Easily compared to such icons as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Erró is, unquestionably, one of the most commended living artists in Iceland’s history. A whole floor at the Reykjavík Art Museum is dedicated to his years of creative output critiquing mass consumerism, war and autocracy through his signature bizarre and colourful medlies.
His work is even showcased at Keflavik International Airport, welcoming new arrivals into the peculiar, yet colourful sphere of Icelandic culture with his vibrant pop-art collages. But what of his early days, what makes this enigmatic maestro tick and what can we learn from his varied, brazen mosaics?
The Early Years of an Artist
Born Guðmundur Guðmundsson in 1932, the man that would ultimately become the famed Icelandic artist, Erró, spent his formative years in the small town of Ólafsvík, on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. His early adulthood, however, would be defined by the influences and practise he found elsewhere.
As a young and wildly experimental artist, he would first study his chosen vocation in Iceland, learning the paper-cut technique that would be so utilised in the years to come. Graduating in 1951, he secured a place at the Oslo Academy of Fine Art the next year. Here, he would hone his skills in fresco painting and engraving, all the while sketching out grotesque caricatures in black and white, a far cry from his later obsessions.
In 1954, he was admitted to the Florence Academy of Art and, later, moved to Ravenna where he focused his studies on mosaic technique. This would be followed by a stint in Paris where he quickly associated with members of the Narrative Figuration movement, surrealists including Bernard Rancillac, Jacques Monory and Gérard Fromanger.
Paris no doubt made an impression; ultimately, it would be the artist’s home for the next fifty years.
And yet ever the wanderer, Erró would pay a number of visits to New York City between 1962 and 1966. It was here that he was first introduced to blazon new imagery, quite unlike that of the drab, downplayed advertisements and illustrations of Europe.
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Pop Art was only just emerging on the landscape, and it would come to influence Erró’s work for years to come. During the sixties, he continued to paint, as well as try his hand at performance art and experimental filmmaking. None of these disciplines, however, could match the dazzling, radical and avant-garde collages that would come to define Erró as one of Iceland’s most successful artists.
Master of the Mosaic
The varying segments of Erró’s masterpieces are sourced from a multitude of places, including leaflets, postcards, propaganda, newspapers and magazines collected from his numerous trips abroad. This ongoing process is followed up by compiling images that compliment one another—be that in their familial similarities or glaring contradictions—and strengthen the theme and message of the artwork in question.
The underlying philosophy behind each collage, each painting, each series, is usually reactionary, be it toward the killing fields of Vietnam or Algeria, or alternatively, the fleeting superficiality of celebrity. Whether the perspective is one of horrified outrage, tongue-in-cheek glibness or a combination of both, there can be no escaping the mindset of the artist.
Perhaps more than anything else, Erró’s work is based on the transience of the present moment.
It is an attempt to collate imagery that best captures the complexities of ‘now’; different perspectives, lifestyles, ideologies, values—all of these are pressed to the forefront of the frame, vying for attention as distinct truths, as though the collage itself is some variation on the LSD enlightenment trip.
The imagery calls out, daring those who view it to appreciate the intricacies of the worried mind in a world defined by counter-statements and distraction. Its flagrant need for one to unravel in order to comprehend is what sets it aside from its flashy, yet simple pop-art contemporaries.
Speaking in 2012, Erró attempts to underlie the point, stating “we take in so much information every day, so many images. […] We can’t escape from that. The world changes very quickly, and things happen fast. I’m interested in nailing down big global events—like Vietnam or Afghanistan. I want to capture those moments, and criticise.”
A Touch of Controversy
Erró is no stranger to controversy, having been accused of plagiarism in 2010 by the comic artist, Brian Bolland. Bolland famously produced much of the Tank Girl series, a Titan comic that delves into the anarchistic world of punky Rebecca Buck and her boyfriend, the mutant Kangaroo Booga.
Erró appropriated the titular title character for his piece “Tank Girl Saga A, Tank Girl Saga B”, which was, for a time, selling for 600 Euros—that is before it was taken off of the market in a sign of semi-solidarity with Bolland’s point. Erró has previously compared himself to “a kind of columnist or reporter”, citing it as well within his right to use others’ designs as part of a larger collage.
Even today, it seems, a handful of his contemporaries are quick to disagree with this assessment. Still, what use is an artist without their harshest critics?
A Life in Colour
Erró splits his time between France, Spain and Thailand, no doubt seeking warmer climates than what the barren, snow draped tundras of Iceland can provide.
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When he chooses to return to his native land, however, he is rightfully celebrated for the creative icon he is, a maverick in the field whose life has boasted more colour, complications and companionship than his painting could ever contain. It is also a matter of giving back to the artist who has provided so much—
In 1989, Erró donated over 2000 pieces to the City of Reykjavik, establishing his own collection at the city’s premier art museum. In 2000, he was awarded the Honorary Artists Stipend by the Icelandic Parliament, only a year after exhibiting his work at French National Gallery. In 2006, his output was seen at Valencia Institute of Modern Art.
In short, the world cannot get enough of Erró, and it appears that the feeling is entirely mutual. Now 86 years old, the artist is rightfully winding down, but his extensive body of work will live on for generations, his name and legacy synonymous with the cream of Iceland’s creative crop.
If you are interested in seeing Erró’s work for yourself, why not pay a visit to Reykjavík Art Museum during your time in Iceland? One of the cheapest means of doing so is to purchase a Reykjavík City Card | 24 Hours, providing free access to the city’s museums and galleries, geothermal pools and public transport.