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  • Writer's pictureSúsanna Svavarsdóttir

Hreinn Friðfinnsson: The Poet Amongst Artists

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

The Icelandic farmer’s son who became an Internationally renowned Conceptual Artist

His compositions are lyrical, poetic and ethereal; they are touching the untouchable like the light and the wind through philosophical ponderings; they are a perfect picture of things that don't exist. Through his compositions, Hreinn Friðfinnsson explores the everyday human experience and transcends the mundane materials from which they are made to evoke strong emotions in the viewer. His works have been exhibited all over the world.

Observing the Invisible

As a young boy, Friðfinnsson had a front seat position to observe the wonders that later would become the basis for his art. Raised on a farm in the beautiful and historic Dalir in West-Iceland with nothing much happening, his seemingly mundane life was transformed every day by the display created by lights and shadows, wind and rain, completely and continuously metamorphosing both the arable land and diverse nature surrounding him – as well as, affecting the farmers' philosophical outlook. Anything meaningful was created by invisible sources.

At the age of fifteen Friðfinnsson left his beloved homestead to study at the Arts and Crafts School in Reykjavík – and later to London, Paris and Rome to develop his very personal voice to touch us with his stories of invisible wonders. During this period, he frequently returned home for observation and work, until 1971 when he settled in Amsterdam.

One would think being raised on a farm wouldn't provide much leisure for gazing at nature and its forces, but as luck would have it, Hreinn was the youngest of the three Friðfinnsson brothers – by far. "For as long as I remember, I had this obsession," says Hreinn. "I was constantly drawing and consuming anything related to art. In our rural area, we didn't get much in the form of art exhibitions, but I read everything I could get my hands on about the art scene in Reykjavík and elsewhere, primarily through newspapers. I studied the pictures attached to the articles very intently. They made quite an impact on me. And, upon understanding my interest, relatives and friends gradually started bringing me catalogs from art exhibitions in Reykjavík.”

Moulding and shaping

“I soon realized it was possible to make a living as an artist. Still, I didn't know where I was headed. I loved everything. When you are young you don't discriminate, you merely absorb. When I was a teenager and fully realizing what I wanted to do with my life modernism was the popular art form in Iceland. And all due respect to our pioneers, like Kjarval, who were imperative in shaping my path. But abstract art and the modern poetry – what we in Iceland used to call "the atomic poetry" – held the greatest impacts. I still remember as a child, when one of our guests at the farm brought me a catalog from Þorvaldur Skúlason's exhibition. It was the first time I had laid my eyes on the works of our geometric painters, and I was fascinated."

In spite of the modern and geometric paintings shaping and molding the young farmer's son, the painting was not to become his art form. "Studying at an arts and crafts school is not all about drawing and painting," says Hreinn. "It is not least about the people you meet, the friends you make. Friends, who are like-minded, and share similar interests. It is about sharing opinions and widening your horizon pretty fast. In Reykjavík, the bookshops had books on arts and culture, which was an excellent supplement. They enabled me to study what was brewing in the modern art scene abroad, as well as, earlier art forms."

The notorious SÚM

In 1965 Hreinn was one of the founders of SÚM, the most influential art movement in Iceland to date. They were a group of artists determined to widen the Icelandic cultural horizon. Which, in itself, was no mean feat as the general public, led on by art critics, would only consider oil and watercolor paintings, figurative sculptures and possibly graphic art as "real" art. Of course, the SÚM exhibitions generated quite an uproar. They received a lot of negative reviews; other artists were condescending, and the public was incensed. But, bear in mind, this was the sixties and Iceland was still Europe's backwater. The reaction was due to prejudice and ignorance of tides and currents that had been developing abroad for some years.

In a way, the SÚM group can be seen as criticizing the prevalent order and rebelling against the prescriptivism dominating the arts and culture scene. They would break away from the preconceived framework assigned to arts and culture. They sought inspiration from abroad; from the Fluxus movement, Arte Provera with ideology reaching as far back as the Dada movement and Marcel Duchamp. It is evident; the SÚM ideology was based on art nouveau avant-garde ideas from Europe and the US.

Foreign influence

"The SÚM group was entirely different from anything the Icelanders had seen before. We, ourselves, regarded it as a significant avant-garde art, but in reality, it was a bit of a mixture, a sort of impression of what was going on abroad and we had had the opportunity to observe," says Hreinn. "I seriously doubt you could have detected any Icelandic characteristics. Foreign influence was quite evident. We had pop-art and Duchamp, you could spot ready-made, and even much earlier influences which had made a great impact, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future."

Of course, SÚM had a manifesto, but alas, it was neither here nor there with its ambiguous, and often contradictory, articles. The original members dispersed all over Europe, new members joined, some were expelled, some quit, some persisted and the nation was furious, deeming most of the SÚM artists mad, and at times requesting the government to discontinue grants to those artists who couldn't paint a decent painting. It was a great time to observe the discourse between the artists and their nation.

Settling in Amsterdam

Hreinn moved on to London where he met his wife who was a ballet dancer. When she got a position in Limos in France, the couple moved there and Hreinn continued to develop his art. Then, in 1971 his wife was offered a position with various companies, amongst them the Dutch National Ballet, which she deemed the most feasible. They moved to Holland where they both have lived to this day though they split up in 1980.

In spite of living in Amsterdam his entire career, Hreinn has been an active force in the Icelandic art scene. "For the longest time, I came back to Iceland at least once or twice a year. Every spring I felt this need for the Icelandic nature, the light, the people. My extended family lives here and the majority of my friends. Most of my colleagues in the art world were living her. Iceland was the central point for SÚM even though we started producing exhibitions abroad in 1971 and 1972."

Hreinn says he also needed Iceland for inspiration. "There is no doubt the Icelandic nature has always impacted my work. I used to paint the landscape from a very early age with whatever material there was on hand. The scene developed and changed until it was merely implied in my work. It takes more than a mere glance to see it. But, then again, I never think about Icelandic connections in my work so I couldn't tell you where and how to find them. Others have spotted the links and written about them.”

Connecting past and present

“My photographic works are an exception. After moving to Amsterdam, I used Icelandic motives. My first one-man exhibition was in Amsterdam in 1972 where I exhibited anecdotal pieces on enchanted patches in Iceland. It was comprised of photographs and the stories attached to those patches. All the material was obtained in Iceland, from nature and the folklore. I still use this material now and then. I have used ideas from the works of our writers, especially Halldór Laxness, and Þórbergur Þórðarson, as motives. Their ideas are as fresh today as they were in 1970. I can always take a walk back to the past to collect material, bring it to our present times and turn it into a piece that is entirely different from the original one. When I succeed it is more in tune with our age even though the roots are old, or ancient."

When asked if he has ever considered moving back to Iceland, the answer is no. "I made my home in Amsterdam. A lot of my exhibitions have been there, as well as, in France, German and Belgium. I'm perfectly placed for exhibition staging in Europe. In later years, I have been too busy to visit Iceland as frequently as in my earlier years. I would have liked to come more often – and for longer stays than a mere few days," says this poet amongst artists who is the recipient of both the Ars Fennica Award and the Carnegie Art Award.

Artist Hreinn Friðfinnsson and Artist Halla Einarsdóttir
Artist Hreinn Friðfinnsson and artist Halla Einarsdóttir at Hallas Gerrit Rietveld Academie graduation


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