Þorlákur Kristinsson (Tolli) emerged as one of the instigators of the New Painting in the early 1980s. Few movements in art swept along so many adherents in such a short time. As a movement, this period was short-lived, it was an eruption of the emotions, a Dionysian dissidence against many things including over-analysis and excessive rationality in the arts. The time had come to let the emotions speak. The fact of the matter is that the intellectual faculties do not create. They are incapable of that – but they make fine back-seat drivers. Intellect tells us what is important and what is not. In all creative work the emotions and insight must be in the driver’s seat; intellect is essential , but only to keep watch. Today we are driving in new times but through the same landscape, with the same view but in a different vehicle – and rather faster through an area that has been largely trampled down if not paved over. This area of reality that science has mapped out completely. But the map of the area is not the area itself.
When a new generation of drivers, brimming with emotions, travels through an area that may even be familiar, it kindles inspiration, the imagination, insight and vision in the spirit of Schiller and Goethe. In its day, the vision manifested in Icelandic nature spawned the masterpieces of the country’s first generation of visual artists, who were contemporaries or the heirs of those Germans. They captured subjects or visions that struck chords with them and stirred their souls. Whether people were writing poetry, composing music or painting pictures was irrelevant. They were Romantics. They brought the nation to life, to make it believe in its own existence. Like others before and afterwards, the Romantics of that generation were enchanted, they looked into the light and wanted to carry it. There was beauty, power, clarity, worship of the magnificent. Nature was their theme: the lofty mountain, the nobility of the glacier, the play of the shore, the calm of the lake, the majesty of the waterfall. “I stood out in the moonlight, I stood out in the wood”, Cliffs imposing, high and mighty”, “O burn ye fires”. Yes, “fair are the fields”. By Schiller’s time the point had been reached where landscape was mere distance and people were not in the habit of running up mountains without good reason to do so. The land was only beautiful when the fishing was good and the grass grew well.
“Artists were not supposed to paint what they saw in front of them unless they saw it in their hearts; if this did not happen they should desist from painting altogether”, Caspar-David Friedrich is supposed to have said. The first influential generation of Romantics in the 19th century taught us to read the soul and heart in nature, which of course had been there all the time – had been an inseparable part of the lives of people who really knew nature. They had a huge influence, but certainly not because people had never noticed the soul and heart in nature before. Far from it! The reason was that that urban society was losing this soul through the workings of materialism and rationalism. Science was killing it. The camera, which emerged around this time, had awful consequences. It destroyed both ghosts and angels. And people began to believe that nothing existed unless it could be reflected, measured or captured on film. Such naivety – the consequences were terrible depression.
In its day the New Painting was nothing but Romanticism – it even went under the name neo-Romanticism. Romanticism is not only a literary movement confined to a certain period in the 19th century, any more than Surrealism is confined to André Breton & Co. Romanticism is an element in man that bursts forth at the unlikeliest times. It represents those who venture forth armed with emotions and inspiration. Those who seek to open windows or doors onto new worlds. Especially when reality had become like the reality of Thatcher and Reagan in the early 1980s. The time had come to philosophise with our hands, demand a future and use the imagination. This was the time when Þorlákur Kristinsson, Tolli, was born as an artist. Two main metaphors are used in all aesthetic discourse. One is of the mirror image reflecting its life, nature and society. “Every man sees silver with his own eyes”, the proverb goes, or “Every man admires his own bird”, or simply “Each to his own”. The other metaphor is of the window or door that opens up a vision of an area that was previously hidden. It is there that the imagination dwells – unborn reality. That reality is not reflected until later because it has not been born into the world of measurements, reflections and photographs. It dwells only in the subconscious or the depths of the soul of each individual, waiting to enter that world. It is this vision of inner worlds that is a long way from being charted – Much work lies ahead.
Biography written by Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon professor at The Icelandic Academy of arts.
Nature on the move – the view with Tolli
Ari Trausti Guðmundsson
At the summit
Distance gives the land an appearance that brings us closer to its vastness and our human tininess. We all remember our first plane trip and the sense of wonder that our height above the Earth’s expanses woke in us. On the summit of a high mountain, one has this same feeling, except that it is exponentially stronger than when sitting in an airplane. This is because a climber’s feet rest on solid ground: they connect to the land rather than soar over it. Many a human feels at that moment like a direct extension of the Earth, experiencing its greatness and their own smallness all the more powerfully.
At 5,643 metres above sea level or half the cruising height of a passenger jet, the view from Mt. Elbrus, a volcano in the Caucasus Mountains in southernmost Russia, stretches out endlessly. To the south rise glacier-pocked mountain peaks, some extremely steep and jagged, beyond which lie beautiful alpine valleys. In the distance is Georgia, where, so the story goes, many Western Europeans have their roots. In all other directions are wide swaths of forest, grassland and
farmland – the breadbasket of Russia. Here too lived many peoples who moved farther west in the mass migrations of bygone millennia.
The traveller’s eyes roam over flatlands, lakes and rivers and a number of Russian republics. Some of these regions have unfortunately been scarred in recent years by violence and destruction. Today, the faint haze over the landscape speaks to nothing more serious than a rise in temperature during the early hours of the day. A bitter wind sweeps the top of Elbrus, however, where the temperature reaches only -15°C. The pale blue sky grows whiter and whiter in all directions until it merges with distant lands on the horizon. The only shadow is that cast by Elbrus’s eastern peak. The snow crunches and little flags by a small cairn flutter and snap on their aluminium poles. A knot of climbers is making the ascent to Europe’s highest point.
Tolli took the final slope slowly. Hour after hour, the Icelandic group had walked on the hard firn of the mountain’s glacier. Heaved one foot almost mechanically in front of the other, made sure that the crampons were firmly planted in the snow, remembered to keep the climbing rope taut and watched as the starry night sky turned purple, yellow and finally a sunny blue, as Elbrus’s louring pyramidal shadow slowly retreated under the sun’s advance. Now and then, they gazed up to the peak ahead, as each and every one of them made a mental calculation of the distance left to their goal.
The ranks had thinned as the summit grew closer. Some climbers, coming from their various corners of the Earth, made it no farther then the saddle between Elbrus’s two peaks – a stop at which to eat and rest for the last stretch. The wind at these high altitudes was quick to chill, and those without the unwavering resolve or stamina to continue turned back at this point. Rope teams got ready to go, and one little group after another set off up the final slope at its own pace, few
climbers keeping to the ropes as there were no crevasses and an altitude increase of only a few hundred metres to the top. Valerij was best acclimatised to the oxygen-starved air at 5 to 6 kilometres above sea level and walked in the lead, his sunburned face like an old, well-used leather pouch. The slope grew gentler and Elbrus’s western peak came into sight. “Time to get into sheep gear,” Tolli muttered and took off after Valerij, who quickened his own pace in turn. The
two were the first to reach the cairn at the mountain’s top. All the climbers shook hands and some embraced. Tolli only mumbled: “Is it possible to get closer to that which nobody understands?”
Nature – found there and here
Modern Man can be quite sure that Stone Age Man didn’t consider himself master of the Earth; he had not yet managed to write the beginning of Genesis, where it stands that Man is to subdue and have dominion over nature. This is an ideology that has gradually permeated many societies. Humans have long attempted to govern and control nature, albeit without success. Here one finds utilitarianism in its purest form, along with a belief in Man’s superiority that places him second only to God or the Gods. At the same time, the opposite sentiment has arguably been best preserved among indigenous peoples who depend almost entirely on nature’s resources. One may also defend the view that this belief in the superiority of humans over all other living things has for centuries harmed both humanity itself and the biosphere that encompasses it.
