Review

Icelandic Artist Hallgrímur Helgason—Group Portrait of the Self

Theresa Kohlbeck Jakobsen 29 April 2024 min Read

The Icelandic artist and author Hallgrímur Helgason is well known and loved worldwide. Now he is showing his latest paintings in Copenhagen. The exhibition at the North Atlantic House (Nordatlantens Brygge) takes us into the depths of the artist’s soul. Get inspired, get surprised, and maybe even get a little weirded out with The Group Portrait of the Self.

The North Atlantic House (Nordatlantens Brygge) is a place promoting art and culture of Northern Europe with a focus on the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Iceland. Located in the heart of Copenhagen, the cultural center made it onto the Campaya list of the city’s top six sights in 2021. As an independent cultural institution, it allows visitors to experience exhibitions, readings, concerts, and film events. The building also houses a café and a boutique with products from the three regions represented.

Hallgrímur Helgason—(Self-)Portraits

The North Atlantic House is currently showing an exhibition of paintings by Icelandic artist and author Hallgrímur Helgason. Titled Group Portrait of the Self, the show presents works from the years 2021–2023, which are displayed on two floors—the first floor presents the eponymous group portraits, while on the second, one can see a series from 2023 of portraits of imaginary people, which the artist has titled 4Faced.

Hallgrímur Helgason: Hallgrímur Helgason, Sixfold Self-Portrait by the Fjord, 2021. Photograph by Vigfús Birgisson for the North Atlantic House.

Hallgrímur Helgason, Sixfold Self-Portrait by the Fjord, 2021. Photograph by Vigfús Birgisson for the North Atlantic House.

Helgason is best known for novels such as Reykjavik 101 (1996) and Seasick in Munich (2015). Icelandic ambassador Árni Þór Sigurðsson writes about the artist in the booklet accompanying the exhibition:

Hallgrímur has always painted, having trained as a visual artist before he even published his first novel. His paintings and drawings are often filled with imaginative and strange figures, demonstrating a personal style and a playful approach to art.

Árni Þór Sigurðsson, Icelandic Ambassador to Denmark

Grupportræt af selvet – Hallgrímur Helgason, exhibition catalogue, North Atlantic House, 2024.

The large-format acrylic paintings are based on a series of drawings that Helgason made in 2020. The unifying element: they all contain groups of fantastical, cartoonish figures standing close together. The drawings reminded the artist of the typical band photographs of rock bands. All of these figures are the product of Helgason’s fantasy and imagination.

Hallgrímur Helgason: Hallgrímur Helgason, Sixfold Self-Portrait (Skiing Home for the Holidays), 2021. Photograph by Vigfús Birgisson for the North Atlantic House.

Hallgrímur Helgason, Sixfold Self-Portrait (Skiing Home for the Holidays), 2021. Photograph by Vigfús Birgisson for the North Atlantic House.

In the text accompanying the exhibition, Helgason writes the following about his experiences during the working process and creation of the figures:

It slowly dawned on me that they were different aspects of myself, expressions of different sides of me. Each character represented an element of my soul; this was my inner rock band, so to speak.

Hallgrímur Helgason

Grupportræt af selvet – Hallgrímur Helgason, exhibition catalogue, North Atlantic House, 2024.

Hallgrímur Helgason: Hallgrímur Helgason, Sixfold Self Portrait with the Ghost of Laxness, 2022. Detail of the ghost of Laxness. Photograph by Theresa Kohlbeck Jakobsen.

Hallgrímur Helgason, Sixfold Self Portrait with the Ghost of Laxness, 2022. Detail of the ghost of Laxness. Photograph by Theresa Kohlbeck Jakobsen.

Paintings Dense with Personal Narrative

As the close-up exemplifies, Helgason’s paintings captivate the viewer with their richness of color and detail. Furthermore, they excite through the depth of character of the figures depicted. As viewers, we follow a sprawling, fragmented narrative that revolves around the artist’s soul. Each picture is an anthology that combines short stories and text fragments. These different narrative strands get combined into a coherent whole. However, once observers have gained an overview of one painting and moved on to the next, it becomes clear that this new painting adds many more narrative levels to the first one. In this way, it is possible to walk in a circle from painting to painting during the exhibition visit, discovering something new with each glance.

Artist as a Critic

Echoes of the figurative-fantastic nature of the exhibition works can already be found in Helgason’s 2019 show Women Hungry, Men Angry (Two Raven Arthouse, Reykjavík). Compared to these paintings, it is visible that the colors are now more vivid and the lines clearer. The change is due to the different focal points of the shows. In both cases, the subject matter is deeply personal. But while Helgason’s 2019 work reflects on patriarchal society and his experiences as a victim of sexual violence, Group Portrait of the Self shows an artist who has reflected on and accepted his multifaceted biography. For Helgason, the new working approach of these paintings as self-portraits opened up infinite possibilities.

Hallgrímur Helgason: Hallgrímur Helgason in the garden. Photograph by Marco Giugliarelli for Civitella Ranieri Foundation, 2019.
 

Hallgrímur Helgason in the garden. Photograph by Marco Giugliarelli for Civitella Ranieri Foundation, 2019.

 

4Faced—Fantastic Portraits

On the upper floor of the exhibition, Helgason presents a portrait series that blurs the boundaries between painting and drawing. Drawn with acrylic markers on paper, the many-faced and fantastical portraits appear as a bold, postmodern homage to classical portrait paintings. The social criticism intended by the artist is central: the self (a different one this time, not the artist’s) is split into four parts that Helgason parallels with the four cardinal directions—East and West, North and South. Each of the eight eyes has its own task. One looks after the family, one reads emails, another one reads Messenger, one checks Facebook, another Instagram, another X and the last one searches for God.

Next to the works on the wall is the following quote, which summarizes Helgason’s train of thought: 4faced—For today’s world you need eight eyes.

Hallgrímur Helgason: Hallgrímur Helgason, 4faced, 2023. Photograph by Theresa Kohlbeck Jakobsen.

Hallgrímur Helgason, 4faced, 2023. Photograph by Theresa Kohlbeck Jakobsen.

You can visit the exhibition Group Portrait of the Self until May 26, 2024, at the North Atlantic House, Strandgade 91, Christianshavn, 1401 Kopenhagen.

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