Iceland Arts and Culture

Iceland Arts and Culture


Culture. – We have already mentioned (see above, Explorations) to the possibility that the first settlers to arrive on the island were Irish monks. A certain number of Celts and Anglo-Saxons also had to participate in the Norman colonization, according to what is attested by the onomastics and toponymy. Until about 1850 the type of dwellings and all the rest of life remained absolutely primitive. The houses were partially sunk into the ground and only in 1820 did some built at ground level begin to appear. The walls were built of stones, earth and grass padding and so too was the roof covered up to the narrow windows, over which the calves’ chorium was stretched for closure. The wooden construction with glazed windows has only recently become popular. Kitchen, pantry, warehouse and heated rooms intended as living rooms and bedrooms, each constituted a house in itself, but were connected to each other by means of a covered corridor. In the room called badstofa were the beds placed along the walls and raised from the ground by means of board supports. The table for meals, situated against the inside of the front wall, was also raised with similar supports. The ancient colonists occupied themselves with agriculture and the breeding of various livestock; but in the long run only fishing and farming proved profitable. Since the ancient forests have long since been thinned, the flocks find grazing both in the town and, during the best season, in the mountain valleys. In the summer, many residents dedicate themselves to the collection of lichen (Cetraria islandica), living for 2 or 3 weeks in tents. A particular amusement was represented, in summer, by the Sunday rides, during which men and women were divided into ranks. In the long winter evenings, weaving was done, gloves and woolen garments, trousers, jackets, skirts and men’s pointed caps were knitted. Women used primitive vertical looms of prehistoric style to weave carpets with geometric designs. The first Danish loom was introduced in Iceland in 1790. Everyday garments were made of a coarse woolen fabric of a natural color (vadmal), but they also knew how to make blue and colored striped ones. The readiness with which new fashions, such as long trousers, as opposed to the old ones that only reached the knee, found acceptance in Iceland is remarkable. For centuries, however, the very old-fashioned female headdress in the form of a horn, made of white fabric, has been maintained.

Particular development took the wooden sculpture. Table glasses and mugs, drinking horns, wedding boxes, as well as chairs and beds, featured artistic relief carvings reminiscent of Romanesque and other medieval styles. The intellectual life was also very primitive: the only readings were many ancient sagas and books of magic; there were tales of men skilled in spells and capable of warding off thieves, etc. The influence of a gloomy and melancholy life, with long winters, was manifested in the belief in countless ghosts who were believed to inhabit every hill and by which even serious men believed themselves followed and accompanied in their daily existence. It seems that the belief in the second sight was also widespread, in the presentiments of misfortunes and in the announcement of them by means of the appearance of spirits. Now all these conditions have changed profoundly.

Data on the population. – The residents of Iceland in 1920 were 94,620, in 1930 they rose to 108,644, with a density therefore of 1.04 residents per sq. km. The most important cities are: Reykjavik, the capital, which in 1930 had 28,182 residents; Vestmannaeyjar (3380 residents); Hafnarfjördur (3351); Akureyri (4133 residents); Isafjördur (2511 residents); Siglufjördur (2002 residents); Nes (1002 residents). All Icelanders are of Evangelical-Lutheran confession. Given Iceland’s excellent health conditions, Iceland is one of the countries with the lowest infant mortality.

Art. – A great development of painting and sculpture cannot be expected from a population of about 100,000 farmers and fishermen. The wood carving, indigenous art, reached its peak with the door of the Valthjófsstadur church, recently restored by Denmark, now in the national museum of Reykjavik; the art of filigree and embroidery also had great development.

Asgrimur Jónsson, landscape painter; Jón Stefansson and JS Kjarval, original and personal artists, Gunnlögur Blöndal portrait painter, are the most notable representatives of the new Icelandic school of painting. Einar Jónsson is a sculptor who enjoys world fame and is the only artist who has had the honor of living in the museum built by his fellow citizens to collect his works. A series of reproductions of his works with Icelandic, Danish and English text by Gudmundur Finnbogason appeared in Copenhagen in 1925; Jónsson is overflowing with ideas and ideals that he knows how to express in his creations. No living painter of Europe equals him for the abundance of imagination, for the power and richness of representation. Asmundur Sveinsson is also a great sculptor.

Music. – Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson, resident of Edinburgh, composed the Icelandic national anthem on the words of M. Jochumsson, on the occasion of the millennium of the colonization of Iceland (1874), Jón Leifs who lives in Germany has resurrected the melodies of the medieval rimur and composed music inspired by those themes. To remember the singer Eggert Stefansson, resident in Italy.

Iceland Arts and Culture