Monthly Archives: October 2019

The Politics of Farming and the Truth of Art

A century ago, most Icelanders were farmers. Now a few thousand remain.  Their Iceland is as complex as any other. For instance, the image below shows not only rich hayfields, with some drainage issues not-yet-solved by dredging, but the results of government farm-improvement subsidies (for dredging) that are one of the ways that Iceland keeps farmers on the land. Note the older style of farming in the foreground, with the sheep at pasture on the heath.

Borgarfjörður Eystri

If you travel around Iceland, you will see fields like this all the time. Few look quite like this one, though. Notice how the mounds of soil dredged out to drain the land are left beside the canals from which they came. If this were a prosperous farm, they would have been levelled out across the entire field, enriching and deepening the soil. They aren’t. Rather than enriching the land, in this remote, barely-prosperous farm, the dredging remains a political calculation at best. The view is a sobering reminder that although millions of people visit Iceland for relaxation, in most of the areas one passes through people are working at their absolute limit, and within a narrow set of political parameters. This tetchy balance between freedom and control is as much Iceland today as when Gunnar was driven off his farm when his workforce went to work for the Americans instead of under his beneficent dictatorship, or when Halldor Laxness wrote his great novel of orneriness, stubbornness and endurance,

…or  Independent People.

These things aren’t just in the imagination of novelists.

Icelandic Clarity

One of the tricky things about Iceland is that everything in Iceland is Iceland, even global culture’s colonial intrusions into Icelandic space…

… and even so-delicious images of vulnerability and cold set against pan-Scandinavian design…

… but these distractions have a history, and you can find them in the once-busy harbour of Vopnafjörður. There, the old pier is one of the main tourist sights in town.

It’s worth the long trip, for the clarity it brings.

The Birth of a Painter in East Iceland

The boy Johannes Kjarval built himself a shelter out of these rocks while minding sheep.

And he kept an eye on more than sheep, out there in Borgarfjörður Eystri. Trolls, for instance.

 

Elf horses.

Elves, even.

So was Iceland’s great painter created. Here’s a painting of Esja, across from Reykjavik, showing what he learned out there as a boy in the East.

There are many roots to modernism.  This is one of the most integrative.

Gunnar and the Elves of Vopnafjörður

In downtown Vopnafjörður, right across from the slaughterhouse, there’s a fine elf hill. Gunnar Gunnarsson grew up in this neighbourhood. He would have seen this hill everyday, and no doubt climbed it often.

Now, it might be hard to visit a “real” elf here (at any rate, it’s out of your control), but you can visit Gunnar.

He has flowers and birds, and place for you to sit down.

This is a pre-Happy-Camper kind of Icelandic travel. There are a lot of Icelanders honours with their very own copper head in the trees. To visit them is a kind of pilgrimage.

Hi, Gunnar.