Ásmundarsafn: Reykjavík’s Contemporary Sculpture Museum

At the edge of Reykjavík's Laugardalur valley sits a strange and bright white geometric domed gallery. Ásmundarsafn Contemporary Museum was designed and built in 1942 by Ásmundur Sveinsson, an iconic Icelandic sculptor. Now it is part of Reykjavík Art Museum.

Photo of undefined

Pearl Jackson-Payen

26. September 2018

Walking through residential Reykjavík today, and along Sigtún, the sudden approach towards Ásmundarsafn is a crossing over into a dream space. The dome-shaped construction sits strangely along the Reykjavík skyline, nested between houses like a giant white bird. Today it is a part of Reykjavík Art Museum, a space for contemporary Icelandic art that is spread over three venues in the city; Hafnarhús, Kjarvalsstaðir, and Ásmundarsafn.

A unique artist's home

Ásmundarsafn is a sculpture museum dedicated to the life and work of Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893–1982). It was designed and built by Ásmundur, initially to be his family home and sculpting studio, and now belongs to the city of Reykjavík as an art venue. This striking place, filled with Ásmundur’s life work, and surrounded by a sculpture garden, is open for the public’s enjoyment. There is a permanent display of his work here, but every few years the pieces on display are rotated, and curated carefully alongside the work of other Icelandic artists.

It is easy to imagine how the studio looked in 1942 when construction first began. Then, the land was underdeveloped and barren, in Ásmundur’s words, ‘treeless and naked’. While the area is now very residential, it was once surrounded by farmland. Within the context of the desolate Icelandic landscape, filled as it is with barren empty air and huge hulking form, sculpture becomes a way of understanding and communicating space.

Ásmundarsafn is experimental sculpture that belongs to its land. The artist had strong opinions about the way the architecture of a place should communicate with its own unique landscape. He disliked the Icelandic way of borrowing Scandinavian building styles, and offered up an alternative, inspired in part by the vernacular architecture of Greece and Turkey, whose barren Mediterranean landscapes are like Iceland’s, and whose simple white architectural forms rise out from this landscape in an intuitive way.

The Ásmundarsafn buildings offer an entirely new and very sculptural style that is designed for Iceland, treeless and bare. Having spent a lot of time travelling around and exploring the vast empty landscapes outside of Reykajvík, it feels natural for me to imagine Ásmundarsafn’s geometric white forms rising outward from Reykjavík’s barren empty land in 1942, and I can’t help agreeing with him.

Two outdoor sculptures in a garden.

A white house with a distinctive dome in the middle. The exterior of the gallery and the sculpture garden. 

A free sculpture garden surrounds the Ásmundur Sveinsson Museum, and is open to the public all year round. Twenty six sculptures by Ásmundur are displayed within this space, and give a good overview of his entire career. Abstracted mountainous human forms pay tribute to a culture of wild and powerful nature that is occupied by hudulfólk/hidden folk. The way his sculptural style deconstructs human form feels very relevant in a country like Iceland, where elves, trolls, and other strange beings are believed to roam amongst people. Within this context, Ásmundur’s work naturally becomes a sculptural manifestation of the Icelandic narrative tradition. He is widely considered a seminal part of the Icelandic sculpture scene, a ‘folk poet of visual art’.

A white outdoor sculpture. The sculpture garden

Exploring Ásmundarsafn

Entering Ásmundarsafn, immediately one is reminded that this used to be a functional space, an artist studio. A collection of the artist’s work is thoughtfully curated and roped off, positioned carefully astride furniture, sculpting tools, and paint splattered work overalls, giving an idea of what the space once was; a space of creation, belonging to the artist.

I sit down with a free coffee and contemplate the studio installation. Brown and white is striking against deep grey, and form melts into abstraction and colour. Half expecting Ásmundur to unlock the door, stroll across the space, pick up a chisel, and start making, I get a real feeling that the curator had a lot of fun reconstructing the artist’s studio.

A white sculpture depicting a woman holding a toddler.

A white sculpture on the floor of a studio.

Numerous sculptures inside an artist's studio. The studio space.

Walking around the space you move within architecture as sculpture. Works from different periods of Ásmundur’s life are carefully curated alongside that of other Icelandic sculptors. Travelling around Iceland I have begun to recognise it as a land of immense form and also of empty space.  Therefore, sculpture begins to take on a special significance.

A terracotta sculpture of a head.

Numerous black sculptures in a white corridor. Inside the gallery.

Within the sculpture garden, the central feminine form of The Water Carrier stands out, behind the back of the gallery. The mountainous woman form, sturdy and strong, pays tribute to working class Icelandic women who were water carriers.

A white outdoor sculpture of a person carrying a bucket of water in each hand. Vatnsberinn (The Water Carrier), 1937.

Traditionally, in Iceland, as all over the world, women have earned less than men in the workplace. In Iceland there was only one job for which both genders were paid the same, that of the water carrier. This was the lowliest and worst paid job of all. The invigilator at the gallery took some time to talk to us about the role of the water carrier in Icelandic society, and about how it has since become a feminist symbol.

On October 24th in 1975, 90% of the women in Iceland refused to go to work, to protest and demand equal pay. Twenty five thousand women went to Reykjavík on this day to protest. Considering that the population of Iceland was only 220,000 at the time, this is a monumental number.

A photograph showing people that have gathered together by the "Stjórnarráð" in Reykjavik. A photograph from the protest, displayed on the wall inside the gallery.

A sculpture. Vatnsberinn (The Water Carrier), 1937.

An image of Ásmundur’s water carrier, a woman mountainous, strong, and vast, became a symbol of this protest. She represents a hardy, strong, mountain-like woman, one who is hard working and demands equality.

The Water Carrier can also be found near Arnarhóll hill in downtown Reykjavík, reminding of the strength of Icelandic women. The invigilator told us that her grandma was part of the protest, leaving her husband at home to do the washing up alone for the first time. Many Icelandic men who were left home alone to complete household chores on this day refer to it as ‘the long Friday’.

What’s on in Reykjavík Art Museum’s other venues?

The exhibition on at Hafnarhús and Kjarvalsstaðir right now is called ‘No Man’s Land’. It is a show of Icelandic artists responding to the vast mysterious highlands. Hafnarhús is in downtown Reykjavík, near the harbour, and generally shows more contemporary and digital art. The manifestation of ‘No Man’s Land’ here is comprised of photography, moving image projection, drawing, painting, text, and installation. Looking around this exhibition after having my own experiences in the Icelandic highlands was a really interesting experience - it consolidated my feelings about the landscape, and human interaction with it.

Kjarvalsstaðir is a Nordic modernist building with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out to Klambratún Park. It houses the work of a well known Icelandic painter, Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval (1885–1972). He is one of Iceland’s most beloved artists, considered an archetypal romantic bohemian figure. His work tries to interpret the mystical within nature, and especially to show the aliveness everywhere in the natural world. The exhibitions at Kjarvalsstaðir primarily display paintings and sculptures of established masters of modern Icelandic art. The show on at the moment is an extension of ‘No Man’s Land’, primarily made up of painters thinking about the highlands. The shows at these two venues rotate every few months, and are always worth a visit. These venues are also great spaces to sit and work for free, right in the city centre. Hafnarhús has a library with lots of art books, comfortable chairs, and big windows facing the harbour, where anyone can work. There is also free coffee here, toilets, friendly staff, and publications of major Icelandic shows and artist monographs.

Q & A

How much is admission into the museum?

Admission into Reykjavík Art Museum costs ISK 1650 for adults, ISK 1100 for students, and is free for anyone under 18 or over 67. An admission ticket is valid for twenty four hours and allows access into all three of the galleries.

Can I get an annual pass?

It is also possible to buy several different annual passes for the Reykjavík galleries. The Reykjavík Culture Pass, for ISK 6000, gives you year-long access to Reykjavík Art Museum, Reykjavík City Museum (Árbær Open Air Museum, The Settlement Exhibition, Reykjavík Maritime Museum, Reykjavík Museum of Photography), and acts as a library card worth ISK 2.000. It also offers many discounts all over the city. The Reykjavík Art Museum Annual Pass (the one I have), offers access to all exhibitions and events at the Museum, unless stated otherwise, and a ten percent discount in the museum shops and cafés. It can be purchased at the front desk of all three buildings. Price: Annual Pass ISK 4400 / Annual Pass +1 ISK 6500 / Annual Pass <28 years old ISK 3900. As I am under 28, visiting the galleries three times I have already made my money back.

How do I book a guided tour of the gallery?

On opening hours from Monday to Friday it is possible to order guided tours for ISK 18.000 per person plus admission. If there are ten or more people in a group, the price is ISK 18.000 and ISK 1100 per person. On weekends or after opening hours, guided tours cost 35.000 plus admission. To order a guided tour contact fraedsludeild@reykjavik.is or call (+354) 4116400.

What are the transport links like?

There is free parking at Kjarvalsstaðir and Ásmundarsafn, and metered parking in the area close to Hafnarhús, and regular buses to all three galleries. To get to Hafnarhús, you can get the number 1, 3, 6, 11, 12, 13, or 14. To get to Kjarvalsstaðir, get the number 1, 3, 6, 11, or 13. And for Ásmundarsafn, try the number 2, 4, 14, 15, 17, or 19.

What other attractions are in the Laugardalur region?

The Laugardalur valley in Reykjavík has many attractions other than the gallery, including the iconic Laugardalur swimming pool, which is the largest thermal outdoor pool in the city. It boasts of multiple hot tubs, waterslides, a steam room, gym, 50 metre pool, and golf course. With the City Card it is possible to swim here for free.

In this region is also the beautiful Reykjavík Botanical Garden. The garden has 2.5 hectares of land, and five thousand different arctic flower and plant species, divided into eight collections, with pathways to explore throughout. Throughout summer there are many events held at the Botanical Gardens, and Café Flora is open between May and September. The café make food from ingredients grown in the gardens.

The nearby Húsdýragarðurinn Park & Zoo is also open all year. Many Icelandic animals can be found here, including arctic foxes, reindeer, seals and sheep. During the summer months, there is an outdoor children’s playing area, including a pirate ship, castles, and a zip line. The zoo describe themselves as 'not the biggest but definitely the cutest park in town'. They have Icelandic farm animals, mammals from the country's wildlife, and a collection of reptiles, amphibians, and insects. An online program guides visitors as to the animal feeding and milking times, so they can come and watch.

Þvottalaugarna, the old Laugardalur washing pools, is an interesting historical stop in the region. Here is where women used to come to wash clothes every week. A scuplture by Ásmundur, 'Washer', resides here, in homage to the working class Reykjavík women who undertook this difficult job. Women would have to carry heavy and wet clothes across the city to and from Þvottalaugarna, in all weather conditions. Sometimes this could be a deadly task.

Where can I stay around Laugardalur?

The Reykjavík Campsite and Reykajvík City HI Hostel are both in this region.

The campsite can accommodate up to nine hundred people in tents, cars, and caravans. To stay here costs ISK 2.400 per person per night, and the maximum stay is seven nights. It is possible to rent bikes from the campsite for from ISK 2.000. Facilities here includes electricity, showers, a washing machine, dryer, kitchen, and long term luggage storage. The campsite has free WiFi and hot showers.

The Reykjavík City HI Hostel has dorm beds, for from ISK 2.850, and private rooms, for from ISK 9.900. It is newly renovated and has excellent facilities, with great deals on tours and excursions.

An old artist with rough hands.  

'In a state radio interview, Ásmundur declared, “Now that’s something that art must reckon with: space!"'


All photos: ©Pearl Jackson-Payen.