Several religions or philosophical systems exist that endorse this concept of human supremacy, as do others that define human beings and nature as being on equal terms, or even one as a part of the other. The course of history has prompted many people to reexamine concepts of Man as lord of nature. The 20th century saw remarkable technological developments, scientific process and concentration of power. Humans began to number in the billions. Doubts over the unrestrained use of natural resources grew. But change for the better is slow. Just as in the previous century, the greater part of humankind in the 21st century has been working hard to subjugate nature despite the fact that many, for example in industrialised countries, have discovered the veracity of the simple fact that the sustainability of our activities must be as matter-of-course for humans as it is elsewhere in nature. The failure to observe this basic rule is currently causing serious problems due to a warming climate, desertification, overfishing, exhaustion of arable land and air, water
and ground pollution. The question of how large a role humans play in global warming, as compared to natural forces, is irrelevant. We have millions and billions of years of data on these forces. The human factor is also present and contributes all too quickly to a warming climate. This is the only factor we can change. The unforeseeable consequences of too great a rise in temperature kindle both our fears and our fighting spirit. Human society needs to change the way it lives with nature. Here, then, is one reason that nature-related themes are culturally prominent. An increased interest in and concern for nature is bound to be reflected in art just as in other areas of culture.
Many people have used the ideology of utilitarianism and the projected role of humans as masters of nature, or ideas of the like, to justify human-caused extinctions and ruthless exploitation of both land and natural resources. Other groups of people, small and large, sense a different and simple truth that no philosophy, political theory or religion can fully overturn: nature is us, the other and everything we thrive in and live off of. They have learned this truth through their own experience and in their own life. These are the indigenous peoples mentioned earlier, including the Canadian Inuit, the Chukchi in Siberia and the peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon. They have, to be sure, lost sight of their roots at times and taken part in overexploitation, but in many places they have succeeded in turning away from this destructive path. Still other people, a group that might be collectively categorised as “modern people in complex knowledge and industrial societies”, have gradually turned their back on the attempts of their forefathers and foremothers to gain unilateral control of nature. They have done so through reasoning and deduction, armed with the power of knowledge and values, which rejects or casts doubt on the idea that it’s possible to subdue nature through technology and development and that economic growth can continue indefinitely, like an ever-growing snowball. A third group comprises both authorities and the public in many developing countries. Their conclusion: moderation and sustainability are key for the future of the world’s inhabitants, who will number 10 billion in a matter of decades. Keeping this in mind, it’s no wonder that nature appears in human cultural efforts and that arts reflect a respect for nature.
The written, organised manifestation of the ideological shift from unrestrained utilitarianism to concepts of sustainable existence likely dates back to long before the beginnings of global industrialisation. There have always been far-sighted people. Philosophical theories, works of fiction and art movements emerged that linked together humans and nature or revered nature as vast and powerful, exalted, beautiful, untamed or merciless, depending on the time period and a society’s ideological position. This sentiment could, admittedly, shift into the realm of outright nature-worship and fanaticism. It sometimes does so today. But what of that. Doubts as to nature’s subordinate position are growing, as reflected in culture from the Renaissance right to the present day, even if the going was slow at first. These days, environmental concerns have become one of the prominent issues in politics and culture.
Nature in visual art
In visual art, the conflicting viewpoints of pure utilitarianism and respect for nature weigh in against each other. Just like the expression of the human and the nature-related. Whether the artworks are figurative or abstract is immaterial. These works mirror developments in societies’ ideological warfare. When rationalism and later romanticism became hallmarks of progressive art, nature was brought to the forefront – clement in a country idyll, untamed and mysterious in an ocean scene or a view of open expanses and hunched mountains – and became a classic subject for artists. Then came expressionism, which celebrated colour and the immediate environment and thus remained more often than not close to nature. The 20th century brought with it both eagerness and discord between art movements, but nature was by no means absent from visual art. Nature continued to have a presence in many images and is still alive and kicking in the
21st century. Nature is everywhere… and nowhere, should one wish to see it in visual art or not see it at all.
Visual art in the modern sense has a rather short history in Iceland. With the exception of portraiture and decorative arts, visual art practices date back only to the late 19th century. By 1900, however, paintings of Icelandic nature were hanging on walls in what remains an unbroken tradition to this day. Prominent visual artists in Iceland who look to nature for their subjects include (in more or less chronological order): Þórarinn Þorláksson, Ásgrímur Jónsson, Jóhannes Kjarval, Jón Stefánsson, Guðmundur Einarsson, Júlíana Sveinsdóttir, Gunnlaugur Blöndal, Sverrir Haraldsson, Hringur Jóhannesson, Sigurður Guðmundsson, Steinunn Vasulka, Ragnheiður Jónsdóttir, Ragna Róbertsdóttir, Rúrí, Eggert Pétursson, Finna Birna Steinsson, Húbert Nói and Georg Guðni, as well as still younger artists. Þorlákur Morthens – Tolli – belongs to this group. The author of this chapter wrote the following in connection with a recent exhibition of Tolli’s works in Denmark:
Comparatively large artworks characterise the exhibition, in which the dramatic Icelandic landscape is conveyed with strong brushstrokes and daring colours, precisely in order to illustrate its countless obvious contrasts and the role that light plays in evoking a gentle or a rough beauty that most of us take in but can neither define nor fully reach a consensus on.
This description of Tolli’s works is one of many to appear in print. It is not all-encompassing. It is not exhaustive. It simply attempts to capture the spirit of his paintings without defining them or placing them in historical context. One element of the description is, however, as plain as day: Tolli paints subjects that he finds in Icelandic nature or the nature of other countries. It’s a fact well worth reflecting on. Why is Tolli so focused on painting nature?
To paint your origins
Many an attempt has been made to define the basic role of the artist, even the artist’s mission or purpose. This is something well worth the time to reflect on, so long as we avoid the conclusion that we’ve hit the bull’s eye or arrived at the One Truth. Consider that such discourse dips into well-known standards like:
- The artist (re)defines reality
- The artist deepens our understanding of existence and interprets our environment
- The artist awakens new (and even unknown) feelings
- The artist looks beyond the confines of everyday life
and it seems no wonder that nature should appear in works of visual art, whether they be old or new. Nature is so close to humans and humanity is such an obvious part of nature that most concept work, including artistic creation, is bound to encompass nature. Just like scores of other visual artists working in Iceland, Tolli looks to nature for his subjects. Here, we find the first hint of an answer to the question of why Tolli interprets nature.
The clash in Iceland between modernism and classic painting after 1946 certainly revolved around forms, methods and interpretations, but it was also an issue of the visual material itself. Polemic post-War debates defined clichés and formulas about art and artists and constructed a discourse that demarcated what was “acceptable” and a credit to the artist and what was “unacceptable” and showed signs of being reactionary or degenerate, depending on which side of the battle lines one stood. Artists went so far as to enter into informal alliances for the purpose of targeting certain other artists and either eradicating or elevating them in an artistic sense. In hindsight, this period of conflict, which lasted for more than two decades, bears the marks of narrow-mindedness, pushiness and mistakes on both sides. It was damaging to the visual arts scene and slowed its progress. It resulted in many excellent artists being left out in the cold and prevented them from realising their potential. This is not an argument for parcelling out blame to named names for the vehemence and mulishness of the past; perspective will only come with the passage of time as research uncovers what in fact occurred. In addition, clashes over ideology and culture are rarely well-balanced, characterised by sangfroid or fairness. This is simply how things are in the evolution of societies. The most important thing we can do is to analyse thecourse of events and learn from them.
