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La Biennale di Venezia

The Icelandic Pavilion - HISTORY




Ásmundur Sveinsson, 1950s Svavar Gudnason, Íslandslag, 1944 Sigurdur Gudmundsson Magnús Pálsson, Exhibition view, 1980 Jón Gunnar Árnason, exhibition view, 1982 Kristján Daviðsson, 1977 Erró, Odelscape, 1982 Gunnar Örn Gunnarsson, Maria and the Land, 1988 Helgi Thorgils Fridjónsson, Exhibition view, 1990 Hreinn Frídfinnsson, A Pair, 2004 Jóhann Eyfells Birgir Andrésson, Flags, 1994-95 Steina Vasulka: Orka, 1997
Sigurdur Árni Sigurdsson, Exhibition view, 1999
Finnbogi Pétursson: Diabolus, 2001 Rúrí: Endangered Waterfalls, 2003 Gabriela Frídriksdóttir, Icelandic Pavilion 2005 Steingrimur Eyfjörd, Sheep-pen, 2007
2009 Ragnar Kjartansson


Widely esteemed as the world’s preeminent international art exhibition, the Venice Biennale brings together many of the world’s leading artists, collectors, museum and gallery professionals, art historians and critics, and over a million art enthusiasts alike. The oldest event of its kind, the Venice Biennale was first held in 1895 and became increasingly international in the first decades of the twentieth century. Since 1907, national pavilions have been showcasing each participating country’s finest artists; though some may view this nationalism anachronistic in the contemporary art world, this remains the driving concept behind the Biennale. In 2007, more than 150 nations will send artist representatives to the pavilions installed in the main exhibition area in the city center’s historic gardens, the Giardini, and other artists will be presented in the international exhibition of the Italian Pavilion at the Arsenale..
[for general information on the Biennale history click here for the official website]


The first Icelandic artists to participate in the Biennale were Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893–1982) and Jóhannes S. Kjarval (1885–1972) in 1960. In the years that followed, Icelandic artists were either shown with the international exhibition or invited by the Danish or Nordic exhibition committees. In 1984, as Finland joined Norway and Sweden in the Nordic Pavilion, Iceland used the opportunity to rent the wooden pavilion built by renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Although originally intended to be a temporary construction for the architectural biennale in 1956, the house still stands in the heart of the Giardini. From 2007 on, Finland will be using the Aalto pavilion again for its own national representatives.

Steingrimur Eyfjörd, representing Iceland in 2007, will be presented at the beautiful Canale Grande, right in Venice’s city center. The Palazzo Bianchi Michiel, also known as “Dal Brusa” after a great fire in 1774 that damaged the pre-existing gothic building, was renovated in 1777 with the financial backing of the Signoria. Its richly decorated rooms still feature stuccos and frescoes by Jacopo Guarana in the upper floors, and its impressive entrance hall will be used for the exhibition.

The selection of the artist and the organization of the exhibition is, for the first time in 2007, in the hands of CIA.IS– The Center for Icelandic Art.



1960  1972   1976   1978  1980  1982  1984  1986  1990   1993  1995  1997  1999   2001   2003   2005   2007   2009   2011


Ásmundur Sveinsson •  Birgir Andrésson •  ErróFinnbogi Pétursson •  Gabríela Fridriksdóttir •  Gunnar Örn Gunnarsson •  Helgi Thorgils Fidjónsson •  Hreinn Friðfinnsson Jóhann Eyfells Jón Gunnar Árnason •  Jóhannes Kjarval • Kristján Davidsson •  Kristján Gudmundsson •  Magnús PálssonRagnar KjartanssonRúrí  •  Sigurdur Gudmundsson •  Sigurdur Árni Sigurdsson  •  Steina Vasulka  • Steingrimur Eyfjörd  •  Svavar Guðnason  •    Þorvaldur Skúlason


Marking the beginning of Icelandic participation in the Venice Biennale were sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893-1982) and painter Jóhannes Kjarval (1885-1972), both beloved figures in the history of Icelandic art. Their work presented at the Biennale was included in the international exhibition, shown alongside works by participants from Ireland, Peru, and Portugal.

