According to the modernist ideology of the white cube, the space around paintings and sculpture should be neutral. To display finished works in old buildings (or in flashy contemporary architecture) is not as straightforward as it seems: the peculiarities of the space assert themselves. Only a small number of the works by Anna Guðjónsdóttir on show in the 250-year old Pinneberger Drostei pre-date the exhibition. The majority are new and are cut precisely to fit, as we can see in the way that the exhibition has taken on the dimensions and proportions of its environment. The building and its history become materials for the artist. The old Herrensaal is given a picture sequence in the baroque style. Sculptural drawings in space, dissected vitrines and canvases, open our gaze on the two Gartenzimmern, and two small rooms, one blue, one red, invite intimate encounters. On the top floor, the Japanese artist Akane Kimbara has sorted through Anna Guðjónsdóttir’s many drawings. Presented on a number of tables, this selection of drawings gives an insight into the world behind the work on the floor below.
These many works on paper comprise drawings in at least three languages, calligraphic word pictures andsketches. Such a recording of the flow of thoughts has much in common with what Kleist called “the gradual production of thoughts whilst speaking”. (*1) This mantra of all improvisers, professional speakers and therapists must also be claimed by visual art. Rather than standing in the studio talking to the walls (making art can be very lonely), artists confide in paper. The topos of the “gradual production of thoughts” goes further: it applies to the process-led nature of all aesthetic production. The making of a work of art is an ongoing search, a kind of motor driving every step of realisation to continue to create new images. Works that may be finished in themselves are nonetheless never fully honed, unique masterpieces, but are rather parts of a necessary chain of production, steps on the way to an endpoint only incrementally revealed.
In Anna Guðjónsdóttir’s studio we can find an unexpected historical reference, a small example of this highly detailed process. In the old bone-glue factory in Schenefeld, next to all the necessary materials there is a heavily annotated exhibition catalogue from the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Entitled “On the Beauty of the Line” (Von der Schönheit der Linie), it is concerned with the work of the Italian draftsman and printmaker Stefano della Bella (1610-1664). This point of reference in the baroque, the fine network of light pen-strokes and the tangles of lines that tend towards the abstraction found in the work of the Florentine della Bella, is of interest to Anna Guðjónsdóttir. Many of her apparently monochrome paintings are in fact composed of a delicate system of soft vibrating lines, which close inspection will reveal are more than mere material traces of the paintbrush. The deep, more-or-less single colour paintings have been painstakingly constructed from a network of swirling lines, at times suggestive of an obscure and secret script.
Anna Guðjónsdóttir thinks in the act of drawing and writes with an image. She paints large paintings and constructs spaces in two and three dimensions. Her pictorial language confronts the fundamental questions of life through the re-interpretation of painting’s metaphors, the reconstruction of spaces, between the enclosure and the crossing of boundaries, between subjective assumptions and universal openness. Her instincts are determined by the North, as complex an idea as that may be, and the “daughter of a son of god” (as her name is translated) states that the Viking is never far behind her. Her home country of Iceland, sitting on the fault line between the European and American continental plates, is shaped by ice and volcanoes. Perhaps it is because of the simultaneity of such extremes that the artist combines elements in her work that feel as if they are in conflict with one another: her painting is emotional to the point of blood and fire, while at the same time she remains archly reflective and conceptual, all within one single work. Her vitrine paintings derive their tension from the combination of clearly constructed delineation and the indefinite depths of a fictional space.
Anna Guðjónsdóttir has called this exhibition “Greensleeves”. With her vitrine paintings and coloured rooms she has made the entire Drostei a showcase for her work (there is no lady clad in green anywhere to be seen). “Greensleeves”, a 16th century English folk song in the Italian style, is the lament of an abandoned lover. Although almost two hundred years older than the plain brick-built baroque Drostei (1765-67), it is nonetheless comparable in its simplicity. Referred to by Shakespeare, the song spread throughout the British Empire before becoming known the world over. It is easy to find more than thirty versions of the song in varying styles and languages, from a musical quotation in Ferrucuo Busoni’s “Turandot” to rock songs.
Alas my loue, ye do me wrong, / to cast me off discourteously:/ And I haue loued you so long / Delighting in your companie./ Greensleeues was all my ioy, / Greensleeues was my delight: / Greensleeues was my heart of gold,/ And who but Ladie Greensleeues.
