When Denise Collins’ celebration of the life and work of Karólína Lárusdóttir appeared in the arts free-sheet Artworks, her tribute to the life of an artist known for her strikingly individual works was unfortunately truncated to become a feature article, omitting to note the passing of the Karólína Lárusdóttir earlier this year at the age of 74. In issue No.1 of Art North magazine, we covered a recent exhibition of Lárusdóttir’s work, but here we are pleased to reproduce Denise Collins’ fitting tribute in full.
Karólína Lárusdóttir was born in 1944 in Reykjavík to Daisy Josefson and Larus Ludvigsson, and from an early age she always knew that she wanted to be an artist. In Iceland at that time, however, the art establishment was heavily biased towards abstraction and so she took the decision to move to England.
Her time at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford was pivotal to her future artistic development as the course focussed heavily on life drawing. It was during this time that Karólína learned to develop her figurative work using gesture and body posture to suggest a whole range of emotions. She graduated with a BA in Fine Art from the Ruskin School of Art in 1967 and, in the same year, provided illustrations in her distinctive drawing style for the book Mead Moondaughter & Other Icelandic Folk Tales (1967) .
Throughout her long career she received many accolades: membership of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers, the Royal Watercolour Society and the New English Art Club, with frequent works accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions and paintings in the national collections of Iceland. She featured in ‘The Renewal of Icelandic Painting’ (Listasavn Foröya, Þórshöfn, Iceland / Narayana Press, 2006) and the ‘ING Discerning Eye’ at the Mall Galleries, London, in 2008. Two extensive and impressive publications on the life and works of Karólína Lárusdóttir were published in 1993 and 2013. Karólína Lárusdóttir, in many ways, was more a part of the British art establishment than the Icelandic, having lived in England for the greater part of her adult life.
It was while studying printmaking in the 1970’s at the Barking School of Art in Essex with Jane Stobart and Harry Eccleston that Karólína found her true artistic direction. She became driven by a need to put down on canvas or paper the multitude of bizarre ideas that popped into her head, and these often referred back, whether consciously or unconsciously, to her unusual childhood in Reykjavík. Her grandfather, Johannes Josefsson, was a strongman with Barnum and Bailey’s Circus and worked with the escapologist, Harry Houdini, before returning to Reykjavík to found the Hotel Borg in 1930. Much of Karólína’s childhood was spent in this hotel and it luxuriously appointed public rooms feature prominently in her work, as well as glimpses behind the scenes of maids and waiters going about their business or taking a break. ‘Leyja Comes to Hotel Borg’ shows Karólína and her childhood nanny, Leyja, floating into the grand dining room of the Hotel Borg. She was a great observer and commentator on social interactions and customs. This inspirational material, combined with her ability to capture a pose and place her characters within a well-structured composition, marks her out as a truly outstanding artist.
Karólína had a remarkable range of technical skills, from lithography, etching and linocut to drawing and painting in watercolour and oils. She was a highly proficient and technically accomplished printmaker and had her own printmaking studio at her home near Cambridge. She owned a grand old Albion press from 1850, and a more modern press for etchings, with an aquatint box and smelly, brown stained vats of ferric chloride. Her earliest copper-plate etchings were black and white and she printed them herself in her studio (for example, ‘Reykjavík Harbour’, 1990, and ‘Saumakonan’ (Seamstress), 1992. Subsequently she worked with the printmaker Linda Richardson, using the poupée technique to create editions of coloured etchings. Together they editioned over sixty etching plates in twenty years, with each edition generally numbering 75.
Sam Percival, the daughter of Karólína, remembers these times: “I can remember my mother’s excitement when she got her first etching press. She spent an entire winter with her new press in a cold garage ‘biting’ the plates in the acids, inking and printing them. Etching and painting would work hand in hand with her throughout her career – they informed each other and satisfied a medium of expression – the paint and the drawn line – which she loved equally. She worked in a type of frenzy to create enormous bodies of work – once the ideas came, they flowed out of her and it was like she could not get them down quick enough. As a child, every day I would come home from school to find her working in her studio, where she could be found, day or night it seemed, with a coffee and a paintbrush in hand.”
I first came to know Karólína when I visited her studio in 1992. and I was immediately struck by her figurative paintings – they were a revelation. I had seen nothing like them before and so a solo show of watercolours and oils was organised for my gallery in Cambridge in 1994. The art critic, the late Sister Wendy Beckett, described the work as “outstanding, so strong, so pure, so rich – so enigmatic”. As well as imagery from the Hotel Borg, Karólína also depicted earthly angels interacting with other characters, creating a surreal world often touched with a dry sense of humour.
I then relocated to Inverness and opened the Castle Gallery in 2001 and passed on my great enthusiasm for the work of Karólína Lárusdóttir to the people of Scotland. A highlight of this was the opportunity to exhibit ‘Shedding Old Coats’ at the Glasgow Art Fair in 2005. This was a seminal painting for Karólína as it was made in response to a life-changing book, Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estés. It marks a period of rejuvenation and self-assertion for the artist, which was to continue after her move back to Reykjavík in recent years and until her untimely stroke.
In March 2019, the Castle Gallery organised a small-scale retrospective exhibition of paintings and prints to mark what would have been Karólína’s 75th birthday, but sadly she passed away on 7 February, less than a month before the opening. A book that accompanied the show is an informal and loving tribute to this exceptional artist, with contributions from many friends, collectors and collaborators who have known her and loved her and her work.
Karólína Lárusdóttir, Hon Ret RWS, Hon RE, HRNEAC followed her own path and, as a result, has created strikingly individual works of art which will stand the test of time. She comes from a generation of artists who grafted and crafted, realising that to become a great artist one must develop the technical skills necessary to express ones unique vision. She represented a beacon of determination amidst and increasingly complex art world. She is survived by her children Samantha and Stephen, her stepdaughter, Jane, and her grandchildren, Boyd, Elis, Ida, Abigail, Owen and Jack.
Castle Gallery, Inverness
Karólína Lárusdóttir | The Good Gathering
A Castle Gallery Publication
£25 (£4.50 UK P&P - international shipping on request)
An affectionate and informal collection of thoughts, images, and text by various contributors, who have known, or been inspired by this great artist. Originally conceived as a 75th birthday tribute, this book contains over 50 colour images of a range of work spanning the artist’s career. To order, please contact The Castle Gallery via: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For further information and works, see: http://www.castlegallery.co.uk/karolina-larusdottir.html