Kjarval, unquestionably the leading figure in modern Icelandic art, is known primarily for his paintings; these developed throughout his oeuvre from naturalistic representations of Icelandic landscape to mature works incorporating symbolist, expressionist, and even cubist styles. His later paintings feature textural details of the Icelandic landscape, especially moss and lava rock, with personified nature spirits derived from a combination of folklore and his own personal mythology.

Abstracted figurative sculptures comprised Sveinsson’s artistic production after 1929, largely based thematically on men and women at work. During the 1940s Sveinsson’s works shifted even farther away from human and animal forms, and by the 1950s his sculptures were almost entirely abstract. Like many Icelandic artists, Sveinsson’s inspiration found partial roots in national traditions.

Ten oil paintings by Kjarval and three of Sveinsson’s iron sculptures were presented in the 1960 Biennale. The Ministry of Education and Culture, in cooperation with the Icelandic Educational Committee, were responsible for selecting the works.


Ásmundur Sveinsson, The Dance, 1953

Icelanders did not participate in the Biennale again until 1972, when two painters Þorvaldur Skúlason (1906-1984) and Svavar Guðnason (1909-1989) were invited. Especially Guðnason, former member of the Cobra group, was one of the leading figures in Icelandic modernist art. In fact only paintings of his Copenhagen period- such as Íslandslag (1944), Gullföll (1946) or Stuðlaberg (1949) - were chosen for the intnernational exhibition.





Svavar Gudnason, Íslandslag, 1944

Sigurður Guðmundsson (b. 1942) represented Iceland at the Biennale in 1976, invited by the Italian curators to exhibit again in the international pavilion. Guðmundsson’s artistic career began in the 1960s, and his work in almost every imaginable medium—including musical compositions and two novels—comprise a diverse oeuvre that reflects the artist’s own personality. His work, often conceptual, reveals him as humorous, energetic, and having a keen intellect. Amongst the most international of Iceland’s artists, Guðmundsson owns homes and studios in Iceland as well as Holland and Sweden, and more recently in Beijing and Xiamen, China.


Representing Iceland for a second time in 1978, Sigurður Guðmundsson was chosen by the Nordic Exhibition Committee and invited to exhibit his work in the Nordic Pavilion. Grants from the Ministry of Education and Culture funded Guðmundsson’s participation.

Sigurdur Gudmundsson

The second artist from Iceland invited by the Nordic Committee to participate in the Biennale was Magnús Pálsson (b. 1929). The Ministry of Education and Culture again sponsored Iceland’s representation in Venice, and Pálsson exhibited five pieces in the Danish Pavilion.

Pálsson studied theatre design and art in the early 1950s and became an active participant in Iceland’s nascent avant-garde. He engaged in a number of collaborations with artists such as Dieter Roth, alternative theatre groups, and the group of young Icelandic artists that formed the group SÚM in 1965. By the late 1960s, Pálsson’s preferred medium for his visual art was plaster; in the early years of the next decade, his primary interest was in casting various “impossible” subjects such as negative space. Perhaps his best known piece of this kind is that of the space bound by the three wheels of a helicopter and its landing pad just seconds before touching down. This piece, from 1976, was one of those presented in the Danish Pavilion.




Magnús Pálsson, Exhibition view, 1980



Participating this year not with the Danish Pavilion, but rather accepting Italy’s invitation to exhibit in a pavilion alongside Australia and India, were sculptor Jón Gunnar Árnason (1931-1989) and conceptual artist Kristján Guðmundsson (b. 1941). Árnason is perhaps best known now for his striking sculpture Sólfarinn (The Sun Follower) of 1986, a stylized, skeletal Viking ship that has since become a famous landmark on Reykjavík’s northern shoreline. Two of his works were presented in the Biennale: Cosmos and Gravitá. Guðmundsson, whose brother Sigurður had represented Iceland in Venice twice before in 1976 and 1978, exhibited drawings and paintings as well as a video. The Ministry of Education and Culture again funded the exhibition, this year under commissioner Magnús Pálsson, who represented Iceland in the previous Biennale.

