Painting and Nature! Most of us will think of “land- scapes” and this art form has in fact had an illustrious career since the emergence of the first examples in European art at the beginning of the 16th century. As it is, a “landscape” is a spatial arrangement of our natural surroundings, of mountains and valleys, slopes and plains, forests and fields, rivers and seas. This type of scenery, however, is only one side of nature’s coin and even before the first landscape paintings appeared on the scene painting and nature had already formed an alliance. Thus, a Renaissance artist such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) regarded “nature” as the visible reality in its completeness and endless variety.
The Renaissance was obsessed with space as a scene for human endeavour as evidenced by the great voyages of discovery of the day. Because painting was being regarded as a window out into the world, it was nature as landscape painting that ran away with the top prize. This occurred to such a degree that in the 19th century this genre became almost identical with painting as art. Until recently, the general public has identified “art” as a painter with his easel out in a natural environment.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Modernism overturned people’s ideas of painting as a repre- sentation of nature. The term “Modernism” signifies the new art that wanted to form an alliance with reality in the modern urban environment created by the industrial revolution. Therefore, a wealth of offers came forward on how to represent modern reality – whether rational or irrational – but the com- mon denominator of all the ‘isms’ was the idea of
a painting as an independent entity. Painting could no longer be regarded as a window to the visible world, which, on the one hand, had become incom- prehensible and dynamic, and on the other was faced with competition from man’s inner reality.
The new painting should above all be true to itself as an arrangement of colours, forms and structures on a surface. Landscape was still an important sub- ject but now existed only in terms of painting creat- ed by an artistic temperament. Also landscape itself became an ever more distant reality in the expanding modern urban culture. Painting was therefore regarded as having a nature of its own, as expressed in the triumphant words of Danish Modernist Harald Giersing (1881-1927): “Nature is nothing, the painting of it is everything”.
A synthesis of the traditional and modernist views: “nature as painting” and “nature of the paint- ing”, is found in the works of the Icelandic pain- ter Guðrún Einarsdóttir (b. 1957). The whole sur- face of her canvases is covered with organic pat- terns and repetitions. Seen close-up they have an unrecognisable and sometimes microscopic charac- ter. These structures represent the artist’s reworking of the multitude of different surface textures that Guðrún Einarsdóttir encounters out in nature. It could be crisp lichen on crumbling rocks, lush green algae at the water’s edge, damp and springy moss in the bog, rubbing ridges in the glacial moraines, ice crystals on the cliff face, volcanic lava blobs, the sandy and muddy vortices in the icy glacial rivers – and all kinds of different patterns and repetitions which catch the artist’s eye.
The “natural ornaments” are being explored and pre- served as photographs by the artist for further artistic processing and reshaping at home in the studio. This process is in fact quite extraordinary because Guðrún Einarsdóttir’s panels are in fact not produced in a traditional way with a brush and palette or fingers. Nor is the thinned-out paint allowed to trickle down over the canvas, or poured or splashed on.
The method is actually quite peaceful and recalls the work of a chemist in her laboratory. During the process the canvas is placed in a horizontal position in order to reduce the effect of gravity on the paint material, and here the paints, oils and solvents are applied, in different mixtures. Then the drying process takes over, and new patterns develop and change on top of the ones already created by the artist.
The process may last for more than a year so there are always several paintings being worked on at the same time meaning that the work is carried out in stages. The paintings undergo a huge change from the time the artist leaves them and until they are completely dried out. Through the years, Guðrún Einarsdóttir has become very experienced in the mixing ratios of her materials and in calculating their effects. But since she is an artist, not a scientist, the mixture of pigment, binder and thinner is always experimental and intuitive. This is due to the nature of the materials, which in the end takes over and the final result is therefore out of her control.
Because their point of reference is a visual experience in a landscape, the paintings of Guðrún Einarsdóttir are to a certain extent imitations of nature. However, it is also equally important that the drying process produces effects which could never be imitated by hand. The coagulated surfaces of the paintings are creating surreal forms akin to nature, whose fantastic creations repeatedly surpass reality. The reference to nature has another and a less direct aspect to it, in the sense that the organic forms of the painting can be seen as a landscape from a bird’s eye view, for example a dried-out riverbed or branched-out delta, a mountain ridge or blobs of ice on the ocean or...
It is a part of human nature to seek a recognizable form in a shapeless quantity and it is this urge, to which Guðrún Einarsdóttir refers when she has recently begun to speak of her paintings as Material Landscape. In comparison to landscape in the tradi- tional sense, hers are reduced to the absolute mini- mum as a surface of paint consisting of organic forms. Even if the result looks like a piece of nature, the paint-stuff itself must be respected and thus the artist also avoids mixing natural elements such as sand or grass into the painting.
