Trygggvi Ólafsson

– about the artist

About Tryggva Ólafsson

Tryggvi Ólafsson was born in Neskaupstaður on 1 June 1940. Driven by an early interest in the visual arts, he was in childhood already drawing whatever he happened to notice, as well as beginning to paint watercolours of birds, houses, people and sailing boats. At the age of ten, he spent a summer helping on Tjarnarland farm, in the rural community of Hjaltastaðaþinghá. Iceland’s most popular painter, Kjarval, was staying in a simple hut nearby and could often be seen painting outside. Not least, Ólafsson noted that Kjarval worked professionally as an artist. This was unknown at Neskaupstaður, where everyone worked as fishermen, carpenters, general labourers and the like.

During elementary school, Ólafsson concentrated especially on drawing, using the money he was given at confirmation to buy oil paints and other materials and items used by artists. Thus equipped, he immediately started painting in oil, focusing especially on landscapes.

Due to an illness of Ólafsson’s mother, the family moved to Reykjavík in 1956. He nonetheless maintained a relationship with his home community in the East, returning there each summer to work at sea. In addition to his studies in upper secondary school, he took advantage of a drawing course offered in the autumn of 1958. This course was led by a well-known artist, Hringur Jóhannesson, and was related to the College of Art and Handicraft, where Ólafsson enrolled in the winter of 1960 to 1961, after his graduation from secondary school.

By this time, he had decided to educate himself in the arts. Gaining admittance to the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, Ólafsson studied there for five years, from 1961 to 1966. His main teacher was Søren Hjorth Nielsen, who became a close friend. Since Ólafsson took an extra year in the Academy’s school for graphics, he did not graduate until 1967.

After finishing his training, he took on various jobs in Copenhagen, until setting up an atelier for himself as of 1969 to 1970 and thereupon dedicating his time to art. As he developed his personal, unique style in the following years, he was at first also painting a considerable number of political images, because most people at the time were focusing on horrific conflicts in the world, for example the Vietnam War.

Soon, Tryggvi Ólafsson had made a name for himself in art; nevertheless, he found it important to maintain a close relationship with people by the fjord of his early life. Thus he was eager to receive people from that fjord in his Copenhagen atelier, and thereby hear the latest news from his old home town. Occasionally he would visit Neskaupstaður, whereupon there were always joyous get-togethers. Once he had developed his own artistic style, the time seemed ripe to show it, as he did at an exhibition in Neskaupstaður in November 1975. Later, he decorated some buildings in town, with the north exterior of the regional hospital doubtlessly being the best-known work. He also produced an admirable mosaic plaque commemorating those who lost their lives in the devastating local avalanche of 20 December 1974. A further Ólafsson painting exhibition was held in Neskaupstaður in 1984.

In 2007, Ólafsson was seriously injured and thereafter confined to a wheelchair. He and his wife, Gerður Sigurðardóttir, subsequently moved to Iceland and settled in Reykjavík, thereby ending his 47 years of residence in Copenhagen. Despite his disability, Ólafsson continued to pursue his art. Although he was no longer able to paint, in 2013 he started creating lithographs. At the Droplaugarstaðir nursing home in Reykjavík, where he spent his final years, he set up facilities for producing prints. Tryggvi Ólafsson died on 3 January 2019.

Clearly, Ólafsson had a spectacular artistic career, having first exhibited paintings in his upper secondary school in 1960, one year before leaving Iceland to study art in Copenhagen. In 1963, he participated with other artists in the autumn exhibition at the Den Frie arts centre, Copenhagen. He held his first private exhibition in Denmark with designer Erik Magnussen at Jensen’s Gallery, Copenhagen, in 1966. As a member of Iceland’s SÚM group, he held joint exhibitions with other members from 1969 to 1977. In addition, he exhibited from 1970 to 1980 with the international group Den Nordiske in Denmark, Sweden and Iceland. His creations included building decorations in Denmark and Iceland, and he illustrated numerous books that were published in Denmark or Iceland. In 1976, collaborating with the film director H. H. Jørgensen, Ólafsson produced a film on his former professor, Søren Hjorth Nielsen. A documentary film, directed by Baldur Hrafnkell Jónsson, was produced in 1984 on Ólafsson’s own art. Books have also been published on his art, as well as a book which was written on the artist himself by Helgi Guðmundsson and published by Mál og Menning in 2004.