Despite the preparation of the artists themselves, Árnason and Guðmundsson faced setbacks: their pieces were temporarily lost in the mail, and the Pavilion assigned to Iceland, Australia and India—although in a desirable location in the Giardini—had not been completed when the exhibition was to open to media reporters and the press. Nevertheless, the artists were able to install their work in the unfinished building before the public opening of the exhibition.

Artist's assistant: Rúrí



Jón Gunnar Árnason, exhibition view, 1982


The first Icelandic artist to exhibit in the pavilion built by renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, painter Kristján Daviðsson (b. 1917) was also the first artist to represent Iceland in a pavilion solely for the country’s own use. The Finnish artist representatives had joined with Sweden for their exhibition, and Finland rented the 1956 Aalto pavilion first to Portugal; Iceland then made a contract with Finland to rent the building for an indefinite period.

Daviðsson’s thirteen works in the Biennale, whose theme this year was “Art and Arts,” demonstrate his finesse as a lyrical abstract painter. Beginning in the late 1940s with stylistic roots in naïve and primitive modernism, in the 1950s his influence shifted towards art informel and tachisme. In the 1960s, Daviðsson’s painting became increasingly gestural, both in form and technique. He used his paintbrush as a calligraphic instrument that would dance freely on his canvases, building up a field of floating centrifugal forms in bright primary colors.

Commissioner: Gunnar B. Kvaran
Committee: Magnús Pálsson, Einar Hákonarson, Jóhann Jóhannesson


Alvar Aalto: The Finnish Pavilion, 1956


Kristján Davíðsson. Morgunstund (Morning Hour), 1977


In 1986, the theme of the Biennale was a consideration of the relationship between Art and Science. Iceland’s chosen representative was Erró (Guðmundur Guðmundsson, b. 1932), the first and only pop artist to represent the nation; today Erró is one of the country’s best-known artists internationally. The energetic comic-book-style worlds within his canvases provocatively critique the society of the spectacle, from war and violence to consumption and greed. His portrayals of world leaders as ruthless dictators whose propaganda commands conformity show autocrats and politicians alongside familiar cartoon characters. Erró’s themes of violence and war, images of weapons, and overt references to sexuality are central to his pictorial motifs. In the summer of 2001, Hafnarhúsið—which along with Kjarvalsstaðir and Ásmundursafn comprise the Reykjavík Art Museum—was dedicated to showcase Erró’s work and house many of his paintings. Today, Erró resides primarily in Paris.

Commissioner: Gunnar B. Kvaran
Committee: Einar Hákonarson, Gylfi Gíslason, Jóhannes Jóhannesson


Erró, Odelscape, 1982






Painter Gunnar Örn Gunnarsson (1946-2008) represented Iceland in the Venice Biennale in 1988. A self-taught artist who has become one of Iceland’s leading artistic figures nationally and internationally, his work during the 1970s and 1980s contrasted with the abstraction that characterized the painting style of most of his Icelandic contemporaries. Initially inspired by the nation’s traditional artistic concern with nature and the human connection with the natural environment, Örn’s paintings in the 1980s show human and animal figures—and sometimes hybrids of the two—intertwined within the landscape. In the second half of the 1990s, however, his works have shown figures or nature spirits devoid of landscape, achieving a greater degree of abstraction and personal spirituality.

Commissioner: Gunnar B. Kvaran
Committee: Gunnar B. Kvaran, Ragna Róbertsdóttir, Bera Nordal.