Nowadays, nature is “acceptable” and may be painted or visualised in virtually whatever manner one chooses; nature and human society are equally progressive subjects. The debate on methods and interpretations continues, but forms are diverse and almost equally respected. A single group exhibition can feature installations combining soil, rock and water, nature photography, a video of a waterfall and other images of Iceland’s expanses and its lone mountains, some painted, alongside works that don’t directly address nature as such. Traces of the old intolerance still remain, but they are not conspicuous.
Tolli devoted himself to nature when he became an artist, impelled not only by vision or necessity but also by his instinct. He had learned to live close to nature, and in nature he saw – and still sees – a congruity between material and spirit. This path is as natural for him as his childhood pastimes, the long hours spent out-of-doors as a teen and the various outdoor jobs that paid the bills while he was pursuing his arts education. It does not matter whether one looks at his first
works or his most recent: a clear thread runs through them all, from the images of strange beings, oceans, birds, and the elements to the pure landscapes that sometimes harken back to older works through a door… or perhaps a lone manmade object such as a windowless house. Sometimes, indeed, he makes an excursion into abstract works, but even here viewers can catch glimpses of nature if they wish to find it.
Tolli has not felt himself compelled to vanish entirely into abstract painting in holding nature up for show or to adopt other media than white canvas, colour and brushes. This is entirely permissible in modern art, though nothing should ultimately be labelled “permissible” in this arena. The figurative form in visual art is far from obsolete if the interpretation
of the subject remains fresh and professional. Nor is oil painting as a method of presentation obsolete if the use of brushes and colour is likewise fresh and professional. Artists working in this medium are thereby, if form and presentation pass standard, just as progressive with their new painting as those who are introducing something entirely new to Icelandic visual art history.
It doesn’t matter how realistic the landscape is, how much of what is on the canvas comes from the imagination and how freely real-life colours, light and natural forms are interpreted. “If it isn’t like this, it could be like this,” said a fine artist in response to the complaint that the mountain in his picture was demonstrably too big and the sky too angry and overcast. Nor should we forget that all artists are uneven in their work and it’s only fair that we who critically examine
their work see the forest and not just the trees. Open-mindedness is a virtue too often forgotten when evaluating visual art.
It’s interesting to accompany Tolli on excursions to his childhood haunts, fishing or logging trips, climbing expeditions or travels to foreign parts. Yet another facet to the role of nature in his works becomes apparent: Tolli is so steeped in nature and the outdoors that it’s a matter of instinct for him to paint nature, his parent, even spin pictures out of it. It’s instinctive for him to paint his own origins.
The trip to Meðalfell
Turn off Route 1 just before it disappears into the Hvalfjörður tunnel and you’ll find yourself on what was formerly the main highway: a long, snaking road that skirts Hvalfjörður Fjord. A popular salmon fishing river, Laxá í Kjós, winds through a confined valley to issue out into the fjord. To the south of this valley rises Mount Esja, beloved landmark of the Greater Reykjavík Area, rougher and darker than when seen from the city. Cliffs, ravines and snow-filled cirques
characterise this side of the mountain, which remains in shade for most of the day. Reynivallaháls to the north is a steeper but much smaller mountain than Esja. Between these two peaks is Meðalfell (345 m) – a mountain to some visitors, a hill to others. Ages ago, icefalls split out around Meðalfell, advancing from the highlands out into the fjord. Glacier ice rounded its peak and formed its gentle eastern and western slopes, which were once facing and trailing the glacier. To the north and south, however, glacial flow along the mountain has sheered its sides. Meðalfell’s overall appearance is thus not so unlike the sheepbacks seen throughout the world on a smaller scale where glacier movement shapes the bedrock.
Water has collected to the south of Meðalfell in a hollow left by the glacier. The resulting lake is called Meðalfellsvatn, and it was on the southern shores of this lake, at the foot of patchily vegetated scree slopes and the mountain’s steep, black cliffs, sheltered from cold northern winds and remaining in sun for much of the day, that Tolli’s parents built their summer cottage. Tolli spent long stretches of the year here, back in the days when schools offered their students vacations for months at a time and freedom was the only thing on the agenda from sunrise to sundown. The water, the meadows and the mountains – these were his summer camp, rearing grounds and nature school. An academy that is good for us all and like a continually repeated lesson for Tolli.
After Tolli’s parents had vanished from his life under the green turf and the house that had sheltered him and his family for many years had been moved off the site, the two of us stood not far from the old yard, ready for the climb up Meðalfell. Directly ahead of us was the half-finished house belonging to Tolli’s brother Bubbi. On the other side of the lake rose Tolli’s new home. Building noises mixed in the still air with the mooing and baaing of local farms and pastures.
As he laced up his boots, Tolli remarked that the mountain was no Elbrus but it was good all the same.
We set off up the slope, strode over tussocks and stones, sought out patches of grass and moss to have something more solid under our feet than fickle, frost-weathered scree. Being outdoors and close to the land was the number one thing; the mountain, or rather the walk up it as such, came in second. So preoccupied was Tolli with our immediate surroundings and the mountainside’s features that we made slow progress. A green tussock that was larger than the last time, a moss-grown boulder with a new carpet of grey vegetation, cirrus clouds up in the sky, a ledge in the mountain to stop on and a band of cliffs for the hands – all this became a catalyst to recount and to reminisce. Tolli remembered an incredible number of tiny facets of the mountain. Touches that vanish in the bigger picture when looking at it from a distance. His sensitivity for nature is revealed on the way, his understanding of the continuity of everything that is closest to us there: weather, vegetation, bedrock, biota, water and light. How one issues from another and what signs of
change may be seen.
Approaching the mountain’s edge, we had to clamber up low cliffs. Should something have gone wrong, it was a rather long fall and one destined to end in scree. Tolli reminisced on how he and his brothers had fearlessly scrambled up this rock face many times without ever losing a foothold or a handhold. Just like many other people, regardless of their religion, Tolli believes in fate. For him, it goes without saying that nothing serious ever happened to the pack of children exploring the mountainside and its hidden realms.
Meðalfell is quite wide towards the top, characterised by alternating bulges and troughs. We were able to sit down and gaze out in all directions from its highest point. The view from the mountain is good, particularly over the fjord and the surrounding mountains, the northern slopes of Esja and the highlands west of Lake Þingvallavatn. Patches of snow at these highest heights are reminiscent of some of Tolli’s paintings, and the setting sun in the west casts a golden and redgolden light over both land and sea that also seems familiar from his works. His father’s ashes had been scattered there several years ago. It reminds one that some of what drives Tolli could also be seen in his parents, for example the wish to remain extremely close to nature.
Natural beauty is a concept just as abstract as love or greatness. Our estimation of just what it constitutes is no doubt a product of our origins and upbringing, society and attitude towards the world. Tolli’s vision of beauty in nature has surely been formed in this, his countryside, by a life filled with conflict and his arts education. He says he has little interest in discourse on beauty. Says beauty is there to be enjoyed and that’s why he creates beauty for people with his artwork without providing an explanation on his part. Why? Because beauty acts to enrich us. This being said, his audience may be divided when it comes to their perception of his paintings. Some see beauty; others see something quite different. Tolli isn’t concerned about the differing attitudes of those who see or comment on his paintings. Just like many other artists, he doesn’t explain his own work but is always up for discussions on visual art, something that registers clearly in books about him and interviews.
We walk westwards down the mountain, facing the sun, a much easier route than the one we took up. Tolli points out stone polygons and moss campion and remarks that Meðalfell and its immediate surroundings alone would give any artist a lifetime supply of subject material.
