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 with.
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