fridfinnsson. These 2 are definitely among our best conceptual artists and both formed in Holland.
RC - Could be nice to see some art works. Where we can go to se its, here in Iceland?
HBR - What I would suggest you go to a gallery in Reykjavik which is just near here which is called I8.And they are their gallerists and she would do everything for you, she would also show you other artists and she has all the literature, all the books and she will arrange for you the interview.
There are so many good conceptual artists of a 2nd generation of conceptual artists also formed in Holland. Finnbogi Pétursson who was in the show together with Monica Bonvicini and what did they show, they showed one candle on a pedestal with flame and magnifying glasses, large magnifying glasses, on floor sides and you got a reflexion of the candle upside down on the walls in a dark room it was a magnificent work for a man who is much better known as an audio artist, he has mostly been an audio artist. Now he says I am into research of other kind of waves, which is the flame and which is the light wave.
PPC- How is for you the reaction of icelandic artists, for an example, related to arte povera movement?
HBR - I can tell you. There was. One special thing in Iceland there has always been frankly quite strong conflicts between generations, related to Italy for instance the abstract generation in 1955 was invited to go to Rome for a very big, huge exhibition of contemporary Nordic art. This caused a scandal in Iceland because the older generation felt themselves left out and they wanted to be there as well and so there was a great conflict around what was called the exhibition of Rome, and there was even an attempt to buy some artists give them hand out money, so that they would accept the older generation but they stuck to their principles. And this was the abstract generation. But in 1965 that is when we have this total reversal from formalistic art, abstract art over to something totally new and this was especially related to coming of German Swiss artist here called Dieter Roth, He came in 1957 following an Icelandic woman that he married, and he stayed here regularly till 1964 and then always once a year he came throughout his life. Dieter Roth was a very influential artist.
PPC- One more question, The international success in the 80’ of the Trasavanguardia moved also the commercial success of Arte Povera. What do you think about this?
HBR- Following the trail where we stopped I think decisive was 1965 there was an exhibition called SUM, with a small group of artists, among them Tryggvi Ólafsson, who really did an outstanding work, it was a door that had been smashed through and he tried to mend it with red yellow and blue as a goodbye to geometric abstraction of Mondrian kind and there was also the artist Arnar Herbertsson a very good blacksmith that was doing sculptures that could be modified, the audience could come and take one part and move it to another and so forth, he was following Tinguely who was his great master. And so it became a movement roundabout the same time as arte povera was gathered with Germano Celant. They later had a gallery and so they became a foundation for what can be called contemporary Icelandic art, and always in close connection with Dieter Roth who was this international artist who would know so many. He was a good friend of Daniel Spoerri, Richard Hamilton, Joseph Beuys and so he would come to Iceland always with fresh news about what was happening in Europe. You must remember that we had also quite a good connection with Denmark and it was through Denmark that Arte Povera became known in the north, just the fact that Piero Manzoni came to Denmark and did some of the seminal work like Socle du monde which is still there in sculpture garden in Herning in Denmark, made it so easy for the northern artists to see arte povera in its beginning, even though Manzoni is perhaps not a typical arte povera guy, he is the precursor, as you might say. And then through a gallery which was connected with a certain German Danish artist called Addi Koepke he would get arte povera artists to come and exhibit in Copenhagen so there was this fusion of arte povera and fluxes in around the same time in the 60’s. but what happened in Iceland was suddenly there was a new connection and that was straight to Holland, one particular artist Kristjan Gudmundsson brother of Sigurdur Gudmundsson, went to live in Holland and he found out that the Dutch state would have allowances for their artist so a lot of poor conceptual Icelandic artists fled to Holland got stabled and started. And even now they are. They are growing now there and this has established a very tight connection between these 2 small countries. Of course Holland is not small, they have a big establishment a large population but the country is small and so for at least 2 generation there were Icelandic artists who continued to go to Holland. There has also been a growing connection with Italy and other countries in Europe, because one of the things that are remarkable and perhaps we must not forget Icelandic artists, due to the fact that we don’t have establishment that can take students all the way, so what they do here mostly is they get their pre graduate level here and they apply to other countries so they go everywhere. Now Icelandic artists apply for schools in the USA, in Germany, in Holland, in Denmark in Italy and in Vienna. So this is very lively because most of them come back, I don’t know why they do it but they come back somehow, they bring richness from all over the places.
PPC- We have been in the last Manifesta in Alto Adige e Sud Tirolo, Iceland was presented by tre artists.
HBR - Yes. They are very gifted these 3 artists. And for an Icelander it was such a surprise that Manifesta would be there, because they thought ah, we didn’t even know of this region so well, like Bolzano. It is true it can get out of hell. And they have got this enormous collection of futurist artists.