Into the present
Life is a journey. Who, I wonder, was the first to say or write this? The comparison is a fine one; to comprehend this truth can teach us the modesty and curiosity necessary to make a physical journey fruitful. It is tempting to go a step farther and say that life is a mountain journey, and of course this has also been said and written before. The lead-up to the mountain itself, the varying steepness of the trail and finally the summit, which marks the beginning of the inevitable trip down the slope and towards the end of the climb, a point inseparable from its beginning. Tolli and I have climbed several mountains together, and Tolli has sometimes said that for him, mountains are a metaphor for precisely this. On the way up, one might mention, the best thing to do is to identify with the land and reconcile yourself to whatever is under your feet at any given time, save energy, pass like smoke over the landscape, gaze up to the summit and wonder what is behind each ridge and what can be seen when standing right at the top. And indeed, it may be that circumstances lead you to turn around and look for a different mountain. The journey remains of great value all the same.
Several years ago, Tolli climbed the mountain Island Peak or Imja Tse in Nepal, over 6,000 m high. He was alone except for a Sherpa guide, but one may guess that on the climb he once again was filled with the conviction that the summit was like life itself. He had to grapple with fatigue, disquiet, thin air and malaise in much the same way as he had grappled with negative temptations, drugs and excess for many years. Tolli learned to overcome these difficulties without ever ceasing to paint. He harnessed his addiction and transformed it into performance and an enthusiasm for his work.Became a better person. That’s how I saw him after our mountaineering trips. Tolli’s difficult years were of course far from devoid of happiness, but on Imja Tse he likely felt a uniquely deep sense of satisfaction when finishing the climb. The satisfaction of having the time to reflect on his life and stand at the summit of a mountain with an incredible view over the icy peaks of the Himalayas, with Ama Dablam and Lhotse almost within reach. At the top, everything seems to be at a virtual standstill, but this is only an illusion when things are examined closely upon reaching the final goal of this leg of the journey. Curiosity had brought him there and made him work for his gratification. His Nepal experience clearly surfaces in the artist’s paintings.
Buddhism is the belief and philosophy taught by Gautama Buddha, who lived around 2500 years ago. Buddhism is a philanthropic philosophy that aims to bring people to the awareness that standstill does not exist, that an individual’s possibilities are virtually unlimited and that life is inherently precious. Everything in the world comes and goes, springs up and vanishes. For this reason, human existence is painful. Individual nature is marked by limitations; limitations give rise to desires and these desires cause suffering because both humans and that which they pursue endure only a short time, change and vanish. Buddhism teaches that all important changes begin with the decision to take responsibility for one’s own life by improving oneself and exerting oneself in order to have a positive effect on one’s immediate environment and interaction with other people. Keeping this and Tolli’s life experience in mind, it’s no wonder that he embraces Buddhism. Tolli readily speaks about the inner metamorphosis that has turned his life around. He emphasises positive qualities and transforms fear into courage, delusion into wisdom and egocentrism into solidarity. Gautama Buddha taught that there is a release from the world’s suffering and a road to enlightenment or the actual state of being, called nirvana. Release is found on the eightfold path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. Buddhists say that humans are a synthesis of five skandhas. Four vanish with death; the fifth, karma, endures and obtains a new skandha in the next life. Karma is the sum of all a person’s deeds in previous lives. Each and every human carries their karmic heritage with them in his or her search for inner peace after the end of cruelty, hate and ignorance. This is a perspective that Tolli doubtless also seeks in his visual world.
As a geoscientist, I’ve never subscribed to the view that the glaciated volcano Snæfellsjökull is a more remarkable mountain than many others in Iceland. On my travels here and there in the world, I’ve become acquainted with many intriguing ideas regarding the unique connections between people and mountains and the power of mountains. In Equador, volcanoes are personified as parents – taita and mama – and frequently invoked; shamans travel to them in search of wisdom and mental power. In Nepal, they are the homes of goddesses and gods. Back in Iceland, Tolli and I have stood by the volcanic craters at Fimmvörðuháls in spring, paintbrushes in hand, seeking a way to interpret that which we saw in front of us. All at once, we felt the need to climb Snæfellsjökull before this book was finished. He was certain of the mountain’s power; I was skeptical.
Towards its base, Snæfellsjökull is covered by a lattice of lava rock of varying ages. This is replaced at higher altitudes by firn and a relatively steep glacier, laced with deathly deep fissures. It’s easy enough to take a snowmobile almost to the very top, but that is a journey in which we have no interest. The mountain has to inch itself into the body and mind through every one of our own steps. Our path will be the most direct one up to Miðþúfa, the highest of the Snæfellsjökull’s three peaks, which looks just like an ice-battered beacon on the edge of the volcanic mountain’s crater. With the right equipment, it isn’t dangerous.
The best time to climb Snæfellsjökull is on a summer night, arriving at the summit in the long sunrise after the sun has dipped just below the horizon. The slope is even, and the snow is hard after the chill of the night, making it reasonably easy to negotiate the firn. Just as on Mt. Elbrus, the purplish sky above gradually turns yellow and the view becomes ever more panoramic, this time revealing steel-blue ocean rather than continental expanses. Most of the climb is spent in silence, with the line between us and the photographer’s taut. If all the thoughts that go through climbers’ heads when absorbed in their own worlds would be put down on paper, the outcome would be many remarkable books or diverse works of art.
As we approach the upper slopes, Tolli talks of a trip he is planning to Tibet along with several friends. He raises his voice, for the breeze has picked up. This will be the second time that Tolli travels to the Land in the Middle, this time to walk the pilgrim’s path around the sacred mountain Kailash, one of the most remarkable natural monuments in the world. I wonder to myself whether he will experience the same fulfilment and mental power in completing this journey as when he stands at the summit of Snæfellsjökull, but ask no questions.
We climb Miðþúfa with crampons and ice axes in the wee hours of the morning. Our exhilaration leads us to chatter about everything and nothing, but it doesn’t overshadow the comfortable and fulfilling sensation that grips each and every one of us when standing on a mountain as beautiful and majestic as Snæfellsjökull. Is this what some people call the glacier’s power? I don’t ask. Instead, Tolli and I talk about the future: how he plans to tackle the current crisis in the material world, where our travels could take us over the next few years, how our families are doing, where the visual arts are heading and where I’m planning to go with my work.
Fresh winds sweep the glacier in every sense of the expression, and the sky has just begun to turn a faint blue by journey’s end at the foot of the mountain.
Text in Icelandic
Painter Tolli`s Vision of Landscape
„See the brushstrokes/ how they sweep across the world“
(Einar Már Guðmundson- The brushstrokes on the blue horizon, 1991)
Almost three decades ago, when Þorlákur Hilmar Morthens studied at the department of experimental arts of The Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts, all the while performing with a politically motivated rock band, he would not have foreseen that his destiny would someday be tied up with that most „bourgeois and outdated“ of art forms, landscape painting.
When Þorlákur Hilmar – better known as Tolli – graduated from the ICAC in 1983, after a somewhat chequered performance, he was more likely to make his presence felt as a part-time musican, political activist or fisherman than as a practitioner of the fine art of painting. In art college he had mostly studied performance art, book art, film and photography, anything but painting. Not that he was entirely unfamiliar with drawing and painting; as a boy he had been an avid draughtsman. He later recalled:„When my friends were out playing football, I stayed inside covering reams of paper with my fantasies“.
At the age of fifteen, in the middle of puberty and a troubled family life, Tolli threw out everything he had drawn, five years work, and vowed never to touch pen or brush again. But following a long period of irregular work, mostly hard labour on land and sea, Tolli realized that „there was no future in work of this kind and I had to do something about my situation.“ Convinced he hadn`t lost the knack of drawing, he applied to the ICAC. „I thought that if I got in, I would be eligible for a student grant and might eventually get to study abroad. This was my ticket for re-entry into society, so to speak.“ Tolli was accepted by the art school and entered the two-year preparatory course before succumbing to the lure of the experimental arts. His graduation project was an LP of original rock music entitled The Boys from Chicago, performed by a band calling itself Icarus.