Gunnar Örn Gunnarsson, Maria and the Land, 1988


Nationally and internationally successful artist Helgi Þorgils Friðjónsson (b. 1953) represented Iceland in the 1990 Biennale with his exhibition of ten paintings. Throughout his artistic career, Friðjónsson’s canvases feature striking, stylized nudes and animals inspired in part by naïve painting, sometimes within a surrealistic landscape and sometimes floating in space and time. His colorful images are often playful and explore a relationship between humans and animals as coinhabitants of and equals within the world. In addition to his own artwork, Friðjónsson has been a pivotal figure in the art world in Reykjavík, from instructing at the Icelandic Academy of the Arts (formerly the Icelandic College of Art and Craft) since 1980, to being one of the founders of the Living Art Museum (Nýlistasafn) in 1978, and sitting on the boards of a number of institutions including the Living Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art.

Commissioner: Gunnar B. Kvaran


Helgi Thorgils Fridjónsson, Exhibition view, 1990


Described by art historians and fellow artists as a master poet who—using the sparsest means necessary—evokes powerful and universal emotions, Hreinn Friðfinnsson's (b. 1943) conceptual art puts him in the forefront of the contemporary Icelandic art scene. His ranges from installations in galleries and in the land, to paintings made with the use a voice-amplifying oscillograph that “draws” a song, to rainbows cast by prisms caught in the palms of his own hands. In the Biennale of 1992, Friðfinnsson exhibited six mixed media works.


Jóhann Eyfells (b. 1923) who exhibited with Fríðfinnsson in the 45th Biennale began experimenting in chemistry and physics in the 1960s, and his investigations into the transformational properties of metals inspired his abstract sculptures in a style he called Receptualism.

Commissioner: Bera Nordal
Committee: Þorgeir Ólafsson, Hannes Lárusson


Hreinn Frídfinnsson, A Pair, 2004


Jóhann Eyfells


In 1995 Birgir Andrésson (1955-2007), whose work explores the dialectics between perception, thought, and language, as well as Iceland’s cultural identity, exhibited a number of woollen flags and drawings in the Icelandic Pavilion in 1995. Having grown up in a home for the visually impaired because his father and stepmother were both blind, Andrésson’s interests in the relationship between the spoken and the visual—and his preoccupation with color perception—stem from his early experiences confronting the limits of what can be communicated and in what manner. Andrésson’s approach to artistic creation and his understanding of Iceland and Icelandic identity has been not to distance himself from the land and culture into which he was born, but rather to seek further connection with it. In addition to flags, the artist has explored through his work other national and nationalistic objects or traditions including postage stamps, ancient rhyme schemes, archaeological drawings, and lettering. Indeed, he is now perhaps most known for his “text pictures,” in which he creates portaits of individuals through serigraphed letters on monochromatic backgrounds.

Commissioner: Bera Nordal
Committee: Þorgeir Ólafsson, Hannes Lárusson


Birgir Andrésson. Flags, 1994-5


The first woman to participate in the Biennial on behalf of Iceland was Steina Vasulka (b. 1940) in 1997. Though originally trained as a classical violinist, Steina Vasulka gained artistic success and recognition in a different medium, that of video art. Vasulka, who moved to the United States in 1965, began working with video several years later, often collaborating with her husband Woody Vasulka. Their work quickly became integral to the development of video technology and its acceptance as art, and today Vasulka is regarded as one of the most internationally distinguished video artists in the world. Vasulka’s three-channel video “environment,” entitled Orka, was installed in the Icelandic Pavillion in the Biennale of 1997, making her the first Icelandic woman artist to represent the nation. Orka, whose visual elements were filmed in Iceland’s highlands by Vasulka the year before, means “life force”; her subject hinged on the small time-based changes or traces of nature, for example, the movements of waves or the paths of birds. In the installation, three disk players, three projectors, six speakers and a video synchronizer were used to provide one video and two audio sources in a fifteen-minute cycle. Says Vasulka of her work, “My video images primarily hinge upon an undefined sense of time with no earth gravity. It is like a duty to show what cannot be seen except with the eye of media…Perhaps the audience could feel a part of this creative trance, living for a moment in a mental world where they have never been.”
Commissioner: Bera Nordal
Curator: Auður Ólafsdóttir


