Helgi Þorgils Friðjónsson
On the Nature of Beauty and the Beauty of Nature

The Akureyri Art Museum is presenting one of the most well known contemporary painters of Iceland: Helgi Þorgils Friðjónsson. His approach to nature as the leading subject of the history of Icelandic painting is not a formal, minimalist or conceptual one; he works with a mixture of surrealism and naïve painting. But what seems to be old fashioned at first sight is nothing else but a strong, subjective expression with knowledge of the history of art.

This single show in one of the most interesting museums of Iceland concentrates on beauty in his paintings, sculptures and drawings. The following text is an excerpt from the catalogue.

Art is a rose whose thorns spike our eyes. Abandoning representation in art led to a change in the aesthetic anticipation.

Even the subjective, the search for the unconscious and the subconscious, the divine and the metaphysical, the concealed—were replaced by an analytical view on the state of society. Friðjónsson has always remained anachronistic to this background. While he was at university and most of his contemporaries were focussing on conceptual or minimalist positions he took a conscious and equally defiant decision to commit himself to representational drawing. He absorbed classical art history and the philosophers into himself; while others were painting gesticulatory pictures he devoted his attention to the modes of traditional compositions.

The motor and theme of his painting was and is nature, this interest being one more aspect in which Friðjónsson appears non-contemporary—even within the context of the history of Icelandic painting in which nature or landscapes play a vital role. All this had led to Helgi Þorgils Friðjónsson developing an independent and willful visual language that is internationally comprehensible while its heart is of an Icelandic nature. A conspicuous aspect in his paintings is their figurative nature, which we encounter in his unambiguous drawing and clear use of colouring. It could be claimed that Friðjónsson is a painter formed by the Florentine Renaissance. This notion may be helpful since it is reminiscent of the artistic rivalry of 16th-century Italian artists. In the paragon of that time the artistic perception of Venetian artists (such as Titian), which ascribed chief importance to colour (“colore”), competed with the Florentine notion of “disegno” (e.g. Raphael). This refers both to the drawing (i.e. the form) and the “idea” in the sense of “concetto”. Put very simply, it could be claimed that these two competing artistic concepts remained influential well into the 20th century—and maybe even up to the present. Impressionism as the continuation of Venetian theory; Surrealism as a product of the Florentine concept. Be that as it may, Friðjónsson’s paintings evolve from drawings; they develop from lines and the lines from an idea.

If we take a look inside Friðjónsson’s world of imagery, we note recurring elements of formal vocabulary and the motivic. On the surface and in the graded depths of its visual area the picture is clearly structured. One central motif is the horizon; it is mostly set quite high in the picture, giving the observer a sense of vastness. The foreground, middle and background all distinguish themselves clearly from each other without it being a question of perspective coherence. Symmetries, chromatic fragmentation in the golden cut or motivic sequences lend rhythm to the canvas. The colours are also consistently applied, mostly cool tones of green and blue forming the screen for warmer tones.

The aspect of symmetry as an overt symbol of constructed matter, as is most clearly evident in the frequent reflections, characterises the reference to a higher order, a divine power. When applying this concept Friðjónsson’s aim is certainly not to set his scenes into the context of a religious perception of creation as was done in various periods of art history. He rather subordinates it to the principle of nature, a creative order in which man and beast are embedded. The compositional framework serves as a stage for the codes of his image cosmos. The symbols represent references to our reality and yet develop a life of their own. Multiple recurring elements are present in his pictures: birds, fish, seals and still-life fruit. The human being in a state of artistic nudity nonetheless always stands at the heart of the picture’s message despite appearing to adopt an equal rank in the pictorial system of beings and things; everything else is in proportion to the human being. The human in the pictures could be referred to as an inner self-portrait of the artist whilst largely remaining the projection screen for the observer. The human’s nakedness is no creatural nakedness. This is an artistic nakedness that refers to an ideal or heavenly condition. It would nonetheless be misleading to claim that the fundamental tint of Friðjónsson’s work be determined by the issue of solitude. In point of fact, every human figure stands in as much or as little relation to the others as, for instance, every animal or plant. Consequently, all beings exist autonomously for themselves, but with regard to form and content they are embedded within a superior context. It is less a question of solitude and more one of autonomy, of a sole existence that is steeped in melancholy. The being seeks to overcome creatural finiteness through its creative aspiration. Helgi Þorgils Friðjónsson creates image worlds full of harmony and beauty as thought-provoking and enigmatic statements on human existence.

His worlds are excessively real, both the static composition and the collective and adjacent nature of the figures and beings denote timelessness. There is a harmony in them that refers to the origin, to paradise, and appears to provide no room for death and decay. Whilst this other side of life is concealed, it is still constantly present. Death appears in the form of clothing or is found—rather like an art-historical citation—in constantly recurring still life. In this respect Friðjónsson’s pictures remain dialectic: they broach the issue of creativity and conceal death. They present themselves in the attire of timelessness, thus bearing finiteness. They unfold in the supernatural and yet address the essence of the real, the essence of the human being and that of nature.

(Translated from German by Kayvan Rouhani)

Akureyri Art Museum: Helgi Þorgils Fríðjónsson: The Beauty of Melancholy October 29–December 11, 2005

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