With his limited exposure to oil painting, Tolli wasill prepared for the onslaught of new expressionist painting in the early 1980s, unlike many of his fellow art students who had been accepted into the ICAC on the basis of their undoubted painterly abilities. Fortunately for Tolli, such abilities were not a prerequisite for participation in New Expressionism, quite the opposite. In an interview from 2001, somewhat tongue in cheek, Tolli described the prevailing attitude to the
painting process: „In the beginning we made a show of not using „fine technique“, we weren`t supposed to paint cleverly, be flash or aim for beauty of any kind. When we mounted our exhibitions, we would pride ourselves on finishing the work that we were showing at the very last minute…We bypassed regular oil paint, instead we picked up all sorts of industrial stuff to paint with. You just found some gunge and smeared it on whatever was at hand, wrapping paper, bits of timber from industrial sites or whatever.“
Tolli made his debut as a painter in a group show of seven students from the art college, held in Reykjavik´s Nordic House in 1982. As the college discouraged its students from showing publically before graduation, the show was partly a gesture of defiance. A slightly older colleague, Árni Ingólfsson, wrote an introduction to the show which may, in retrospect, be seen as a manifesto of sorts. He has the following to say about his friends` attitudes and subject matter:
„(They) prefer to paint everyday occurrences and thoughts. Using pink, orange, blue, thin or thick paint. Old paper, bedsheets, house paint, you can use everything. Drunken girls, large genitalia, a devious moon and sea-monsters are all meant to convey what these young artists feel about the life that they lead. Working throughout the week in mental hospitals or offices, at weekends they go to discotheques and party throughout the night. Result: Revolt, with everyone rebelling in his own way…“
According to the same writer these attitudes to life and art were a reaction to a „world of hypermedia and speed“. Even though the young artist is convinced that everything is subject to destruction and that there are no conclusive answers to the question of the meaning of life, he continues to break out of his isolation in his own personal way, continues to search for himself, „through the camera, through the mirror or with outside help.“ In new painting „the figure jumps out of the smooth surface of the canvas, as if demanding her freedom from the material enslaving her, ready to commune with her maker.“
The paintings that Tolli exhibited in the Nordic House show have not been preserved, except in somewhat washed-out reproductions in the catalogue. Nevertheless they manage to suggest that the young painter had much the same attitude to art and life as his contemporaries, except that his painterly approach seems to have been more down to earth and romantic than theirs. But this was all to change. At this stage Tolli`s use of animal imagery is quite distinctive. In the catalogue, Árni Ingólfsson has this to say about such imagery: „Animals symbolize man`s „otherness“, they stand for the range of human emotions“. In point of fact, animals continue to appear in Tolli`s paintings well into the 1990s, mostly
fish, birds, horses and sheep, not forgetting fantastic imaginary creatures. The main difference between Tolli`s youthful paintings and those of his contemporaries is that while the latter go for a
deliberately illogical or surreal structures, witness the large number of paintings featuring people, objects or animals hovering in mid-space, upside down or flying any which way, Tolli posits his animal imagery in what looks like real space, with leaves and grass all around and clouds hovering in the background. Clearly, the former itinerant worker and activist had trouble shaking off the natural imagery he had experienced during his many years on the road.
Life among the fierce Germans
Ironically, Tolli`s stint as a graduate art student in the University of the Arts in Berlin in 1983-84, under the aegis of German „wild“ painter Karl-Horst Hödicke, only served to convince him to seek his subject matter close to home. Although Tolli only saw his teacher intermittently and very briefly, he was not totally immune to his way of working, as is clear from his paintings of 1983-88. Blue-black, slate-grey and generally tenebrous, Hödicke`s palette has found its way into many of these paintings, along with his harsh, in-your-face structure and broad slashes of the brush. But Tolli`s
struggle to produce „real“ paintings seems to have provoked an existential dilemma in him. What was a young Icelandic painter supposed to paint anno 1985? Instead of letting himself be led blindly by international currents in painting, either German „fierce painting“ with its aggressive political content or the Italian transavantgardia, which emphasized personal mythologies, not forgetting British or American versions of New Expressionism, Tolli made the conscious decision to „stick with what he knew“. In a later interview he claims that his decision was prompted by his study of the work of
older Icelandic painters: „They were creating mythologies out of their everyday reality, painting pictures of their houses, their watering holes, and the landscape surrounding them.“
During the early period of New Expressionism in Iceland, there were only two painters working from landscape, Tolli and Georg Guðni, each in his own distinctive way. „At that time painting landscapes was taboo, and not many painters of my generation bothered with it. It was considered old fashioned and a bit crummy.“ Nevertheless Tolli set to work combining personal imagery, mostly to do with his former life, and memories of landscape, seen or imagined, and found that it made for a „dynamic mixture“.
From the onset Tolli`s approach to landscape is closely tied up with the idea of habitation. Almost alone amongst Icelandic painters he seems to have realized how his great predecessor, Jóhannes Kjarval, regarded the idea of „place“. For Kjarval a „place“ was not just a geographical and geological fact, but the sum of everything connected with it, in the past as well as the present and everything that had happened in and around said „place“ in times past, in „real life“ and the „domain of the unreal“. Which is why Kjarval`s landscapes sometimes contain references to elves or other supernatural beings that are supposed to reside there, profiles of the farmers who live in the vicinity or have lived there in
the past, maybe also a sketch of the boy sent to bring the artist his lunch, perhaps a depiction of a harp or a stylized Viking long ship, which Kjarval seems to have regarded as symbols of the restless artist. Towards the end of the painting process the artist may sneak into his landscapes a drawing of a palette, thus affirming that he himself has become an integral part of the meaning of the „place“ depicted. Tolli might quite possibly also have come across Anselm Kiefer`s views on landscape, strikingly similar to Kjarval`s, where he states that once a tank regiment has been through a particular landscape, its meaning will be forever changed.
Landscape and habitation
In most of Tolli`s landscape-based paintings of the 1990s we find constant interaction between the natural and the manmade. The cairns that are such a prominent feature of many of these paintings are at once extensions of nature, signposts for travellers and monuments to the common Icelander, the ordinary heroes that writer Jón Kalman Stefánsson celebrates in his novels. Everywhere in Tolli`s paintings nature and culture strike sparks off each other, empty houses with broken windows and defunct navigational beacons tell stories of people who have lost their bearings and stacks of sodden books on the edge of a precipice are the signs of a cultural crisis. Then there are Tolli`s peculiar paintings of
landscapes with truncated guitars, with only their peg boxes showing, hovering over the proceedings, perhaps a variation on Kjarval`s harps. Even when Tolli paints „regular“ landscapes with no symbols or signifiers present, even recognizable places like the Langjökull glacier, the Arnar-lake or the cliffs at Hornbjarg, they convey similar gloom and foreboding through their colour scheme and near-dissolution.
It is ironical that it should be Tolli, he of the „crummy“ and „old-fashioned“ landscapes, who best exemplified the attitude of his generation, the punks, to the materialism, empty nationalistic rhetoric and political corruption besetting Icelandic society in the 1990s, getting his point across more directly and concisely than his fellow expressionists. Many of them were certainly better painters, but very few had his drive. In 1987, barely five years after returing from Berlin, Tolli had ten one-man shows under his belt.