Steina Vasulka: Orka, 1997


Painter Sigurður Árni Sigurðsson (b. 1963) was chosen, with short notice, as Iceland’s representative in the 1999 Biennale. Sigurðsson’s subject matter and his medium are nearly one and the same, as the artist concerns himself with the nature of oil painting on a two-dimensional plane; he has described his work as being “a dialogue with the history of painting.” His smooth canvases reveal his visual vocabulary of holes and shadows, silhouettes and stylized landscapes. Many of Sigurðsson’s paintings are nearly abstract, but again, there is a subject: the relationships between foreground and background, the manipulation and complications of painted shadows, and, in the artist’s own words, the “world in between the oil paint and the canvas.”

Commissioner: Olafur Kvaran
Curator: Auður Ólafsdóttir


Sigurdur Árni Sigurdsson, Exhibition view, 1999

Finnbogi Pétursson (b. 1959) , who represented the country at the Biennale in 2001, created a monumental sound installation, Diabolus, in Iceland’s pavilion that became itself a musical instrument through which visitors would walk. Like much of his work, Diabolus incorporated sound, Pétursson’s focal medium, with sculpture and architecture; since he began exhibiting in 1980, his work often uses the implements that produce electronic or acoustic sound—loudspeakers, wires, and instruments—to form sculptures themselves. As for Diabolus, Pétursson bisected the wooden Alvar Aalto pavilion with a 16-meter-long tunnel, ending in an organ pipe of his own creation, through which guests would move through and experience this subtle work of art both publicly and privately. From a speaker under the organ pipe resonated a tone at the frequency of 61.8hz, and an air pump blowing through the same pipe produced another tone at 44.7hz. Together the two tones form an interference wave—in this case, the result of two sound waves of a similar frequency that when combined form a new, single wave—at the frequency of 17hz, a dark-sounding tone known as the diabolus. Actually banned by the church in medieval times for its supposed devilish and disordering qualities, Pétursson’s creation of the diabolus mixed contemporary electronics with the centuries-old organ pipe to essentially uncensor a sound once forbidden in the Catholic Church, whose seat, of course, is in Venice itself.

Commissioner: Hrafnhildur Schram
Artist’s assistants: Guðný Magnúsdóttir, Daniel Magnússon



Finnbogi Pétursson: Diabolus, 2001


Finnbogi Pétursson: Diabolus, 2001


One of Iceland’s most internationally prominent artists of today, Rúrí (b. 1951) works in a wide variety of media, from sculptures, installations, and environmental art to multimedia and performance. Her piece in the 50th Venice Biennale, Archive—Endangered Waters, was an interactive multimedia installation comprised of 52 photographs of waterfalls threatened by increasing dam building. Shot from diverse locations in the Icelandic highlands, developed on transparent film, and held between two panes of transparent glass, the photographs were encased in a large steel frame with moving slots that scientifically “archived” Iceland’s waterfalls. As visitors to the installation would walk throughout the closed pavilion, their movements would directly affect those of the photographs in the steel frame, and as each photo slid into place the recorded sound of that waterfall could be heard. As in many of her works, Rúrí highlights in this piece not only the beauty of the natural environment and the human relationship to and presence within it, but also engages viewers in a literally physical relationship with her art as well, asking them to reflect on how their own actions and movements affect the natural world. Rúrí’s work often engages contemporary events such as war and conflict in addition to the destruction of the environment—and whether explicitly or subtly, with force or elegance, commands reflection on individual connectedness with a collective societal consciousness.