At the same time, the otherwise so natural-looking patterns and repetitions in Guðrún Einarsdóttir’s paintings are her own creations, and this is clearly demonstrated in the decorative systematism, in which theses structures are used. Despite their ties to nature, Guðrún Einarsdóttir’s paintings are essentially expressions of “the nature of painting” due to the substance of the paints and systematic patterning. Furthermore, in recent years the artist has begun working to a greater extent in larger and clearer forms in her paintings alongside the small and varied ones. Even here the demands of the picture assert themselves.
While the completed work lies in the area of tension between painting and nature, the process itself is closer to nature, especially since the forms have to a large extent been created through the force of the material. The organic process is thus similar to that of nature and to capture this aspect as well as the natural forms themselves, it is obvious to make use of a pair of terms formulated in his time by the philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-77). According to nature, it has two aspects, viz. the created nature natura naturata and the creating natura naturans. Guðrún Einarsdóttir’s paintings are relating themselves to this life-bringing energy.
Spirit and matter
Standing in front of Guðrún Einarsdóttir’s paintings you just have to take a few steps back before the vibrant forms of the surface calm down and assume the character of monochromatic surfaces in subtle green, brown, blue yellow and red – as well as white, grey and black (the latter strictly speaking not colours but belong to the gray-tone scale). Since the paintings do not have – nor should they have – frames, the sense of coloured rectangles is reinforced. Guðrún Einarsdóttir’s canvases are thus related to so-called Minimalism, which asserted itself as an independent movement in the art of the 1950’s but had its roots in the geometry experiments of the 1920’s in the form of Neoplasticism and Suprematism.
While early minimalist painters like Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) and Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) worked with geometry inside the frame, their fol- lowers, such as Yves Klein (1928-1962) and Bar- nett Newman (1905-1970) went even further and transformed the whole surface to a uniformly coloured rectangle. In both cases the aim was to eliminate all the recognizable and material elements in favour of purity that bordered on emptiness. However, these attempts were far from being just pure exercises in form. Both Malevitch and Mondrian had ideas about a higher spiritual order and even though the metaphysical character was toned down in later minimalist efforts, its characteristic “almost nothing” was tied in with an idea of spirituality.
Minimalism is particularly noticeable in Guðrún Einars- dóttir’s early paintings. When she was preparing her first exhibition in 1989 she rejected using any colours except black and white to make the expression as quiet as possible whereas the surface was formed as a geometric pattern. As the opposites of the grey-tone scale black and white represent the total presence or absence of light. And light was further brought into play through a raised surface structure of round spirals or patterns of a more organic nature: goose pimples or hair combed with a lice comb. The result was a sensual Minimalism with symbolic overtones since black refers to the earth and white to the ice.
Quickly, geometry and order were replaced by organic patterns in a more loosely ordered arrange- ment. Also the paint material became more varied, in places heavier and more irregular, almost as crusts, in others thinner and smoother with an increased relief effect as a result. The desire for a stronger reference to nature also meant that the soft-hued earth colours gradually introduced themselves later to develop into richly varied nuances. The natural aspect thus became more obvious but notably as a colour substance, as material – or as a “matter” philosophically speaking. And here Guðrún Einarsdóttir’s art differs from Minimalism with its inherent idealism.
Idealism, as a European thought, has been the leading philosophical tradition since the days of Plato (ca. 428-348 BC). According to him, the world of sense was only an imperfect reflection of the ideas, i.e. the forms and concepts, which could only be reached through the mind. Later, in the Platonic tradition, matter, the basis of creation, was placed at the bottom rung of the world with God, as the opposite, spiritual summit. Even though matter was a divine emanation, it was so in a very watered down version; it was seen as a heavy and inert mass, which was only given life and form through fertilisation by a spiritual power. In this way matter easily became associated with evil.
Alongside this negative concept there was however a more positive one, where matter was seen as a life-giving force, and this idea was strengthened by the relationship between the Latin concepts of “materia” and “mater” (mother). And in the Christian tradition matter was after all a part of God ́s creation. A modern theologian and geologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) has expressed the traditional duality in the concept of matter, but with the emphasis on its positive value: “On the one hand, matter represents the burdens, shackles, pain, sin and all the threatening things in our lives... But at the same time, matter is the physical joy, the budding contact, the staunch effort, the joy of growing. It is this matter that fascinates, that renews, that unites, that flowers. By matter we are nourished, elevated, joined with the rest, overwhelmed by life. To deprive us of it is insufferable...”
If Guðrún Einarsdóttir is thinking along those lines at all, she would rather be attracted by Pantheism with its idea of God inherent in nature. Here nature is regarded as the visible spirit, just as spirit is the invisible nature and this idea was also present in Spinoza’s term of natura naturans, the life-giving nature. This holistic concept, with or without relig- ious overtones, which encompasses the idea of an omnipresent principle of life, is also evident in a very concrete way in the painting of Guðrún Einarsdóttir.
