Reykjavík, Town, Structure

31 May - 14 Sept.


The  summer exhibition at Kjarvalsstaðir showcases selected works from various periods of Icelandic art history, drawn from the collections of the Reykjavík Art Museum. The exhibition Reykjavík, Town, Structure explores how Icelandic artists perceived the town as it developed into a city, over 102 years from 1891 to 1993. 

Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature has chosen Reykjavík Poems by 10 poets from the period 1931-2013 to decorate the exhibition. This is the first collaborative project between Reykjavík Art Museum and Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature in this field.

While Reykjavík was not large around the turn of the 20th century – hardly more than a village in international terms, without electricity, mains water or drains – it is interesting to observe how often artists choose a perspective that gives an impression of 
dense urban development. This is seen, for instance, in some of Ásgrímur Jónsson’s paintings. The themes reflect progressive projects, such as a coal-crane at the harbour, the new gasworks, and the first factories. In 1900 the population  of Reykjavík was about 6,000; ten years later it had doubled. During that decade 620 new homes were built. Due to mass migration from rural areas in the early 20th century, the town’s population reached 28,000 by 1930, and in 1993 it exceeded 100,000. Today the population of Reykjavík numbers 119,764 (total population of the capital area is 205, 675).

At the beginning of the period, Reykjavík was confined to the small area between the harbour and the Lake, and most of the paintings are from there. It was only with the advent of public transport after 1931 that the town began to expand; and the process intensified as ownership of cars became widespread in the 1960s.

The 1930s mark a turning-point in Icelandic art with the emergence of a new generation of artists such as Snorri Arinbjarnar, Jón Engilberts and Nína Tryggvadóttir. Inspired by the social and political spirit of the age, they took a social-realist view of the developing city: this is a period of powerful images from the docks, and scenes from the lives of ordinary people in Reykjavík.

The second part of the exhibition consists of images of the straits off Reykjavík and Mt. Esja, Reykjavík’s local mountain, always visible across the strait. Then, as now, it was not necessary to go far in order to paint themes from nature. Most of the paintings are traditional landscapes, portraying the outskirts of the urban area, the seashore around the town, and the mountains that embrace it. The artists are  especially keen to bring out the light on the strait, whether in summer or in winter – for the light conditions invariably influenced the ambiance of the city.

The third part of the exhibition presents geometrical abstracts by Icelandic artists from the latter half of the 20th century. Geometric art is by its nature an urban form, springing from European cities and reflecting the rigorous shapes of the city in its horizontal and vertical structure. Most of the Icelandic abstract artists were of the first generation in Iceland to grow up in an urban environment, and they had travelled to cosmopolitan cities for art training. The rounded, organic forms of nature are conspicuous by their absence. This geometric art engages in a dialogue with the big coal-crane in a painting by Karl Kvaran; it is reflected in the stylised roofs of
Svavar  Guðnason’s  Arkitektúr/Archtecture; and in the works of Guðmunda Andrésdóttir it is manifested in the railings and scaffolding of urban expansion.

The exhibition includes paintings by the leading pioneers of Icelandic art: Þórarinn B. Þorláksson (1867–1924), Ásgrímur Jónsson (1876–1958), Jón Stefánsson (1881–1962), Jóhannes Kjarval (1885–1972), Kristín Jónsdóttur (1888–1959) and Gunnlaugur  Blöndal (1893–1962). These are followed by selected works of the following generation, whose careers began between 1910 and 1930:  Snorri Arinbjarnar (1901–58), Gunnlaugur Scheving (1904–72), Nína Tryggvadóttir (1913–68) and Louisa Matthíasdóttir (1917–2000).

Curators: Hafþór Yngvason and Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson.


Guided tours in English every Friday at 1 p.m.
Saturday 7 June 3 p.m.
Gallery talk and poetry reading.
Saturday 23 August. Reykjavík Culture Night 2014
Diverse Programme on Reykjavík Culture Night. City poetry and workshop for children about words and images.


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Snorri Arinbjarnar, Frá Reykjavíkurhöfn, 1940.

Snorri Arinbjarnar, Frá Reykjavíkurhöfn, 1940.


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