At the opening of the exhibition a choir performed the song as part of the introductory lecture. Such music seems to express something universal, a language that easily allows for transcultural exchange. The universal appeal of music in whatever genre, from jazz through electronic dance music and pop to classical and medieval music, is seemingly independent of cultural signifiers like nationality, skin colour or religion. “Nada Brahma” – the world is sound, and the great sound binds all people. Or perhaps less esoterically: music exists that is accessible to a great many people, regardless of age or defining sensibilities. Perhaps a song such as “Greensleeves” is composed of such fundamental harmonies as to resonate deep within our beings, like the harmonics of gothic cathedrals built to the measurements of the music of the spheres. To find and use such structures to good effect is an important task for art, and such grand unifying systems and mechanisms are crucial to Anna Guðjónsdóttir’s thinking. In the exhibition, the blue room and the red chamber are as calculated in their conception as they are direct in their effect. The tension between what is clear and indefinite, between the delineated and the nebulous, the fixed and the free-floating idea, is beyond a magical working, it is a universal experience.
Painting and Life Cycles
The four triptychs in the Herrensaal, made especially for this location and based on the measurements of the room, seem to describe rather austere volumes of colour. They belong, however, to the tradition of narrative painting sequences found in the great rooms of palaces and stately homes. Always in groups of four, they often depict themes such as the four seasons, the four continents, the four cardinal points, the four elements (air, fire, water, earth), the four ages of man (gold, silver, bronze, iron), the four worldly cardinal virtues of ancient philosophy and Christian morality (justitia, temperantia, fortitudo et sapienta – justice, temperance, courage and wisdom), or more religious themes: the four archangels, the four gospel writers, the four rivers of paradise, and so on.
In the wake of such conceits come Anna Guðjónsdóttir’s four large-scale variations. Structurally tempered by the precise outlines of a vitrine’s framework, they seem relatively free in their painterly ambiguity. Even so, such abstract imagery can tell stories in its points of internal differentiation. The sequence starts near the entrance to the room. On a relatively minimal canvas primed only with bone-glue, we see the slow growth and emergence of a structure: of bones, bars, construction. Yet without the background of an existential and historical framework, this growth would not be possible. It is no coincidence that the framework of the stretcher bars can be seen through the thin skin of the painting – a visual metaphor for the underlying concept. Next to this is a brighter image, the innocence of the world in bloom, seen as if through a veil of mist.
If these are landscapes of the soul, then on the opposite side of the room they are somewhat darker. What is ripe in the world cannot be gained without the contamination of its fouler side: the moist darkness bears fruit. Here we see the many intricate brush strokes and their promise of a coded script. The fourth painting in the series brings a final consolation, a phoenix from the ashes, earthy but light, fragile and quiet, in the dark tones of autumn and soil. (*2)
Landscape, Vitrine and Spectator
Landscape is a central theme in the work of Anna Guðjónsdóttir. To understand this idea fully requires more than a study of her paintings. We need to look more closely at the theme of landscape itself. The difference between landscape and nature can be explained by a very old story. In April 1336 the Italian intellectual and poet Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca) climbed the nearly 2000 metres of Mont Ventoux in France. This was the first climb in the literary tradition of mountaineering since antiquity. His strenuous undertaking served no practical purpose; it was driven solely by a curious wish for pure observation, what would later be called “disinterested pleasure”. This step beyond the dependence on a god-given and at times threatening natural world into the understanding of nature as a subjective landscape open to interpretation can be considered an epochal transition into the modern age. (*3) It was at the same time in Florence that Giotto di Bondone reintroduced a bodily understanding of reality and visual perspective to painting, considered to mark the beginning of Renaissance art. Both approaches remain valid to this day; both are still fundamental to the way we look at art and the world. If we perceive three trees by a lake as beautiful, or a stark rock wall as heroic, these are both subjective perceptions located in an interplay between the world and an aesthetic re-imaging stamped upon it. In this sense, seeing is always a form of “recognition”, and in a contemporary context it is ever more mediated. In art this interplay does not require simple projections of a recognisable outer world. Detailed depictions of a stag by a waterfall or a wanderer above the clouds are no longer necessary. It is enough to discern a horizon in a tonal gradation, to see traces of sand, water or clouds in swirling forms. An image shows the inner world of its author, art is not the depiction of nature, but the drawing out of some form of essential material. This differentiation, which remains difficult to understand, can be found in the German Romantic art theory of the early 19th century. In his “IX. Letter on Landscape Painting”, the doctor, natural scientist and painter Carl Gustav Carus wrote that landscape painting had advanced knowledge through the stirring of sentiment: “As we gain no idea of an animal’s inherent character from a lifeless tracing of its outlines, but only through the lively apprehension of an artist’s eye, it seems that the true type and individuality of a mountain range can be conveyed only by a genuinely artistic representation: a true geognostic landscape.”
