His artwork walks both sides of the line between viral internet sensation, and essential gallery masterpiece, Icelandic painter Þrándur Þórarinsson (Thrandur Thorarinsson) is a name you should know if you haven’t heard it already.
In recent years Reykjavík resident and professional painter Þrándur Þórarinsson’s name has become linked with political satire and social commentary. His works have pointed at modern life in Iceland while also holding a mirror up to the nation, but where did his artistic journey begin? And where might you have seen his work before?
Þrándur was born in the northern Icelandic town of Akureyri in 1978. His father is a steelworker, and his mother is a Norwegian translator. As a child, he spent a lot of time with his cousin Hugleikur Dagsson. The pair loved to draw and would spend lots of time comparing their sketchbooks whenever they caught up.
This early childhood love for art blossomed into something more significant for both of them. Hugleikur Dagsson is today one of the most influential cartoonists in Iceland.
Þrándur says that drawing is initially what lead him to paint.
“I used to doodle constantly as a child, and as I grew older and my drawings became more ambitious, I realised that some of the best draftsmen in history were the old masters that’s how I became interested in painting.”
After graduating from school, Þrándur studied philosophy at the University of Iceland and then joined the art school in Reykjavik. He eventually dropped out after coming to the realisation that his painting style didn’t really match with what he was being taught.
Want to see the town where Þrándur was born? Check out our tours of Akureyri.
He was then mentored by Norwegian painter Odd Nerdsen for three years. Over this time Þrándur further developed his style which has inspiration from classical masters but also incorporates surrealism, philosophy and satire.
It was at the insistence of his friend, musician Svavar Pétur (better known as Prins Póló) that Þrándur held the first exhibition of his work in an abandoned coffee factory. The event was a success which further cemented his drive to continue.
Þrándur’s journey to where he is today hasn’t been easy. At the beginning of his career, he struggled with self-doubt and was frustrated with his progress.
“At the start, the biggest challenge was to keep painting undeterred by the fact that my work looked terrible and I felt I was lightyears from where I wanted to be in my artistic development.”
He also mentions a remarkably common element of the artistic journey in Iceland. The concept that although your work is well-received, it can be challenging to make a living solely from your art.
“There have been periods of economic hardships, even though my exhibitions have all been well received.”
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Þrándur’s work ranges from idyllic landscapes of Icelandic village scenes to impressive and sometimes graphic surreal portrayals of stories from the Icelandic Sagas and current affairs within modern-day Iceland.
One particular work of his went viral on the internet a few years ago. The painting is a portrait of Grýla, a troll who is the mother of the 13 Icelandic Santas known as the Jólasveinarnir (yule lads).
In modern day Iceland, these mischievous men leave gifts in the shoes of Icelandic children for the 13 days leading up to Christmas. If the children are naughty, they receive a potato. However, in older times, the punishment was much more severe. They would be taken away from the safety of their homes to be eaten Grýla.
In Þrándur’s depiction of the troll, he has strayed away from the typical portrayal of Grýla as a comical character, instead bringing her to life as a harbinger of death. The scene shows her devouring a baby, as its mother watches in horror from an opened door in the background.
The painting has made the internet rounds for years, popping up on Bored Banda, Buzzfeed and Reddit among others.
When approaching his two distinct styles, does he have a favourite?
“Not really, I like to keep it varied, so it doesn’t feel like I’m painting the same kind of painting over and over.”
More recently his satirical works have caught the eyes of the Icelandic public. In one painting he gave new life to an element of Icelandic folklore, the necropants.
Stories tell that if you cut the skin off a man from the waist down in one piece; wear them as a pair of pants and steal a coin from a poor old woman, then place it inside the, let’s say ‘coin purse of male anatomy’; you will become rich.
Þrándur brought this story to life using the image of the then Icelandic finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson. In the painting, the politician is pulling on a pair of necropants, the unwilling donor of them can be clearly seen in the background.
Is there a different process involved when creating these images compared to his landscapes?
“I can’t really just sit down and decide to do a social commentary painting. I have to wait for the right idea first, one that is good enough to deserve one, two or three weeks work. And preferably the commentary shouldn’t be outdated a few weeks down the line. Whereas I can paint a landscape or cityscape any time.”
His speed at getting these pieces out was definitely noted during a recent political scandal in Iceland. ‘Klaustur-gate’ as it is now referred to, involved members of the Icelandic parliament that were recorded making damaging statements while having drinks in Reykjavík’s Klaustur Bar.
Find out more about Klauster Bar here.
The audio of the conversation was leaked to the media, causing national outrage and even a court case against the woman who recorded them.
Very soon after the headlines graced Icelandic news outlets, Þrándur released his artistic commentary of the situation, which left very little to the imagination in regards to the politicians in question. In times like this, satirical cartoons like those of his cousin are normally making the rounds online, but a painting getting out to the public while the issue is still topical might make some wonder if he had an inside source.
He assures us he didn’t and the work was the result of countless round-the-clock hours.
“I managed to finish it four or five days after the scandal broke out. I got a fever and a sore throat shortly after starting it, and my sore throat kept me up at night, so I just got back to the studio after a little or no sleep. So in short, there’s quite a bit of suffering that went into that painting.”
His unique process and way of thinking put him in a category almost entirely on his own within Iceland’s art world. However, it doesn’t mean he has earned the praises of the art elite.
Once a year grants are awarded to artists across the broad spectrum of disciplines in Iceland. The purpose is to promote the creation of art in Iceland. Recipients of the grant known as Listamannalaun, receive a salary so they can focus solely on their work.
Although Þrándur has become a well-known artist in Iceland and has applied for the grant, he has never received it. He isn’t sure why but has a sense of humour about it.
“I guess figurative painting, like I do is not a la vogue these days.”
Despite the nations small population, Iceland’s relationship with art is an integral part of its culture. Artists like Þrándur create essential time capsules of the emotional impact of certain events on Icelandic society; while also reimagining forgotten pieces of Icelandic folklore.
Þrándur Þórarinsson is an Icelandic artist you must know. To those wondering what he is working on next, he says, “A self-portrait with Halldór Laxness.”
Do you have a favourite Þrándur Þórarinsson painting? What other Icelandic artists would you like us to profile? Let us know in the Facebook comments below.