Ólafsson participated in exhibitions in every Nordic capital, as well as in Germany, France, England, China, the USA and the Netherlands, not to mention his frequent exhibitions in Iceland. In 2000, a major retrospective exhibition of his works was held in the Kópavogur Art Museum (Gerðarsafn). Outside of Iceland, 17 Nordic art museums and many museums in other parts of the globe contain works by Ólafsson. Recent years have seen exhibitions of his works in Paris, Ísafjörður, and Reykjavík’s Art Gallery Fold, in addition to two extensive retrospective exhibitions – first in Akureyri and then in Nørrebro, Copenhagen – both of which were held in cooperation with the Tryggvi Ólafsson Art Collection, Neskaupstaður.

Ólafsson received various awards for his artistic work. For example, in the spring of 2017, he was dubbed Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog and soon afterwards, on 17 June, he was awarded the Order of the Icelandic Falcon.

Sometimes I get stumped and have to head out again to forage for more junk and seek out ideas.

Personal style

When he finished his art academy studies in Copenhagen, Tryggvi Ólafsson had reached a turning point. After focusing on abstract art during his education, he felt he had had enough of it and, as he expressed it, had “painted himself into a corner”.  Since he was not enthused about abstract painting, he became an everyday wage earner in the Danish capital. Even so, he brandished a paintbrush occasionally and eventually began developing his own new style, as well as painting political images for a time. Once he had obtained an atelier in Copenhagen as of 1969 – 1970, he started dedicating himself to visual art, and there was no turning back. While some people associated his new style with pop art, Ólafsson pointed out that pop art influences only showed at the beginning of this trend in his arts career.

Ólafsson’s novel style was characterised by combining all sorts of fragments from the real world, uniting landscape, human bodies, animals, and assorted machinery and devices on the same picture plane. Arranging such disparate objects together, the artist ventured ever farther “into creating whole lies on the picture plane”, stretching yet farther, pulling and rearranging. He himself liked to compare this to an impressive jazz solo, which improvised on the melody without a hint of effort. Interviewed by the regional newspaper Austurland in 1975, he explained in plain terms how his pictures were created:

I gather up junk – often just old, useless junk – maybe getting it at antique dealers or picking it up on rubbish dumps, as I did as a boy at Neskaupstaður. Then I think of proportions on the picture plane for this stuff. Not until then is it time for what interests me the most in visual arts: the colours. Colours get involved when I start on the nitty-gritty work. Sometimes I get stumped and have to head out again to forage for more junk and seek out ideas.

Various art historians have described Ólafsson’s pictures. Here are just two examples, the first of which is translated from an Icelandic excerpt based on the writings of Peter Michael Hornung:

As a visual artist, Tryggvi Ólafsson endeavours to present the unexpected. He both chooses and rejects objects and organisms in the wide world, then places them on stage in the small world of his painting. He creates a still life which is far from still; instead, it freely and boldly takes in motifs from the entire history of humankind. By constructing a framework and deciding its contents, he places confidence in the ability of all these assorted objects – picked up just anywhere – to communicate with each other. No everyday communication happens between the objects thus brought together from differing times and cultural environments. Indeed, these objects may never even have been close to each other. If however they were, their encounters were perhaps completely accidental and detached.

Halldór B. Runólfsson described Ólafsson’s art when fully developed. Taking note of prints and collages as well as paintings and drawings, Runólfsson observed for instance the following:

At this stage, Ólafsson’s methods were based more and more on the exhaustive use of any particular material, the uniformity of his symbols, the assorted production of small preparatory sketches, the techniques involved in prints and collages, and the re-painting of a single subject with slight or substantial modifications. These approaches would inherently result in greater integration and compression of symbols, colours and drawn forms. As his feeling increased for the use of colours, Ólafsson diminished their needless crowding and added system to his harmony of lines and forms. This led to more emblematic paintings which were reminiscent in the broadest sense of complex, synthesised symbolic or iconic images. At the same time, his material gained an aggregated, allegorical atmosphere.

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