The vitrine is a recurring motif in Anna Guðjónsdóttir’s work. It is a means to frame her subjects, and to create a paradox in which something that is limitless is nonetheless defined, enclosed and made available. The landscape of Iceland is sublime and formidable. However the term ‘landscape’ in the strict sense, that of a human aestheticization of nature, does not apply here – it is rather a vast and primal lost world. It is best, particularly in poor weather conditions, to have a pane of glass, a pair of spectacles, the window of a car (or better yet that of a house) between the human observer and what is outside. As a result of the climate and history of the country, Iceland has far fewer external traces of human culture than we find in southern Europe, so to seek exotic wonders we cannot go to the art dealers and big museums. Anna Guðjónsdóttir’s vitrines nonetheless invoke the fundamental elements of collecting and the museum, but it is the sense of nature itself that their evocative, unclassified objects seem to suggest has been caught behind the glass.
The depictions of painted, filled, dissected vitrines – at times only implied or even appearing to stand in front of the painting – suggest a mediated form of seeing. The vitrines as elements stand for a context, a point of reference, a frame and interpretation in front of often very direct artistic expressions. Sometimes the vitrines and their panes of glass are real, sometimes they are elements within the painting, and at times they are only implied. The glass of a vitrine places a subtly cool, excluding, reflective plane before its contents, and so some of the paintings are given a surface of high gloss varnish, locking in the complex, swirling, deeply layered space of the paintings, as if behind a sheet of glass. This sense of separation produced by the smooth surface is only one aspect of its effect, the other being the reflections that make the room and the observer inescapably part of the work. In this exhibition in the Drostei almost industrially varnished paintings with meshes of swirling lines can be found in the red chamber.
Contemporary art cannot do without references to art history, and such relationships are articulated to an even greater degree in the smaller rooms than in the Herrensaal. The blue room is a clearly Romantic space. Blue is the colour of ascent, of the sky, and of the Virgin Mary. The colour blue was worth more than gold, as for many years it could only be made by grinding lapis lazuli. Today it is impossible to separate blue from the memory of Yves Klein. He signed the sky over Nice, and aligned painterly intent with a pure state of nature. When Anna Guðjónsdóttir uses blue paint to colour the sky blue, to wishfully alter the visible, it is as if we are looking at a complex of art historical references. Some have their origin in the art of Romanticism. (*4) We should not forget that, for example, the beautiful landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich do not depict real places, rather they are composite images made in the studio. In certain images of Romantic painters in their studios we notice that the lower parts of the windows have been designed to let light in, but do not allow the artist to see directly out. Caspar David Friedrich himself wrote: “A landscape is a state of mind. Man should not only paint what he sees before him, but what he sees within himself”. Such subjectivity finds its ultimate expression in abstraction and colour, and thus a tonally reduced depiction of a primal landscape can be sensed within an abstract monochrome painting.
A peculiar slit-like doorway leads into the Red Chamber, a “Jewel Room” in which small glowing paintings hang. Although not contained within vitrines, the artist’s interest in ordering structures is still present. Here Anna Guðjónsdóttir has arranged the paintings along horizontal and vertical lines in a way that recalls the work of Piet Mondrian. This is more than a mark of formal respect. Before painting his famous rhythmical abstract work, Mondrian was for many years a painter of sparse landscapes. He was also a lover of music, jazz in particular.