As the decade progressed, another type of landscape began to make its presence felt in Tolli`s painting, what we might term a comprehensive cultural landscape. Instead of the simple contrast of nature and symbols or the interaction of single figures with landscape, we are presented with a complex and colourful mixture of both wild and urban landscapes, a profusion of inert or airborne figures, references to life on land and sea, in addition to the flora and fauna of Iceland. This new approach bespeaks Tolli`s resolve to examine Icelandic reality in a larger context than before, which in turn is a sign of his increasing confidence as a painter. The dark, coarse and often monotonous brushstrokes of yore, applied with cheap industrial paint, give way to „real“ oils out of tubes, a combination of smooth and highly textured planes and brushwork which is by turns artful, playful and ponderous. No longer does Tolli look exclusively to German „häftige Malerei“ but seems to take his cue partly from the magic realism of Italian painting, in particular the fanciful work of Sandro Chia, Mimmo Paladino and Enzo Cucchi. Chia`s paintings seem to have exerted a strong influence on Tolli at this point, not least the large semi-surrealist canvases that the Italian produced at the beginning of his career, teeming with
bulky dramatis personae being blown hither and thither in a maelstrom of events both ordinary and fantastic. Tolli would even have been able to subscribe to a statement of Chia`s from the end of the 1970´s: „I`ve been through conceptualism, minimalism, everything. There is a new richness to our perception because we went through all that. Now that it`s possible to look at paintings again, we see it not only as paint on canvas, but as something else…A painting is not just an object: it has an aura again. There is light around the work. It is a miracle, in a way. A total concrete, physical miracle.
Painting is made with heavy things – stretchers, canvas, paint. Heavy, dirty things. But they become Light.“
In the strangest light
A much reproduced painting entitled Visitation (1990-91) exemplifies the changes that were taking place in Tolli`s work at this time. It is a riotous scene centering on what seems to be the „goddess of the fishing industry“, a bulky fishwife hovering in mid-air amidst tattered fishing nets, tired-looking fishing boats, an anchor or two, fish of all shapes and sizes, ragged fishermen, but also mysterious objects such as a folding chair and disconnected window frames. Underneath it all a winter sea rages and very Icelandic mountains round off the scene. The painting is shot through with cold and almost otherworldly light, perhaps the kind of light Chia is referring to. But then we may be overlooking other influences on Tolli. He might also have taken notice of the marine fantasies of Sveinn Björnsson, an older and often underestimated local painter. In any case it would be interesting to see a joint exhibition of the paintings that these two painters were producing in the 1990s.
We are in effect seeing landscape painting in its widest – and perhaps most Kjarvalian – sense, where the total meaning of the place depicted is the sum of everything that happens and has happened there. Looking at Tolli`s exuberant paintings of the early 1990s, we would be forgiven for assuming that he had now put behind him the social criticism that pervaded his earliest work. Hadn`t the old firebrand sold out to aesthetics and bourgeois critical values? This was very much the topic of conversation at openings and other art related gatherings attended by the present writer during this time. In an otherwise favourable review of Tolli`s show of 1992 at the Museum of Labour, Morgunblaðið critic Eiríkur
Þorláksson allows himself to speculate whether the painter is on the right track: „It is difficult to say what this artistic detour of Tolli`s means in critical terms; we`ll have to wait for the sequel. Nevertheless it is safe to say that the artist has now put aside social criticism and concerns himself chiefly with the technical aspects of painting, Some of his fans may be disappointed, but artists must move on, otherwise their art will surely stagnate. In art, the future is often more important than the present.“
At this point Tolli had clearly come to think that it was more important for artists to „tend their own garden“ and be true to themselves than to pledge allegiance to a particular political philosophy or party. This is clear from the many interviews that he gave to newspapers and magazines at the time.
In 2001 he describes his predicament: „I`ve sometimes had to rely on so-called right wing people for assistance or sponsorship. Without exception they have been well-disposed towards me, which leads me to think that I am an individualist at heart. Essentially I am an enterpreneur; many of my colleagues, especially the left-wing ones, are bothered by that, they probably hate to see Tolli in cahoots with market forces.“
In the flow of emotions
With his popularity on the increase Tolli frequently had to stand up for his views and actions, defend himself against politicial opponents as well as detractors amongst his fellow artists. His reactions were always moderate and expressed without rancor. “We artists are a small group, we rub against each other all the time and compete amongst ourselves. When one of us is on a roll, those who lag behind are prone to snapping at his heels. There are people who think that bastard Tolli is everywhere…It`s just the way it is. I don`t think it`s necessarily directed at me personally.“
Tolli`s avowed individualism manifested itself not least in an increasing interest in a landscape-based expressionism, untainted by symbolism of any sort. However, his earliest forays into such painting were not very successful. Tolli`s first works in that vein date from 1992 and he continues to produce them, along with a series of gesture paintings under the influence of oriental martial arts, until the middle of the decade. As usual the artist does not do things by halves, but frequently sets to work on six-foot canvases, using all the brushes and colour at his disposition. In a review from 1992, critic Eiríkur Þorláksson has the following to say about these paintings: „Admittedly the colours that we find in many of these works are strongly reminiscent of the work of Kristján Davíðsson, but there is something else at work here.“ Indeed, because at this stage Tolli does not have what it takes to create landscapes with the visual appeal of Davíðsson`s work. Admittedly, there is no shortage of colours, energy and exuberance in Tolli`s paintings. But their faults are perhaps best described in the review that critic Bragi Ásgeirsson wrote about Tolli`s Álafoss exhibition of 1994. In it he remarks on what he calls their „superfical emotionalism and cheap improvisatory technique“, concluding by saying: „The painter seems not to put enough thought into his work, thus his colours never seem to connect to anything beyond the
Tolli has the admirable tendency to regard negative criticism as a lesson rather than censure. A subsequent exhibition, held in the Hotel Selfoss a year later, showed that he had taken some of Ásgeirsson`s criticism to heart. His landscape improvisations are not quite as unfocused as before, but coalesce into solid structures, sculpted with a broad brush or scraper. The palette of these paintings harks back to some of the painter`s dark and brooding early works. All of these paintings are untitled, but refer directly or indirectly to the Icelandic landscape tradition, as represented by Ásgrímur
Jónsson, Kjarval and Jón Stefánsson, not forgetting the harsh landscapes of Guðmundur frá Miðdal and Finnur Jónsson from the Thirties. The chief distinguishing feature of these paintings of Tolli is his use of light. Instead of scattering it haphazardly round the canvas, as he did in the improvisatory paintings mentioned above, the artist creates sources of light in and around the centre of each painting and then directs it systematically towards the edge of each composition. But Tolli´s light is very different from the revealing and form-hugging light that we find in traditional Icelandic landscapes;
it is the otherworldly light of visions and transcendental aspirations. Here Tolli is far from alone, but belongs to a long Northern Romantic tradition of artists with a spiritual bent. He is not alone in Iceland either, for at much the same time his schoolmate from the ICAC, Georg Guðni, was creating landscapes that seemed to dissolve into pure light. But, as critic Þorláksson pointed out „this is a sensitive area, open to sentimentalization, as the whole New Age movement testifies to.“
In the 1990s, Tolli`s search for spiritual certainties was not confined to landscape. In his Selfoss show of 1995 there was a series of paintings with brand new subject matter, which critic Þorláksson described as an exploration of the „mythic origins of man, when symbolism was part and parcel of everyday existence“. Furthermore: „The mythic worlds which Tolli is now exploring take his work to a whole new level, perhaps to the domain of what we might call primeval energy, which is the force both man and nature spring from, in short, the fons et origo of all evolution.“ These paintings, which
prefigure the so-called Warriors of the Spirit, feature speedily painted female figures in the middle of arcane rituals, surrounded by what look like archetypal symbols, birds, bulls and so on. There is no real landscape to speak of in these paintings, only an ill-defined background acting as a buffer to the dramatic rituals depicted, or what looks like a mysterious fog or darkness at the end of the visible world. The Warriors of the Spirit, the suite of paintings that followed, must be considered one of Tolli`s most unusual undertakings. These are fantasy paintings featuring creatures at once human and animal-like, mostly in life-or-death situations. Armed only with bows and arrows, these creatures battle unseen but overwhelming powers. To quote the artist: „They are consumed by the fire of creative energy, with their bows at the ready…surging and leaping ahead in the blazing world of the subconscious which alternatively creates and destroys“. Bowman and arrow become one, and at precisely the right moment arrows are launched and cannot be turned from their path. In addition, some of these painting also contain references to primitive initiation and cleansing rituals involving the warriors, which also ties in with the idea of primeval energy mentioned by critic Þorláksson.
