Reykjavík, Iceland

Hallgrímur Helgason, History of Icelandic Literature, Vol. IV, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 63 3/4 x 51 1/8".

Hallgrímur Helgason, History of Icelandic Literature, Vol. IV, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 63 3/4 x 51 1/8".

Hallgrímur Helgason

Tveir Hrafnar Listhús

Hallgrímur Helgason, History of Icelandic Literature, Vol. IV, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 63 3/4 x 51 1/8".

Perhaps no other place on earth can claim to be more genuinely extraterrestrial than Iceland, and perhaps no other language sounds, when spoken, as though it were being made up by the speaker as he or she goes along. The country is an island with a small population base—there are no secrets, and one almost expects the existence of telepathy. The transcendental lurks around every corner, and enlightenment hides just over every hill. This all adds up to hyperliteracy: Iceland, the homeland of the saga, has the world’s highest per capita consumption of books.

Hallgrímur Helgason is a Reykjavík novelist, graphic artist, and painter whose newest canvases manage to encapsulate the sensation that in both the capital city and country at large, one is not so much amid a population as amid one big and highly melancholic Glass family from Franny and Zooey—and that they’ve all been marooned on an asteroid in some other space-time continuum. An exhibition of his most recent canvases was titled “History of Icelandic Literature, Vol. IV.” This is also the title of the show’s signature work, dated 2012, a group portrait whose source material is a black-and-white press photo of the 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Halldór Laxness. The image shows the great Icelandic novelist surrounded by five Stockholm beauties. Yet something has gone horribly wrong: The women’s faces have been (flawlessly) replaced with those of five of Laxness’s Icelandic compatriots who didn’t win the Nobel Prize. The effect is jarring and creepy. Not only is Iceland hyperliterate; its writers are hypercompetitive. The painting compresses all of the tensions of many big fish inhabiting a very small pond, and it captures the emotional dynamics of one large family eating at one large dinner table. That the writers resemble ghosts amplifies the familial feel. By proxy it becomes a portrait of Iceland as a nation.

The other works in the show are all likewise painted in black-and-white and based on photographs of Icelandic writers, many of whom are mentioned in the fourth volume of the national master text, History of Icelandic Literature. To the outsider, one feels as though one is peeking into an aperture to another, more heightened sense of being. One truly lovely work shows Thórbergur Thórdarson (1888–1974), whose face is covered with graphic marks that remind one of a subway map, but which really form an acupuncture chart. “Thórdarson was into eastern philosophy and yoga, but also Communism,” according to Helgason. “He wrote autobiographical novels where his Asperger’s syndrome self was at the center, brilliant and funny stuff. He was constantly measuring things, the room temperature, the length of his trousers, you name it.” Thórdarson’s work remains untranslated into other languages, thus adding to the aura of impenetrability that shrouds Iceland like foggy volcanic spume.

Other works portray even less famous authors, practically forgotten, as Helgason says, “even here in Iceland, so it’s like trying to give them an image, fishing their faces out of the obscure ponds of the Internet.” Gerhard Richter’s 1972 series of forty-eight portraits of great men comes to mind here, except that to elevate the little-known Icelandic writers to the status of Max Planck or Thomas Mann becomes a commentary on the fantastically small, almost entirely closed loop that is Icelandic society.

One does leave this country with the sensation that it would be the best place for NASA to recruit volunteers to colonize Mars. Whatever the Martian landscape and weather might throw at them would leave them unfazed, and they are, along with many traits, used to living a lifetime in cramped familial circumstances. And should Mars one day be colonized, its literature and society might not be so unlike those of the Iceland Helgason so honestly depicts.

Douglas Coupland