Intense deep reds, contrasted with occasional flecks of darker colour, are ablaze in this room. Over these coloured panels, glowing like rivers of lava, lies a protective layer of glassy varnish. It allows the most important people in an art exhibition, the visitors, to be mirrored in the paintings. There is an earlier work by Anna Guðjónsdóttir that consists simply of an unpainted canvas covered in clear varnish. It could be suggested that such a painting consists principally of what takes place in front of it. The attempt to see something becomes the living and ever-changing subject of an apparently minimalist painting. Without their reflections, neither the vitrines nor the varnish paintings can be seen or depicted correctly, aligning them with the uncertainty principle in physics, and with postmodern theories which argue that there is no longer any singularly correct way to receive an artwork. There is no way to appreciate this art without bringing one’s self into it, through the work of the imagination and literally into the image. Thus, like the perspectival constructions of the Renaissance, a varnish painting by Anna Guðjónsdóttir acts in different directions. It shows the depths, just as Alice Through the Looking Glass showed that the world behind the mirror could be traversed, and it reaches back out into the real space of the spectator. (*5) This is essential for the life of the work, for without the inclusion of the spectator all art is merely an accumulation of material. If we ask Anna Guðjónsdóttir “What is the most important thing I need when looking at your work?” the answer is not knowledge of her biography or an elaborate theory of art. The answer is: “Yourself!”
© Hajo Schiff, Hamburg und São Sebastião, 2016/17
Translated by Simon Logan
(*1) Heinrich von Kleist, Selected Writings, edited and translated by David Constantine, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 2004, page 405
(*2) It is not a mistake that the letter “u” is used in the place of the letter “v”. In Tudor times there were only 24 letters in the English alphabet, the phonemes today written distinctly as “u” and “v” were formally both written as “u” (as was also the case with “i” and “j”).
(*3) In Greek mythology the Phoenix is a bird with an endless life cycle. After dying or bursting into flames it rises anew, either from the remnants of its decaying corpse or out of its ashes. One finds this idea still alive today in the expression “like a phoenix from the ashes”, to describe a cause once thought lost that seems to have gained a second lease of life.
(*4) In a letter dated 26th April 1336, written in Latin and addressed to the early humanist Dionigi di Borgo Sepolcro, Petrarch describes how he and his brother climbed Mont Ventoux in Provence. At the top of the mountain he contemplated the landscape. It was at this point that he turned away from the Middle Ages and towards the radical subjectivity of his own poetry, inspired by an “accidentally” discovered line from the Confessions of St Augustine that he had brought with him:
Et eunt homines mirari alta montium et ingentes fluctus maris et latissimos lapsus fluminum et oceani ambitum et gyros siderum, et relinquunt se ipsos – Confessiones, X, VIII
And men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the extent of the ocean, and the courses of the stars, and omit to wonder at themselves – Confessions, book 10, chapter 8 (trans: J. G. Pilkington)
Although originally intended as world-denying, Petrarch’s experience re-contextualised Augustine’s words. The coincidence of an experience of nature and the contemplation of the self brought about a shift in awareness. A shift that, like the experience of conversion, puts Petrarch in a line stretching from St Paul and St Augustine behind him to Jean-Jacques Rousseau ahead of him. Against the medieval conception of the world, Petrarch no longer saw it as merely a hostile and corrupting way-station on the journey to the next life. Instead he saw the world as having value in itself, whilst at the same time, and in a very modern way, casting doubt on that value.
(*5) Carl Gustav Carus, 9 Letters on Landscape Painting, Written in the Years 1815 – 1824; With a Letter from Goethe by Way of Introduction, trans.: David Britt, Getty Publications, Los Angeles, 2002, page 138.
(*6) It is important to stress that Romanticism as an artistic and philosophical movement is far removed from the everyday use of the word “romantic” (in the sense of a candle-lit dinner for two). The fragility of individual perception, the call for reflexivity in art (as expressed by Schlegel: “In representation, one must always include that which represents”), a recognition of fundamental moral ambivalence in the phenomena of the world that fall between the poles of revealed divine grace and demonic cruelty, the acceptance of irony, the unfinished and the collage-like, an interest in the scientific explanation of phenomena and its path to the beginnings of abstraction (see Caspar David Friedrich’s “The Monk by the Sea” – Goethe did not understand Friedrich’s work, but he was nonetheless correct to remark that “one can just as well look at the pictures of the painter Friedrich standing on one’s head”). These things make Romanticism the root and foundation of modern art.  Through the Looking Glass (1871) is Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland