Iceland / Boiling Ice

Imago Mundi

Contemporary Artists from Iceland 

Catalogue of the Imago Mundi Collection "Iceland / Boiling Ice", Contemporary Artists from Iceland, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
Mountain light
At first, Luciano Benetton’s vast collecting project, his attempt to systematically assemble a visual record of the art of entire nations out of innumerable miniatures by innumerable artists, smacks of high eccentricity. But seen in the light of his well- known design and business philosophy, it begins to make sense. His famous label/ slogan “United Colors of Benetton” was always presented as more than a catchphrase, but rather as a homage to cultural and individual diversity. The advertising campaigns devised for Benetton by photographer Oliviero Toscani, especially his photographic collages of different faces and body parts (hitherto unseen on a large scale in public places) further emphasize the Italian business tycoon’s belief in the vital aspect of human diversity. They are also a plea for tolerance towards it, even if it happens to run counter to our deepest convictions.
Unnur Óttarsdóttir - Frozen lava, Unnur Óttarsdóttir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Unnur Óttarsdóttir - Frozen lava (2013)

This ideology is the bedrock upon which Luciano Benetton and his assistants have built their approach to art collecting. Unlike other modern collectors he doesn’t covet the most “progressive” works that the galleries and critics promote at any given time. In actual fact he doesn’t much seem to care about the aesthetics priorities of the current gallery set-up. Thus he and his assistants bypass it altogether in favour of the grassroots movements in each country. Having decided which country to add to the roster, the routine is always the same. Through various channels, even the jungle telegraph, they send out a general invitation to all and sundry, amateurs as well as professionals, to contribute a single work of a certain size (10 x 12 cm) to the project. Once the “national” quota has been reached, the project is concluded.

Ósk Laufey Óttarsdóttir - Life, Ósk Laufey Óttarsdóttir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Ósk Laufey Óttarsdóttir - Life (2013)

Daiva Leliene - Untitled, Daiva Leliene, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Daiva Leliene - Untitled (2013)

Judging from public comments that Luciano Benetton has made from time to time, it seems clear that diversity alone is not the only criterion underlying his collecting efforts. The title of the project, “Imago Mundi,” suggests that his intention is not simply to create a visual record of a country’s art scene, but also of its underlying “national consciousness”, the thoughts and feelings of its citizens. Which explains Signor Benetton’s interest in grassroots artists of every kind, with their popular symbolism and ready command of narratives. In their own way, these “surveys” are a continuation of those now denigrated “national exhibitions” of yore, which purported to present the arts of one country or another in their entirety. These exhibitions were accompanied by large catalogues containing learned articles on the fabric of society in the country in question, its history, industrial state, religious affiliation and so on.

Vigdís Bjarnadóttir - Snæfellsjökull Glacier – please don ́t disappear, Vigdís Bjarnadóttir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Vigdís Bjarnadóttir - Snæfellsjökull Glacier – please don ́t disappear (2013)

Ellisif Malmo Bjarnadóttir - The Most Glorious Day, Ellisif Malmo Bjarnadóttir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Ellisif Malmo Bjarnadóttir - The Most Glorious Day (2013)

“Imago Mundi” relies only on the information that can be gleaned from the works themselves – to be sure, the sort of information that can neither be corroborated nor challenged. Nevertheless the assembled miniatures do tell us a lot about their origins, thanks to their down to earth imagery. In Flowering Cultures, the book containing the Benetton collection of works from the Indian continent, we are faced with the entire mythological heritage of that part of the world. The same goes for Ojo Latino, the collection featuring works from South America.

Sigríður Vigfúsdóttir - Summerday, Sigríður Vigfúsdóttir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Sigríður Vigfúsdóttir - Summerday (2013)

Anna Björg Þorbergsdóttir – Untitled, Anna Björg Þorbergsdóttir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Anna Björg Þorbergsdóttir – Untitled (2013)

One particular aspect of the “Imago Mundi” collections has not been remarked on, namely the decision of the organizers to give equal space to the recto and verso of each work printed in the accompanying books. Somehow, this makes the works both more personal and more vulnerable. Haphazard splotches and random scribblings on the canvas supports tell us something about the personal circumstances and personalities of the artists, i.e. their living conditions and their neatness. Their handwriting can also be revealing of character, as any graphologist will tell you, not to mention other graphic marks that the artists leave behind on the back of the frame or canvas, accidentally or deliberately. A verso in immaculate condition is also telling of an artist’s attitude.

Heiðrún Ósk Ölversdottir – Wonder, Heiðrún Ósk Ölversdottir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Heiðrún Ósk Ölversdottir – Wonder (2013)

Anna Guðrún Torfadóttir – Autumn, Anna Guðrún Torfadóttir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Anna Guðrún Torfadóttir – Autumn (2013)

Erna Ingólfsdóttir - Mother Earth, Erna Ingólfsdóttir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Erna Ingólfsdóttir - Mother Earth (2013)

The history of modern Icelandic art is a relatively short one. It can be seen as a corollary of the independence movement of the late 19th century. This movement sought to justify Iceland’s independence from Denmark through reference to its uniqueness - cultural, historical and geographical. Thus Iceland’s first professional artists turned the country’s landscapes into emblems of this uniqueness, while transforming its harsh natural forces into romantic images of calm and benevolence. Ever since, nature has been a constant factor in Icelandic art. The harsh reality of the Depression years led to a re-evaluation of this attitude to the Icelandic landscape, giving rise to new natural imagery, awesome and austere. During the Post-War years, when Icelandic artists finally begin to contribute to international movements of abstract art, it is to nature that they turn for their raw material. It could even be argued that nature indirectly contributed to the rise of the Icelandic avant-garde movements of the 1960s and 70s, as romantic landscape painting was one of the things avant-garde artists felt they needed to react against.

Magnea Jónasdóttir - Veezus & Kreist, Magnea Jónasdóttir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Magnea Jónasdóttir - Veezus & Kreist (2013)

Gerður Hulda Hafsteinsdóttir - We are all the same, Gerður Hulda Hafsteinsdóttir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Gerður Hulda Hafsteinsdóttir - We are all the same (2013)

Looking at the miniatures submitted for the Icelandic “Imago Mundi” project, it comes as no surprise to see that the majority of them are replete with natural imagery. The 150 or so artists involved in the project are a large enough group to be representative of prevailing interests and attitudes amongst Icelandic artists as a whole; thus it is interesting to see what nature means to them at this point in time. Admittedly, a canvas the size of 10 x 12 centimetres leaves an ambitious landscape painter little scope for heroics. It does, however, allow him to express his reverence in the face of nature. Many of the artists present single mountains, whether Mt. Hekla or other mountains of note, in iconic terms. They are invariably rendered as emblematic “holy mountains,” substitutes for the faith that Icelanders have lost on their way to prosperity.

Harpa Sif Sævarsdóttir - Hvitserkur, Harpa Sif Sævarsdóttir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Harpa Sif Sævarsdóttir - Hvitserkur (2013)

Gunnar Gränz - Hekla, Gunnar Gränz, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Gunnar Gränz - Hekla (2013)

Magnús Bjarnason - Glaciertop, Magnús Bjarnason, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Magnús Bjarnason - Glaciertop (2013)

In the light of the debate about nature conservation that has divided Icelandic society since the launching of a huge hydro power station in the east Icelandic highlands in the 1990s, we would also expect the present artists to express their concern in the face of a nature under threat, whether from power-hungry industry or climactic changes. Predictably, we find numerous works featuring a nature beleaguered or demolished, as well as close-ups of its most vulnerable aspects: highland flowers and grasses, moss and streams.

Sigríður Lárusdóttir - Angel, Sigríður Lárusdóttir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Sigríður Lárusdóttir - Angel (2013)

Halldóra Emilsdóttir - Sheepwork, Halldóra Emilsdóttir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Halldóra Emilsdóttir - Sheepwork (2013)

Though it was never quite as potent as the landscape tradition, the heritage of folktales and mythology was also seen as an important part of Iceland’s uniqueness. Here it makes its appearance in the form of unbounded fantasy; mysterious creatures occupied with obscure rituals, supernatural events in the midst of everyday reality, nonsensical narratives with humorous undertones.

Dagrún Matthíasdóttir - Global Warming, Dagrún Matthíasdóttir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Dagrún Matthíasdóttir - Global Warming (2013)

Heiðbjört Guðmundsdóttir - Mountain Avens, Heiðbjört Guðmundsdóttir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Heiðbjört Guðmundsdóttir - Mountain Avens (2013)

Kristjana Þrastardóttir - Part of the pattern of the Icelandic National Costume, Kristjana Þrastardóttir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Kristjana Þrastardóttir - Part of the pattern of the Icelandic National Costume (2013)

“Imago Mundi” is something of a windfall for Icelanders. Thanks to Luciano Benetton and his helpers they have been provided with a new angle on their art and “character.” The outside world, long curious about this “wondrous, strange” island in the middle of the Atlantic, now has a repository of images with which to complete its mental image of Iceland.

Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson
Art historian and author

Þórdís Ásgeirsdóttir - Happiness, Þórdís Ásgeirsdóttir, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Þórdís Ásgeirsdóttir - Happiness (2013)

Credits: Story

Project management
Rakel Rós Ólafsdóttir, Maurizio Tani

Valentina Granzotto

Editorial coordination
Enrico Bossan

Luciano Benetton
Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson
Rakel Rós Ólafsdóttir, Maurizio Tani
Demetrio De Stefano

Editing and translation
Emma Cole
Anna Franchin
Jonah Goodman
Ingibjörg Þorsteinsdóttir
Pietro Valdatta

Art direction
Marcello Piccinini

Marco Pavan

Marco Pavan

Special thanks to
Gabriele Riva, An Namyoung

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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