Commissioner: Laufey Helgadóttir
Artist's assistants: Þór Vigfússon and Pétur Örn Friðriksson
Committee: Hrafnhildur Schram, Olafur Kvaran


Rúrí: Endangered Waterfalls, 2003


Rúrí: Endangered Waterfalls, 2003



The last Icelandic artist to exhibit in the Alvar Aalto pavilion in Venice’s Giardini, Gabríela Friðriksdóttir (b. 1971) titled her exhibition in the 2005 Biennale Versations/Tetralogia. Friðriksdóttir is also the youngest artist Iceland has sent to Venice. Her multimedia installation combined painting, sculpture, and bas-relief as well as the four-video piece Tetralogia, which was created in collaboration with Björk Guðmundsdóttir, Daníel Ágúst Haraldsson, and many others. Architect Birgir Þröstur Jóhannsson designed a façade to compliment the content of the work and also designed the interior structrure for Friðriksdóttir’s installation. Versations/Tetralogia takes aim at exploring the boundaries and tensions between different media and their use in furthering the chaos, excess and disorder of contemporary society. Friðriksdóttir also plays with the line between reality and dreams, having drawn on Icelandic spiritualism to create her own personal cosmology and fantastic mythology. Her work at the Biennale also references the conversations amongst Icelanders over time about narrative works in Iceland’s long literary tradions—but in her title, she leaves out the “con” in “conversations,” suggesting that conversations are often attempted but seldom fully realized.

Commissioner: Laufey Helgadóttir
Artist’s assistants: Birgir Þröstur Jóhannsson, Jóhann L. Torfason, Sigurður Guðjónsson.
Committee: Hrafnhildur Schram, Olafur Kvaran, Jóhann L Torfason


Gabriela Frídriksdóttir, Icelandic Pavilion 2005


Gabriela Frídriksdóttir, Icelandic Pavilion 2005





Steingrimur Eyfjörd (b. 1954) has been selected to represent Iceland at the 52. International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. The artist produced a group of new works collectively entitled The Golden Plover Has Arrived. The exhibition was presented in a beautiful Palazzo in the City Center at Canale Grande.
Steingrimur Eyfjörd is one of the foremost of a generation of artists who came to prominence in Iceland during the 1970s. His prolific output over the past 25 years draws on his experience not only as artist but as a comic strip author, magazine editor, writer, curator and teacher. [read more].


Commissioner: Christian Schoen
Commissioning Institution: CIA.IS - Center for Icelandic Art
Curator: Hanna Styrmisdóttir
Commissioner's assistant: Rebekka S. Ragnarsdóttir
Artist’s assistants: Ulfur Grönvold, Erling Þ. Klingenberg, Sirra Sígrún Sigurðardóttir.
Committee: Christian Schoen, Ólafur Kvaran, Helgi Þorgils Fríðjónsson, Eva Heisler and Halldór Björn Runólfsson.








Steingrimur Eyfjörd, Icelandic Pavilion 2007


Steingrimur Eyfjörd, Icelandic Pavilion 2007






Ragnar Kjartansson (b. 1976) has been selected to represent Iceland at the 53. International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia.Transforming the Pavilion into a makeshift studio for the Biennale, Kjartansson relentlessly painted the portrait of a young man posing day after day against the backdrop of the Grand Canal. Apart from this six-months performance he presented a video installation shot in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The exhibition was presented in a beautiful Palazzo in the City Center at Canale Grande.
Ragnar Kjartansson conjures up emotions in his work that he can pass on to his viewers, with a keen eye for the tragicomic spectacle of human experience where sorrow collides with happiness, horror with beauty, and drama with humor. In his versatile artistic career, he has focused on video, painting, and drawing, with performance at the heart of his practice.
[read more]


Commissioner: Christian Schoen
Commissioning Institution: CIA.IS - Center for Icelandic Art
Curator: Markús Thór Andrésson & Dorothée Kirch
Commissioner's assistant: Rebekka S. Ragnarsdóttir
Committee: Christian Schoen, Hafthór Yngvason, Halldór Björn Runólfsson, Rúrí and Kristján Steingrimur Jónsson.





Ragnar Kjartansson


Ragnar Kjartansson


center For Icelandic Art