Alhough these paintings only have a tenuous connection to the present discussion about landscape – the landscape that we find in them mostly consists of ragged fields of hallucinatory colours – they are important in that they afford us an insight into Tolli`s mind-set at the time. For some years previously Tolli had practiced transcendental meditation and oriental martial arts and spent some time in the East, chiefly in South Korea, courtesy of an artist friend. There are traces of Eastern influence in his work as early as 1992, particularly in a series of improvisatory paintings that may be seen as extensions of martial arts such as Karate or Tae Kwon Do. In them the artist practices making sudden lunges at his canvases with a brush loaded with paint, in the hope of capturing the essence of the moment of attack in the form of abstract configurations or revelatory ideographic symbols. There are precedents for precisely this approach to painting, for instance the action paintings of French painter Georges Mathieu, who, not surprisingly, was also a devotee of Eastern religions and martial arts.
Back to Berlin
But that`s not the only thing going on in these paintings. Tolli is on record as saying that the Warriors of the Spirit series also reflects his interest in the street culture being created by urban youths all over the world: the body language and symbolism associated with hip-hop music, graffiti paintings and violent computer games and extravagant music videos featuring a new breed of hero and antihero. According to the artist, the paintings are also homages to „real“ folk heroes such as fighters Muhammed Ali and Bruce Lee. Last but not least, the Warrior series is a part of Tolli`s reaction to a
painful personal upheaval, namely the collapse of his marriage, forcing him to take stock of himself and his way of life. The Warrior becomes the artist`s alter ego, the outsider condemned to live in extremis, if he is to stay true to his vocation, while everyone around him, his family and society at large, want him to play it safe. The ceremonies that we find in some of these paintings also refer directly to some of the things that Tolli subjected himself to during this period of doubt and reckoning, for instance „sweat sessions“ in the manner of American Indians, fasting and chanting for hours, rituals that
Tibetan monks use in order to purify themselves physically and mentally. However they may strike viewers, these paintings of Warriors and rituals seem to have done much to quell the artist`s
turbulent spirit. Tolli`s last Warrior painting dates from 1998, and shortly afterwards he found himself a new family and a new country to conquer. By the end of the millennium the artist wanted to put to the test whether there was any interest in his work in Germany, more precisely in his old stomping ground, Berlin. „My artistic roots are in Germany. German expressionism, that`s really where I`m at“, Tolli says in an interview of 2001. And it is in Germany that Tolli develops a new approach to landscape painting. „Berlin made me a landscape painter,“ the painter asserts.
At a distance from his homeland Tolli was able to objectively re-examine the premises and purpose of landscape painting. Like some of his colleagues – again Georg Guðni comes to mind – Tolli sensed that the tide had turned for landscape paining in Iceland, that it had acquired a new importance in the minds of the younger generation. Even landscape artists of the older generation like veteran painter Eiríkur Smith were aware of the changes: „Nowadays we are constantly encroaching upon nature, building houses, roads and hydroelectric stations, even in places of outstanding natural beauty. Under these circumstances landscape painting will surely become even more important. Painting landscapes from
Kárahnjúkar, Hágöngur and all those highland areas they are planning to submerge in water has become a political, even subversive, act.“ Shortly after settling in Berlin Tolli describes his landscape painting for the first time as his contribution to „a wide-ranging and very timely dialogue taking place all over the world, centering on the coexistence of man and nature and the future of our children.“
Variations on No-man‘s land
Tolli`s Berlin paintings feature two types of imaginary landscape. On the one hand there are gray-hued close-ups of steep mountains or mountain scrims with remnants of snowbanks, scenes capped by ominous banks of clouds. The artist called the paintings „variations on a No-mans land´“, adding that they served to close a circle that had started many years before. „I started out by painting cairns and in my new works I am continuing in a similar vein. It`s the same song. I`m heading towards the heath, the horizon. Not a living soul there. I think it is a very important aspect of the Icelander`s sense of identity, the wide open spaces enveloping the lonely traveller.“ Tolli`s bleak visions of the Icelandic landscape are panegyrics to landscapes that have nothing of the picturesque about them, but are nevertheless an essential part of nature as a whole. They also affirm his belief in the revitalizing aspect of the harsh landscape, i.e. what doesn`t kill you makes you stronger. In this Tolli carries on a painterly dialogue with some landscape painters of the 1930s, not least Guðmundur frá Miðdal, who claimed to be painting the „real“ landscape of Iceland, very different from the sunny and idealistic landscapes of the Icelandic landscape pioneers. In fact, Tolli carries his „affirmative action“ further than they do, for his harsh and uninviting mountains, with their iconic placement in the centre of each canvas, are frequently enveloped in an almost visionary light, suggesting a spiritual or revelatory power. But Tolli is not one to be stuck in one phase of painting, for at the same time as he was busy painting these somber pictures – he called them „monotonal“ – he was also immersed in the making of a series of quite different landscapes that have a similar structure to his works of 1995. The main difference is that these new landscapes are alight with intense primary colours and their execution has much of the exuberance of his most extreme abstract-expressionist works. The artist seems intent on drawing as much light out of his colours as possible without breaking off the connection with the visible world, in short to turn up the „volume“ of his colours until the eyes of the viewers start
hurting. At the beginning of the new millennium, not many Icelandic painters had the ability or the inclination to work with such riotous colours. Colour-wise, their closest relations are probably the wild abstractions that Svavar Guðnason produced in the 1960s. There is a whiff of testosterone about these paintings of Tolli`s, the best of them certainly form a potent brew, whereas others exhibit what critic Bragi Ágeirsson described as Tolli`s unfortunate tendency to think in terms of surface rather than depth of field.
In an interview of 2001, Tolli is asked about the landscapes that he was producing in Berlin. „I don`t miss the light that I find at home, for I carry it inside me. I like being away from my subject matter because essentially I am not painting actual landscapes. I am not painting pictures of a „real“ mountain top or rock, but start off by improvising freely on the canvas, which in turn suggests a mood or atmosphere which I can identify with and puts me in mind of something that I`ve experienced. When I paint I like to have emotional experiences to work from and to guide me; to attach feelings to
my brushstrokes. It`s close to what the Inuits do – they carry around a stone or a piece of bone in the palm of the hand until the stone or the bone tell them what to do.“
Actual and anonymous landscapes
After a year in Germany Tolli decided to move his family back to Iceland, but to maintain a studio in Berlin. Moving back seemed to have little effect on his art. He would continue working on his landscapes, both the series of „monotonal“ peaks and screes and explosive renderings of real or imaginary scenes from nature. Many of these paintings came out of Tolli`s hikes in the highlands during the summer and winter months, when he would take photographs and make sketches or watercolours. Back in the studio, this would be the raw material that he worked from.