The folded-over edges of her canvases are always painted and thus the paintings are not to be put into frames. But that is not all: Thanks to the organic patterns that develop in the whole surface without any particular direction, it is possible to hang her pictures both as “portrait” and “landscape”, verti- cally and horizontally; indeed, they can also be exhibited on trestles. There is no “up” or “down” and also no limits. Each painting could therefore be seen as only a fragment of an endless organism – the life-giving matter.
The art of Guðrún Einarsdóttir is however not just a celebration of matter. It also contains an insubstantial transcendence, which comes into effect in the play of light on the paint material. On the one hand the light in her paintings could be termed “light of the Earth”, to be understood as the inherent radiance of the earth colours and their subdued harmony could also be seen as symbolic of the positive power of matter. On the other hand, the artist also works with light as a physical phenomenon in her paintings. The innumerable surface irregularities with highs and lows are perfect to catch the light coming from the side.
When the light thus spreads as a vibrant membrane over the roughness of the colours, an effect is obtained not unlike that of the Byzantine mosaics of the Middle Ages. Here the golden cubic glass tiles were actually fastened to the walls at different angles to catch the light and thus enhance its intensity to represent the physical mirror of God’s spiritual light. Even though Guðrún Einarsdóttir’s art cannot be termed religious in the narrow sense of the word, the shimmering membrane on her canvases adds an otherworldly dimension to her – otherwise very substantial – paintings. Thus the light of Heaven and Earth come together in her art.
The frequencies of nature
The total absence of spatial scenery is a condition, Guðrún Einarsdóttir’s art shares with modern land- scape painting as a whole. In a 1999 film on the great Faroese painter Ingálvur av Reyni (1920- 2005), the artist comments while the camera is panning a magnificent landscape, that he cannot cope with this kind of scenery. This was probably more of an existential than a professional statement, based on the feeling that the panoramic view with its imperialistic overtones no longer retains any credibility.
As a result of being uncomfortable with the grand view, artists have moved close to the subject and almost become subjugated to it. As Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson has pointed out, the great Icelandic painter Jóhannes Kjarval (1885-1972) produced close -ups of rock formations in the landscape, and Guð- rún Einarsdóttir’s paintings are a follower of these, except for being much more abstract, radical and fanciful. Tied in with this microscopic viewpoint is also the romantic concept of the infinitely large in the infinitely small, the macrocosm within a microcosm. The organic Lilliput world in Guðrún Einarsdóttir’s painting may in fact be experienced as cosmic web formations of distant nebulae.
There are ample opportunities in the natural land- scape of Iceland to represent it as a three-dimen- sional stage beyond reality. This is quite distinct in the areas surrounding Reykjavík where the rela- tively recent volcanic landscape features bizarre colours and formations with a surreal character, which in fact was a source of inspiration for Kjarval. No matter how fantastic these Icelandic sceneries may be, Guðrún Einarsdóttir is not to be seduced by them; quite apart from the fact that a painting of such incredible landscape will seem implausible to a modern sensibility. No, she rather sticks faithfully to the minimalist principle of “less is more” so she is letting the fantastic nature emerge quietly and discretely within the boundaries of the canvas. This richness of nature is an inexhaustible source and Guðrún Einarsdóttir knows that as long as she receives nourishment from the cornucopia of nature, her paintings will never end up in empty Formalism.
The way Guðrún Einarsdóttir allows matter, the paint itself, to be a central part of the process shows her unpretentious attitude to painting. It could even be called feminine. Here we are not witnessing violent gestures with broad brush marks like a tar broomnor is the paint drizzled, poured or sprayed on the canvas like the result of powerful discharges. No, her paintings grow – in the words of her fellow artist and the art critic Thóra Thórisdóttir – as “a fertilised egg on the wall of the uterus”.
Apart from the aspect of gender politics, Guðrún Einarsdóttir’s immersing herself in the quiet growth is strongly connected with her love and respect for nature. It is a love which, on the political front, has found expression in an active participation in the environmental protection movement. However, when Guðrún Einarsdóttir is active within the envir- onmental protection movement it is first and fore- most in line with her mission as an artist, to bring about an effect akin to the healing property of nature.
In the maelstrom of our civilisation, humans are still creatures of nature, we are thus capable of responding to the frequency at which nature trans- mits. When the modern city-dweller is out in the landscape, we can sense the strong and positive presence of nature creating a balance within us and filling us with calm. In that silence we are offered the possibility of growing into a larger whole and it is this is the gift, which, in its most profound sense, Guðrún Einarsdóttir’s art basically is all about.