In Reykjavik, Iceland, there is an eerily white building with an apparently somewhat far-fetched architecture. It stands in a garden full of large, strange and not-so-strange sculptures and when you walk inside, it is light as the daylight filters through the geometrically-shaped windows and falls on yet more, but smaller sculptures. The building and the sculptures are a reflection of the journey made by its architect and the sculptor: Àsmundur Sveinsson, one of the pioneers of Icelandic sculpture.
Àsmundur Sveinsson is born on 20 May 1893 in Kolsstadir, a farm in the remote district of Dalasysla, west Iceland. His early life is spent far away from Reykjavik, not to mention the realm of world art and this would continue until he turns 22 as he works on the farm, tending sheep and the like since childhood. While literature is held in high regard in this small rural community, there are few visual images. Yet Àsmundur would go on to become a great sculptor…
His real journey begins as he comes to the realisation that he isn’t really cut out to be tending to the family sheep but rather enjoys woodwork and his thoughts turn to making figurative sculptures. His young life yields eight such sculptures although two are now lost. But the remaining ones include Viking “Fridthjófur the Valiant” , a falcon and a swan, all made of wood in 1913-14, as well as the plaster sculpture “The Maid of the Mountains”(1910-15), showing the 19th century independence movement leader, Jón Sigurdsson, handing the flag of freedom to the Maid of the Mountains, i.e. Iceland. However, his early ambitions do not stretch further than being a wood carver – perhaps as he thinks being a sculptor is too high a goal for a boy who isn’t even any good at farming. In his later life, he says: “It occurred to me at an early age that I ought to learn woodcarving, but I did not dare my sights higher. If I had said that I wanted to become a sculptor, I would have been laughed at.” At the time, sculpture is quite new in Iceland and pretty much embodied by Bertil Thorvaldsen, half-Icelandic via his father but living in Denmark, and Einar Jónsson, who spent two decades abroad before settling in Iceland again.
So, on 17 October 1915, he leaves Kolsstadir for the first time for Reykjavík to ask for an apprenticeship with the country’s foremost woodcarver, Stefan Eiriksson. However, he is refused and starts as an apprentice with Ríkhardur Jónsson a week later. During the 1915-16 winter he works on woodcarving for eight months and six weeks on modelling as well as attending the Technical College. There he is admitted straight into the second year and studies spatial drawing with Thórarinn B Thorlàksson as well as Icelandic, Danish and mathematics. He studies freehand drawing at the extramural department of the college. In June 1918 he completes his apprenticeship after completing his studies at the Technical College. One year later he qualifies as a master woodcarver with merit following the successful completion of his master piece, an elaborately carved wooden chair.
The farmer’s son of Kolsstadir, emboldened by his newly-attained status and hungry for more knowledge and skill, then takes his next leap and leaves for Denmark, where he enrols at Copenhagen’s Technical College after a visit to the Kunst Museum, the national gallery. He meets up with Einar Jónsson, one of Iceland’s few but well-regarded sculptors of the time, who becomes his mentor and advises him to make the most of Copenhagen’s art collections. At the Glyptotek Ny-Carlsberg he is introduced to the works of great French sculptors Rodin, Maillol and Despiau, who would influence his later output. Meanwhile, his courses at the college enable him to improve his freehand and perspective drawing skills in preparation for the entrance exam of the Academy.
However, in terms of learning sculpture he finds the Danish college rather unhelpful and in 1920 he decides to move to Stockholm, Sweden, and hoping to take instruction from the well-known Swedish sculptor Carl Milles, enrol at the Academy there. In addition to Milles’ modelling course, the painter Olle Hjortzberg teaches him drawing, Knut Kjellberg anatomy and Johanny Roosval lectures on art history – all excellent teachers, which resulted in a very productive academic year. Milles’ influence can be clearly seen in his work “Northern Lights”, which holds images representative ancient and later Icelandic culture. In the following academic year, he carves a fountain in marble, “Mermaid” (1922) for which he is awarded the Academy’s silver medal. Apart from a brief stay in Germany, where he would visit several museums in Berlin, Dresden and Munich, he would remain in Stockholm until 1926.
The next leg of his journey takes him to Paris, where he visits the many art galleries and museums and spends a lot of time drawing during the three years that he resides in the city. During this time, he also spends three months travelling in Italy and Greece to visit yet more museums and art galleries. After an 11-year odyssey in Europe he returns to Iceland in 1929.
Àsmundur Sveinsson dies 9 December 1982 in Reykjavik.
To see more works of Àsmundur Sveinsson, check out The Gallery.