Early in 2003, during repeated mountain excursions – and discussions – with geophysicist and writer Ari Trausti Guðmundsson, Tolli was able to formulate his philosophy of nature and nature-based painting. The idea of collaborating with Guðmundsson came from Tolli, who was looking for a travelling companion, preferably a writer or „intellectual“ who could write and talk knowledgeably about „art, beauty, nature, religion and the human condition“, to quote an interview Tolli gave to Morgunblaðið. Eventually the artist intended to incorporate these discussions into a book containing a selection of his paintings and photographs of landscapes that he loved. Tolli and Guðmundsson met at the former`s one-man show of 2002 and immediately hit it off.
By March 2003 they had climbed the mountains Skessuhorn and Skarðshyrna together and practiced ice climbing on two glaciers, one of them the volcanic Eyjafjallajökull. In
between they had gone on less arduous walks in the highlands carrying only colours, paper and cameras. The offshoot was a handsome book they called Yzt (Remoteness), which came out in August 2003, with texts by both of them in English, German and French and a great deal of visual material, chiefly paintings by Tolli from 2000-2003. At the beginning of the book Tolli voices his conviction that there is a deep, almost visceral, connection between all Icelanders, artists in particular, and their country: „Artists can never escape far from nature. There are certain extrasensory forces that have this effect on those of us who work with art. Those of us who go to other countries cut that umbilical cord, but this merely produces a new channel for interpreting Icelandic nature…Right up to the present day, Icelandic art has been influenced by the land, not just by mountains and the wilderness but also by the light – it is
the ever-changing light that lies behind the magic of this country.“
Extending a Rainbow to Forces Beyond
Tolli goes on to describe his working methods: „All the mountains I paint exist somewhere, although generally I do not know precisely where…I set off into the canvas by painting abstract. After improvising with colours and forms, the memory of some experience of the wilderness comes to me…When I stand like that before the pure, white canvas, newly embarked on my journey, the concept comes to life, a motif comes into being, without my having thought it over carefully beforehand…Then I forget why I chose that motif as soon as I begin to paint it. At the same time I go on capturing a certain instant, certain circumstances, an atmosphere, which could be calm or strong weather, whispering or noise“
Tolli`s descriptions of the genesis of his landscapes are suffused with references to their spiritual or transcendental content. When Yzt came out he said in an interview that painting from nature was like „extending a rainbow over to the forces beyond“. Furthermore:“Many of my paintings…depict spiritual landscapes and are a kind of worship. In itself it makes no difference whether I paint a mountain that can be recognized or a particular lake or place. I come from a country where every hill and hummock has its own name…This is why I often enjoy playing with the names I give to my works, although it is difficult to associate the motif with the place in question“. Tolli goes on to say:“Most mountain enchant you. It might be the form or the height, the light and the shadows, admiration and fear. Mountains capture the light in a completely different way from lowlands. When you look across the
expanses of the wilderness or at mountains you are taking part in a show where God is playing with you“.
Finally: „In this way I store up images to retell in paintings: to make mountains if you like. Doing that, fetching the landscape from my emotional memory and subconscious, letting the brushes and colours complete the effect: when all is said and done that is my prayer of thanksgiving to the higher forces. I`m not hiding that…You suddenly gain a new view of your environment up on the mountaintop, and it urges you forward. And then you realize how tiny man is before God: the ego yields to something larger. In a spiritual sense, on a mountaintop you are in flight. I am giving myself a share in this by painting mountains and the land and I try to convey these emotions to the viewer; preferably to take him with me“.
In a conversation with a journalist Tolli maintained that the artist`s spiritual mission was not linked solely to the landscape of his birth: „When you paint a piece of rock lying in the middle of the sands of M‡rdalur, it becomes the common denominator for all the rocks in the world, the rocks handled by young Somalian children in the desert or the rocks that an Inuit heaves on to a glacial boulder over in Greenland. It`s all the same stuff, man versus nature. The important thing is the dialogue taking place between them.“ This is what Tolli has to say about beauty: „I don`t find all landscapes or all mountains beautiful, but the beauty resides in the whole, both in life as such and in all nature. Beauty is more than just smart; trying to show it is the most radical act we can perform nowadays. At the same time you discover your own part in the best that existence can offer.“
„Storytelling“ has long been frowned upon by modern painters. Not by Tolli: „Virtually all work by Icelandic artists tells some kind of story. There is a horizon and something arcane out there that finds its way into the work, or something that has not yet come to us“…He claims to be unafraid of telling stories in his own paintings: “I have hardly painted abstract because I always try to tell a story with each painting…Maybe I bridge the gap between abstract painting and installing my idea of a real phenomenon that has been recycled in my memory.“ In the abovementioned book Tolli frequently describes his painting as exploratory journeys with light as his lode star: “I am a guide on the canvas, bringing out something there that has a clear or vague location…When I start a new painting I don`t think far ahead, above all I consider the position of light and shadow in the picture. The light determines the moment of the story. Light is continually changing, which above all else is the key to Iceland`s magic. The idea is there, then the painting itself determines much of the rest; I cannot decide the final image of the mountain or landscape in advance. I improvise into a painting more than into an image of something specific with a firm and recognizable model.“
In the Beauty of Small Things
The book Yzt contains some of Tolli`s most impressive landscape paintings to date, particularly the paintings from 2002- 2003. This is especially true of his more extravagant colour combinations, which are now more coordinated and more firmly structured than previously. In some of Tolli`s most successful paintings of this kind, such as Blue shadows (2003) and Blue nights (2003), he seems to be pitching himself against one of Iceland`s most admired painter of the Icelandic blue yonder, Louisa Matthíasdóttir. And in a painting entitled Hot light (2003) Tolli manages to convey the overwhelming
visual impact of such geological showpieces as the Landmannalaugar region in the south of Iceland and the Námaskarð pass in the north. During the past seven years Tolli has continued to be a prolific painter of landscapes, though without altering his approach to any great extent. As before, he paints well-known places as well as anonymous or imaginary places, using a broad brush and unbroken swathes of colour to build up chunks of sky, mountains and lakes. The only difference is an increased emphasis on delicate foreground features, blades of grass, small rocks or silvery bits of lava. The combination
of massive mountains and dainty foreground serves to create a visual dissonance which is a part of the attraction of these paintings. In this respect Tolli is paying his respects to the Icelandic landscape tradition, of which the works of Kjarval are a prime example. The artist has repeatedly paid tributesto this tradition. In Yzt he is quoted as saying: „When I paint a landscape it is my private prayer of thanksgiving to something higher than me, as I said before, but at the same time I`m embracing the heritage; the landscape tradition in Icelandic art, the special Icelandic school which is the main
contribution we can make in an international context.“
One particular motif, the abandoned dwelling, is a regular feature of Tolli`s most recent paintings of valleys, screes and mountains. It is not an entirely new departure, for such buildings are found in a number of Tolli`s early works, one of the radical artist`s earlier symbols for a „culturally bankrupt“ Iceland. In his more colourful new paintings, the abandoned dwellings are mostly seen in the soft light of a summer evening or in the melancholy dusk, as nostalgic monuments to past generations rather than as political symbols. Which is far from claiming that Tolli has turned his back on the idealism of his youth. But with time, his ideals have merged with his emotions and imaginative faculties, to the benefit of all his senses, physical and moral. Tolli started out as a painter of cairns in the Icelandic wilderness, now his greatest ambition is to be able to paint „the breathing of the universe“. For a relatively young artist, this is quite a leap.
Text in Icelandic