Kjarvalsstaðir History

Kjarvalsstaðir is in the Klambratún park, one of the few recreational areas in Reykjavík to be planned and designed as part of the city’s artistic culture. Kjarvalsstaðir was designed by Hannes Kr. Davíðsson and inaugurated in 1973. Kjarvalsstaðir maintains continuous exhibits from its collection of works by painter Jóhannes Kjarval, who bequeathed a large collection of artwork and personal effects to the city of Reykjavík, and also displays paintings, sculpture, and architectural design by established artists and architects. History Kjarvalsstaðir was the first building in Iceland specially designed and built for public exhibitions of art. In 1964 the Reykjavk City Council voted to plan a municipal recreation area featuring a sculpture of the poet Einar Benediktsson, to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of his birth, and in the wake of this a further decision was made to erect an art museum with a restaurant in the new park, to honor painter Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval, who was due to turn eighty the following year.

In August 1966 Kjarval broke ground for Kjarvalsstaðir at a ceremony on the 180th anniversary of the incorporation of Reykjavík, but he died in 1972, a year before the museum’s formal opening. Care was lavished on every detail of the building and, until the new City Hall was built, Kjarvalsstaðir was used for important municipal receptions. The building Kjarvalsstaðir and the Klambratún park lie at the confluence of three neighborhoods – Hlíðar, Rauðará, and Norðurmýri – three densely populated, low-rise, homogeneous residence areas from the mid twentieth century, when Reykjavík was rapidly expanding. Kjarvalsstaðir is situated at the north edge of the field with an eye to integrating the structure into the park, for here it has the aspect of a delicate arts pavilion. The pavilion consists of two wings enclosing a courtyard, joined together by a slender central wing. The building is relatively closed toward the northern exposure and the street but opens up toward the south, sunshine, and the verdant park. In his designs for this building, architect Hannes Kr. Davíðsson was influenced by Japanese-inspiration to Nordic modernism, with its emphasis on raw natural building materials, a quality of lightness, and simplified lines throughout. Kjarvalsstaðir’s lightness is expressed in its support structure: slender columns carry the horizontal, copper-clad roof. This allows for freedom and flexibility in the walls, since they are not weightbearing.

Many aspects of the building’s detailing underscore its delicacy, such as horizontal exterior accents over the windows, tracing the line of the roof, or interior columns that project diagonally through glass skylights. Hannes Kr. Davíðsson often employed innovations in his use of building materials, and Kjarvalsstaðir features walls of unfinished, or raw, concrete, in which the grain of the form boards is still visible in the texture, and exterior cladding of Corten steel, thick steel plates which have been allowed to rust to a certain degree. This handling lends a substantial warmth to the concrete, and the rough surface of the weathered steel glows like coals in response to strong sunlight. The main entrance to the museum, in its north wall facing a quiet street, is somewhat hidden, as ingress to the building is across a small front court. From inside, however, the building opens onto the park, as pedestrian areas walled in floor-to-ceiling glass panels enclose the stone-tiled central courtyard on three sides. Some of the glass is actually a functional sliding door or panel, which can be moved aside to dissolve the line between the building’s interior and the stone-tiled courtyard beyond.

The interior features the same emphasis on natural building materials and their propensity for coaxing out a warm, informal ambience. Rough walls of raw concrete compliment the delicate, unpainted hardwood of the ceiling treatment and window casings, and the double-wide doors to the galleries are covered with beige canvas. In the middle wing where the restaurant is located, a portion of the ceiling is lowered, underscoring the horizontal aspect of the building and its space. From the stone tiles of the floor to the placement of the windows and columns, every component fits and defines the scale of the building. Floor tiles made of Icelandic dolerite are laid on both sides of the glass, outdoors and in, further underscoring the unity of park and building. The galleries lie in two long wings, the East Gallery and the West Gallery, on either side of the central space.

To protect art objects from direct sunlight, the ceiling scheme was specially designed to diffuse natural light through the galleries — whether during the sun’s long, high summer trajectory or its low winter position. It is also possible to transform the gallery space through a customdesigned system of dividing walls that are anchored to joints in the floor. The pedestrian areas outside the galleries, the East and West Halls, also serve as exhibition space, particularly for three-dimensional sculptures and other objects that benefit from the surrounding play of light and shadow in accord with the season and the weather. At even intervals along the lengths of the East and West halls, slender concrete weight-bearing columns rise from the floor and project diagonally out through skylights, effortlessly carrying the gallery roof.

The field The Klambratún park, designed for year-round public recreation, consists of open areas interspersed with smaller and more sheltered spaces for play and art. In the northeast corner of the field is a man-made slope ideal for children’s sleds as well as for sunbathing, while the large flat lawns south of Kjarvalsstaðir invite large gatherings such as outdoor concerts or art-festival events. A thick windbreak of tall trees buffers the heavy traffic on Miklabraut along the south side, but otherwise the design of the gardens is a coordination of soft and geometrical forms. The park was established in 1964 in accordance with the design proposal of landscape architect Reynir Vilhjálmsson.

The architect of Kjarvalsstaðir, Hannes Kr. Davíðsson (1916-95), became a journeyman mason in 1938 but proceeded to study architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, receiving his architectural degree there in 1945. On returning to Iceland he worked for a while for architect Guðjón Samúelsson, then Master Builder to the central government, and went on to establish his own design studio in 1950. Hannes Kr. Davíðsson moved into the vanguard of new ideas and attitudes in post-War Iceland, notably through experiment with innovative uses of concrete as well as the use of glass for light building facades. Major works: Private residence, Skaftahlíð 3 (1947). The residence of author Gunnar Gunnarsson at Dyngjuvegur 8 (1949-50). Residences at Akurgerði and on Sogavegur (1951-52). Keldur, the Institute for Experimental Pathology (research and animal laboratories, 1946-89). The pharmacies Holtsapótek and Apótek Vesturbæjar (1954). Mercantile shop Liverpool, on Laugarvegur (1955). The Bjarnarnes Church at Nesjar in Hornafjörður (1956). Designers Original chairs in oak and rawhide furniture was designed by Gunnar H. Guðmundsson for Höfði house in 1960.

The café furniture is designed by the founder of the design firm Prologus, industrial designer Guðmundur Einarsson. He created the furniture as homage to Hannes Kr. Davíðsson on the occasion of the 2007 re-opening of Kjarvalsstaðir after repairs and renovations to the café in the museum’s center wing. The sitting furniture is designed by Guðrún Lilja Gunnlaugsdóttir, designer and founder of StudioBility in 2007, in the spirit of painter Jóhannes Kjarval’s personal style.

The artist
The painter Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval lived from 1885-1972. He attended workshops in drawing and painting under Þórarinn and Ásgrímur Jónsson and in 1911 went abroad to London and then to Denmark, where he began formal studies at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, receiving his degree there in 1917. He holds a special place in Icelandic art and cultural history as one of he country’s most beloved painters of all time. Through his works, Icelanders have developed a new appreciation for Iceland’s natural landscape, nationhood, and the elusive boundaries between the real and the supernatural. Kjarval bequeathed a large share of his works, including paintings, drawings, and personal effects, to the city of Reykjavík in 1968. A portion of the bequest was exhibited at the 1973 opening of Kjarvalsstaðir and varied selections from the museum collection have been on display ever since. The collection has grown steadily over the years.

By Guja Dögg Hauksdóttir, former head of Architecture Department, Reykjavik Art Museum (2009).


Kjarvalsstaðir, photo Baldur B. Vilhjálmsson.