What eye sees mind sets to music...
The Art of Steinunn Marteinsdóttir
Steinunn Marteinsdóttir is first mentioned as an independent
artist in a article penned by writer Málfríður Einarsdóttir in
the Þjóðviljinn newspaper sometime in 1957, where she reviews an
exhibition of the work of teachers and students at the Reykjavik
School of Arts and Crafts. The writer is bemoaning the
overwhelming general ugliness of the Reykjavik scene, ugly
films, houses, newspapers, churches, furniture and especially
the “cheap and tacky” decorative objects that people surround
themselves within the home. All of this, Málfríður Einarsdóttir
feels, should either by carted directly to the garbage dump or
dumped in the sea.
The writer’s point is that the works in the above-mentioned
exhibition provide a major consolation and relief to those in
the thick of the fight against ugliness, mentioning in
particular a study for a yellow bowl by Steinunn Marteinsdóttir,
on which “appeared one drop of the endless drop-measure of
eternity, surrounded by the vertical patterns of time.”
This review of Steinunn Marteinsdóttir’s art and role on the
cultural scene may be considered prescient. She went on to
create many bowls and other objects that quickly transcended
“mere” utility, becoming a sounding board for the “drop-measure
of eternity”. She also became an important ally in the fight
against tasteless or ugly objects, by creating an original and
refined ceramic art that demanded to be evaluated alongside
glass art, textile art and other formely “undervalued” branches
of visual expression.
Steinunn Marteinsdóttir was born in Reykjavik in 1936, growing
up in the house of her renowned grandfather, naturalist Bjarni
Sæmundsson. Her mother, Kristín Bjarnadóttir, taught the piano,
her father, Marteinn Guðmundsson, was a craftsman and sculptor.
One of his finest works is a study of his young daughter.
After her baccalaureat, Steinunn Marteinsdóttir spent a year at
the Reykjavik School of Art and Crafts, and then accompanied her
husband, painter Sverrir Haraldsson, to Berlin where she studied
ceramic art at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste.
Ceramics did not have a long history in Iceland; a ceramics
studio was first established by Guðmundur Einarsson frá Miðdalur
in 1929 and then the husband and wife team of Gestur and Rúna
had operated Laugarnes Ceramics from 1948 and into the 1950s.
Their successor was Ragnar Kjartansson who founded the Glit
Studio; Steinunn Marteinsdóttir became an apprentice there when
she returned from Berlin. Work from her Glit period was
exhibited with Kjartansson’s ceramics at the Smithsonian in
Washington in 1961.
From 1961-66 Steinunn Marteinsdóttir operated her own studio. In
an interview from this period she explains that she is aiming to
create objects that are not only practical. She wants her
ceramic pieces to provide people with “relief from the
overwhelming mass-production that seems to surround us.”
In 1967 Steinunn Marteinsdóttir gave up her studio production
and for a few years she concentrated on teaching ceramics, a
practice she has kept up until the present day. Shortly
afterwards she also moved to Hulduhólar, the large studio home
in nearby Mosfellssveit that she and her husband redesigned and
built to their specification. It was there that she produced the
bulk of the ceramics she exhibited in an exhibition at the
Reykjavik Municipal Gallery in 1975.
It was in many ways a groundbreaking exhibition, both with
regard to size and the variety of objects. There were over 400
objects on show, traditional vessels of all kinds as well as
free-form objects inspired by the Icelandic landscape. “It is as
if Iceland was made for the ceramic artist” Steinunn
Marteinsdóttir said in an interview.
Then, as later, there were differing opinions amongst Icelandic
critics as to the artist’s introduction of figurative or
landscape elements into her ceramics. To some it was part and
parcel of their charm, others felt that by doing so she was
neglecting the hallowed formal and conceptual elements of
traditional ceramic art.
It was in Steinunn Marteinsdóttir’s exhibition of 1984 that we
find her most pronounced application of figurative elements. Out
of porcelain clay she fashioned compositions with hands and
faces that seemed to reach for each other and the viewers, as if
emphasizing the value of human kindness in an unkind world.
During this period Steinunn Marteinsdóttir also worked and
exhibited with other artists, particularly women, in Iceland as
well as abroad. In connection with an exhibition of the work of
Icelandic women in ceramic art, Steinunn Marteinsdóttir declared
that :”We want to put Icelandic ceramic art on equal footing
with the other the visual arts.”
She has certainly added to the prestige of ceramic art through
her own practice. Her works are now found in numerous public
places and spaces, in a post office, one of the state liquor
shops, a bank, in community centres and churches.
From 1991 onwards, Steinunn Marteinsdóttir has mostly exhibited
her work in her studio-home at Hulduhólar. She has concentrated
largely on two-dimensional work, drawings, paintings and clay
reliefs, using motifs from her natural surroundings: plants,
birds, streams, all the while transforming them into metaphors
for the vulnerability of the world that we have been entrusted
Or she may, on a whim, decide to create ceramic tableware for a
famous ogress of Icelandic myth, or turn the graphic signs of
the mountains around her into a special language which she
imprints on her refined black-and-white vases.
Our days may begin in dullness and apathy. But, as Steinunn
Marteinsdóttir once stated, life may suddenly take on a new hue,
through an unexpected vision of a face, a sudden illumination of
a mountain, or the onset of dusk: “What eye sees, mind sets to
music, mournful or joyful...Often, when something awakens this
music within me I want to create an image, an object that is
somehow permeated with this music that resounds within my whole
being, making me all at once ecstatic, sad and fearful.”
It is hoped that the visitors to this retrospective exhibition
of Steinunn Marteinsdóttir’s art will be able to listen to the
music contained within her objects.
Translation of summary: Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson