Ragna Sigurðardóttir: Hið fullkomna landslag (The Perfect Landscape)
Hanna is an Icelandic woman who has made a career in the art world in the Netherlands. At the start of this novel, she has been appointed to run the Annexe, a special gallery devoted to modern art, attached to the main art gallery in Reykjavik. As soon she arrives, she has to attend a meeting of the gallery’s acquisitions committee, where Kristin, the gallery director, reveals a painting, apparently by Gudrun Johannsdottir, a fictitious artist (one of the country’s foremost twentieth-century painters), apparently based on Nína Tryggvadóttir. Hanna is familiar with Johannsdottir’s work, having written her dissertation on her, so she is very glad to be given the task, along with Steinn, the conservator, to examine and report on the work. The work is a gift from a rich Icelandic woman, Elisabet Valsdottir, who had purchased it at an auction, in Copenhagen, of the paintings left behind after the death of a Danish collector.
Meanwhile, Hanna must adapt to her new job and to her new life. Steinn is particularly helpful and invites her to accompany him when he is going to examine an outside work, for which the gallery has responsibility, which has been vandalised. To Hanna’s surprise he asks her to drive and they go and see the statue, a memorial to a Norwegian entrepreneur in forestry, and find that it is covered in paint and graffiti. Steinn takes many photos but feels that it can be cleaned up. However, he tells Hanna that there has been a lot of such vandalism in Reykjavik recently. This will become one of the themes of the novel. Meanwhile, she tries to get back together with her old friends, one of whom is Minister of Justice and the other a successful doctor. It is to one of them that she mentions that her husband, an Italian, Frederico, who has remained in Amsterdam, is seeing someone else.
Steinn has removed the Johannsdottir painting and she is surprised to wait for three weeks before Steinn invites her to his basement to examine it. Steinn has clearly done his home work and, after showing her the result of his researches, both artistic and scientific analysis seem to indicate that the painting is a forgery. The painting seems to overlay an abstract expressionistic painting, something which was barely known at the time Johannsdottir would have painted this painting. Hanna reluctantly agrees and she sets out to do more research, in particular to find the provenance of the painting. Meanwhile, we learn of two other people who are interested in Johannsdottir’s work – Hafn, an Icelandic entrepreneur and Masha, a rich Russian woman. However, it also seems possible that another painting, recently given to the gallery, one by an abstract artist, Sigfus Gunnarsson, who was good friends with Gudrun Johannsdottir, may well be a forgery. However, Steinn has serious health problems which delay any investigation.
Meanwhile, Hanna is organising her first exhibition, one devoted to landscape, in the broadest sense of the word and featuring an older artist, Haraldur, who had become famous for his abstract paintings but now, in his old age, has turned to landscape painting, as well as a young Turk, Leifur Finnson, whose art consists of using discarded building materials, roofing felt, rusty corrugated iron, wooden offcuts, glass, anything that happens to be available when a house is demolished, or discarded materials from a newly built house, he creates a richly nuanced composition of colors and textures. The clash between these two will be a key problem for Hanna. She is also trying to do what she can to help the street kids turn their artistic talents to positive use.
In terms of plot, this is an interesting novel. We follow three main strands, presumably based, at least in part, on Sigurðardóttir’s own experiences in the art world. The ethics of the art world, particularly as regards forgery, is very much called into question and this story line is the most interesting, with an interesting twist. But we also follow the well-meaning but perhaps misguided attempts of Hanna to connect with the street kids as well as her organisation of the exhibition, which reveals very clearly that artists are very difficult people. However, beyond the plot, this is not a very good book. The characterisation is shallow, not least because the story is entirely plot-driven. None of the characters is interesting, except for what they mean to the plot. An example is her two friends – the minister and the doctor – who are hurriedly wheeled in to help with the plot and just as hurriedly wheeled out again. Sigurðardóttir clearly has a point to make about artists and the art world and she makes it well but she is not a great novelist, at least based on a reading of this book.
First published 2009 by Mál og menning
First published in English 2012 by Amazon Crossing
Translated by Sarah Bowen