Just past Akureyri, heading north, travellers tend to do a double take on seeing a very tall figure of a man by the side of the road.
And I mean VERY tall.
This is the "museum curator" - the representative figure at Safnasafnið, the Icelandic Folk and Outsider Art Museum, which I think I can safely say is my favourite museum in Iceland.
Why is it my favourite?
Well, for one thing it is exquisitely beautiful. Bright and airy, with big windows and plenty of natural light. Some of those windows serve as “art” in and of themselves, in that right outside there is a beautiful, slightly wild garden, with birch trees and a waterfall. The window, therefore, is designed to be a frame for the “artwork” outside.
Also, there are big flowering plants:
... And a beautiful central area upstairs where I could happily sit and browse picture books for hours.
Lovely as all this is, it is the deeper philosophy behind Safnasafnið, though, that makes it really special.
The museum was founded by Níels Hafstein and Magnhildur Sigurðardóttir nearly 20 years ago, to foster preservation and research into folk art, which no other museum in Iceland was doing. If (like me) you aren’t familiar with the precise definition behind the term, folk art refers to art that is created not specifically to influence or to be part of the governing trends in the art world at any given time, but rather for the more humble reason that the artist has a need to create something for his or her own peace of mind. Often this means that the artists are “outsiders”, either from society or the conventional art world. Perhaps they have fallen through the cracks - become mentally or physically disabled. Or they are simply folks who have other full-time jobs and do their art on the side. Like the artist behind this and three other sculptures that make up a whole, Helgi Valdimarsson, who is a full-time auto body painter:
The artist behind these drawings, Guðmundur Sveinbjörn Másson, has grappled with mental illness for years:
The sculptures below were created by the late artist Ragnar Bjarnason, who for most of his life worked as a carpenter. He initially put them out in his front garden in Reykjavík, where they attracted the attention of passers-by and eventually became damaged. They are inspired by Icelandic folk tales and the age-old battle between good and evil. Ragnar died in 1977 without ever gaining the recognition he deserved; however, his works have been restored and several of them now reside at the museum.
The exhibition below, which is currently on display, attracted my attention not only for its beautiful craftsmanship but also for its political statement and commentary on current affairs. As a bonus, the artist, Arndís Sigurbjörnsdóttir, happened to drop by the museum while I was admiring her pieces (quite the coincidence - she lives in the Reykjavík area and was just passing through) so I got to chat with her, which was delightful.
She also made this, which I think would look amazing above my mantlepiece - if I had one:
Finally, a few words about the current exhibition of works by renowned Dutch artist Pieter Holstein. One day a few years ago, while touring Iceland, Holstein happened to drop by Safnasafnið, and he and Níels Hafstein got chatting. Holstein was so taken with the philosophy behind the museum that, on returning to Holland, he sent Safnasafnið 24 works as a donation. A decision was made to set up an exhibition, but Níels et al found that they needed a few more works in order to fill the exhibition space. They contacted Holstein to ask if they could borrow a few more pieces. Rather than lending them, however, Holstein donated an additional 14 works, all of which are now on display, including this one:
A visit to Safnasafnið is a rare treat. While browsing through its exhibitions you can’t help but feel that that the essence of its philosophy is humility. The art is wonderful: beautiful, naive, sincere - and humble. It is judged on its own merits, not the reputation or hip-factor of the artist. This is not flashy art designed to knock your socks off. It is art created for its own sake, from a pure and genuine place in the soul.
Thanks to Safnasafnið for allowing me to photograph their exhibition pieces.
WHERE WE STAYED
We were so fortunate as to stay in an apartment adjacent to the museum. It is a lovely space, decorated in old Icelandic style, with artefacts and relics reminiscent of the old days, though with modern conveniences including a microwave, washing machine and Internet connection (not wi-fi, though).
It is rented out to artists, researchers or travellers for longer or shorter stays, and it is absolutely delightful. It sleeps five comfortably, and there is a waterfall (!) right outside the window that lulls you to sleep at night. Contact Safnasafnið for more info on these lovely lodgings.