I only became aware of this Icelandic artist a few years ago after seeing a review for a posthumous show of her work in New York City. Shortly afterward, I bought a book about her, and since then, I routinely leaf through it to explore reproductions of her brilliantly colored paintings. I feel deeply connected to her, and I think this is because we both understand and perhaps even love winter. We are both Nordic painters. The colors blue and white are important to us, and we both have a deep sense of incorporating color into our works.
I do have one other connection to Matthiasdottir. In the 1980s, I studied at the Kansas City Art Institute with painter Stanley Lewis for a couple of years. Stanley was a student of the New York painter Leland Bell, and Bell was married to Louisa Matthiasdottir. I knew nothing of this connection at that time, but I like to think now that there was an essence that Stanley brought to me from his deep connection with Bell, who in turn was deeply connected to and influenced by his wife. Getting to the essence is how you learned from Stanley. I would stand next to him making drawings of classical Indian sculptures at the Nelson Atkins Museum. During that period of time, I sensed that my strength as an artist lay somewhere in the involvement with the figure, with human movement, and with the dance of life.
What do I have in common with Matthiasdottir? Why do her works move me so much? On the surface, they are certainly very different from my own attempts. Where she strives for simplification and bold areas of color, I tend toward rich patterns and a singular lack of definition.
I particularly like the painting on the book jacket titled Self-Portrait in Landscape, 1991. Here is color I can relate to—deep, rich color—but almost no detail. I see an almost featureless woman wearing a red and black sweater with white armbands. Her hands are thrust downward into the pockets of her denim blue skirt as she faces directly outward as if to confront me. She is erect, white-haired, and without pretense. The slopes and curves of the landscape lead me into distances of water and then sky. Several simplified sheep graze behind the figure, marking the undulations of the earth with their forms.
The painting seems to me to be particularly Nordic and perhaps appeals to the Scandinavian part of my background. But I think what I like most about it is that it is somehow an in-between place. This landscape is both seen and imagined. Stripped of distracting detail, it is then imbued with the rich coloration of the artist’s mind.
Matthiasdottir applied this same sort of in-between aesthetic to other paintings, still lifes as well as unpretentious domestic scenes—rooms with people living in them—often renderings of those who were familiar and close to her. Without a lot of recognition, and not always in step with the artistic times, Matthiasdottir hammered out her visual remaking of the world over a lifetime of effort. The later paintings achieve the impact and simple joy of the Matisse cutouts and jazz series. I wish more people would look at her work.
Louisa Matthiasdottir, edited by Jed Perl (Reykjavík, Iceland: Nesútgáfan Publishing, 1999; distributed by Hudson Hills Press)
Website for Louisa Matthiasdottir’s estate