Land Seen – Following in the Footsteps of Johannes Larsen

Einar Falur Ingólfsson

For three years, from 2014 to 2016, the Danish artist Johannes Larsen (1867–1961) was my guide while travelling around and photographing Iceland. Larsen was in Iceland during the summers of 1927 and 1930 and made over 300 drawings of sites mentioned in the Sagas of the Icelanders for a three-volume edition of the sagas published by the Danish press Gyldendal between 1930 and 1932.  Almost ninety years later, I followed in Larsen’s footsteps, working with a large sheet film camera in many of the same places he visited.

When Larsen came to Iceland, he was almost sixty years old and by then one of the most respected artists in Denmark. From a young age, he had dedicated himself to interpreting the Danish landscape and its nature in a detailed and impressionistic way, with a special fondness for birds. Larsen’s Iceland project proved to be much more extensive than he originally expected and stretched over two summers. The first summer, in 1927, he had to return home to Denmark earlier than planned, when the tragic news of his wife’s serious illness reached him in Stykkishólmur – she passed away before he got home. Larsen returned to Iceland three years later to finish his project, a broken man after his wife’s death. Accompanied by the same assistant that had also travelled with him in 1927, the artist Ólafur Túbals from the farm Múlakot in Fljótshlíð (1897–1964). Again they travelled in the south and the west, then moving eastwards along the northern coast of Iceland, until their journey ended near the lake Mývatn.

Ever since 188 of Larsen’s drawings were published in Gyldendal’s edition of the Sagas of the Icelanders, readers have admired the artist’s masterly take on the form, how he draws up and describes the land and places in a nuanced, refined and objective manner. In smooth lines and flawless cross-hatching, mountains, fields, lakes and clouds emerge – farms peer out and the odd bird appears.

The Icelandic manuscripts and Sagas are some of the most important treasures of the Icelandic people – along with Iceland’s landscape and nature. For years, I’ve enjoyed travelling around the country thinking about and looking for sites mentioned in the Sagas – it was therefore only natural that they would eventually become the subject of some of my works. Over the past decade, I have approached the Icelandic landscape from the perspective of cultural history, as well as the traces of people and their use of the land – from the Saga Age  right up to the present day – and have based reflections of my experiences on the interpretations of those foreign artists who were there before me.

From 2007 to 2010, I also worked on a wide-ranging project based on a selection of 300 watercolour paintings made by the British artist, aesthetician and writer W. G. Collingwood (1854–1932) in various settings of the Icelandic Sagas in the summer of 1897. For the work, I used a 4×5-inch sheet film camera, which provided a wealth of rich visual information as well as great objectivity when approaching the subjects. Larsen and Collingwood’s approaches to the Icelandic landscape and historical places differ from each other – as well as from the approach of Icelandic artists working at the time. However, both Larsen and Collingwood share the common aim of portraying the settings where the Sagas supposedly took place and allowing the readers to visualise the characters in their own minds.

Larsen’s drawings from Iceland can be viewed on their own as a complete body of work. They do illustrate the Sagas of the Icelanders, but at the same time they are something greater and further-reaching, a cultural and artistic treasure trove, created by a mature artist with a lucid view of a world he is discovering. When I started looking more closely at Larsen’s work, it wasn’t long before I decided to make him my tour guide during my own travels, where I experienced present-day Iceland through his vision and drawings. The journey ended up lasting three years with breaks, from 2014 to 2016. During the last summer, I travelled around working with Larsen for the same twelve weeks that he spent on each of his journeys around Iceland.

Like in my other major photography projects over the last decade, I mostly used 4×5-inch colour film. There are two main reasons for that choice – firstly, the depth of information that the film possesses, so deep in fact that the digital technology available simply does not offer a similar breadth of objective information, and secondly, the importance of a slow process requiring great care. I took Danish and Icelandic editions of the Sagas with me, as well as a selection of prints of Larsen’s drawings that I wanted to work from. I also kept a detailed diary with thoughts, notes and sketches. I used digital cameras to make sketches, both larger cameras and my phone camera – few of which can be seen in the exhibition – moments captured, snapshots that work with the whole.

The conversation with Johannes Larsen’s drawings underpins this project to certain extent, but my photographic works are nevertheless individual and independent. I sometimes choose to display the drawings Larsen drew of the same settings – and one can ponder questions of objectivity and subjectivity, of perspectives or faithful reproductions and interpretations – but elsewhere I let the photographs stand by themselves. As well as engaging in a visual conversation with the time of the Sagas of the Icelanders and my tour guide Larsen’s time in Iceland, the photographs deal mainly with my contemporary time – Iceland in the 21st century. They are shaped by my views on the world and my country and refer to and are based to a great extent on my background in literature and art.

Although he came to Iceland to carry out a complex project, Larsen was also a tourist experiencing the country, just like the hundreds of thousands of visitors in the ever-growing throng of travellers that now come to Iceland every year, who also became an important part of my project. I often picked up hitchhikers who had come to experience the country and its nature. Some of the travellers even accompanied us on our visits to the saga-sites. There I often took their portraits, with Larsen’s views in mind, and sometimes I photographed Icelanders living in the places visited as well.

In the exhibition, some recurring themes emerge, such as the trail or path, the gate and the traveller. The main thread is, however, time itself: the time of the country on the one hand, and the time of us, the people, on the other. Here are various kinds of historical traces, of disappeared lives and the use of the land and goods. Nothing elevated, I hope – just this country shaped by natural forces and stories, as it appeared to me and Johannes Larsen on our fascinating yet demanding journeys with a near ninety-year interval.

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Einar Falur Ingólfsson is educated in literature and has an MFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York. Solo and group exhibitions with his works have been displayed in museums and exhibition spaces in Iceland and abroad, such as in Scandinavia House and the Katonah Museum in New York, the Johannes Larsen Museum in Denmark, the Moscow Photography Museum and  Frankfurt Kunstverein in Germany. He is also the author of several books.