Iceland’s landscape teems with wart-covered trolls, mischievous elves, and ill-meaning ghosts. At least, that’s what traditional lore and folktales claim. In Ásgrímur Jónsson’s (1876-1958) “Kirriró og Dillidó,” the country’s fantastical creatures are given clear form in a collection of sketches, oils and watercolors that draws inspiration from the mystical realm.
Each of the supernatural scenes depicted in Ásgrímur’s work comes from a folktale recognizable to most modern Icelanders. There’s Father of Eighteen in the Elf World, for instance, which features a young boy who gets replaced by an elfin changeling when his parents aren’t watching. Also included are Surtla of the Bláland Islands, about a black mare troll woman, and Búkolla, about a magic cow whose hair transforms into a rushing waterfall, roaring fire, and hulking mountain to save a farmboy’s life. The exhibition divides such tales and Ásgrímur’s artistic renderings into three sections: Ghosts, Elves and Trolls.
Iceland’s association with trolls began on the Scandinavian mainland, where creatures called jötnar populated the Norse mythological universe. Travel to any town in Iceland, and you’re likely to hear stories about how a particular boulder or rock formation was once a troll, or vice versa: indeed, many of Ásgrímur’s sketches showcase landscapes out of which hulking, malformed trolls emerged.
Ásgrímur was particularly fascinated by stories of young men fleeing from treacherous troll wives, or young girls captured by gargantuan trolls, as in the story of Mjaðveig Mánadóttir. His sketches often call attention to a dilated moment of a human being facing an overwhelming threat, as evidenced by The Night Troll, which shows a troll coming to capture a young girl from her bed. At the same time, these images celebrate a sense of beauty and innocence – represented by the young boys and girls – in the face of cruelty and brutality – encapsulated by the trolls.
As a child Ásgrímur was surrounded by myth and lore; for instance, the Hróarsholt cliffs close to his home village were rumored to house a family of elves who attended church at a large rock formation nearby. Departing from his usual sketches, Ásgrímur depicts these elves, known in Icelandic as “húldufólk” or “hidden people,” in watercolor, using bright hues and soft edges to capture the dreamy visions the elves evoke. Landscape features prominently in these paintings, with the hidden people always shown against a lush, green expanse of hills, glaciers, black sanded coastlines, and mysterious mountains. He lets his imagination run loose, rendering images that both reflect and complicate existing perceptions.
Also present in the exhibition room is a large rendering of an Icelandic mountain range, with a quintessential painted door on the entryway for elves to enter.
The exhibition devotes special attention to a sketch of Guðrún, one of the most well known characters from Icelandic lore. A recording of her folktale, known as The Deacon of Dark River, plays in the background of the room, spoken in Icelandic by a grandmotherly voice.
The final component of the exhibition is a “Story Room,” equipped with two rows of padded beds, headphones, and a screen on which a selection of Ásgrímur’s thousands of sketches are projected. Through the headphones, readings of foundational Icelandic folktales are streamed in English, such that one moment you can walk around the museum and the next, you can lie back, close your eyes, and let a world of elves, trolls, ogres, ghosts, and dwarves awaken inside you.
Margrét Ann / Kunstportal