Karólína Lárusdóttir’s exhibition ‘Wondrous Happenings’ is coming to the Cotswolds

'Mirror Mirror' (c.2006), by Karolina Larusdottir

'Mirror Mirror' (c.2006), by Karolina Larusdottir - Credit: Karolina Larusdottir

Artist Karólína Lárusdóttir’s solo exhibition is coming to the Sarah Wiseman Gallery in March

‘High Tide’ (c.2010), by Karolina Larusdottir

‘High Tide’ (c.2010), by Karolina Larusdottir - Credit: Karolina Larusdottir

Represented by Oxford’s Sarah Wiseman Gallery for over a decade, Karólína Lárusdóttir has become recognised internationally for her printmaking and paintings influenced by her eccentric upbringing in Iceland. In her first solo exhibition in nine years, ‘Wondrous Happenings’ will be a celebration of the artist’s 75th birthday, and a rare opportunity to see a number of works by this renowned artist.

Born in Reykjavik in 1944, Karólína overcame considerable opposition to family in order to apply to art school. Her parents felt that it was an unsuitable career for a well-to-do young woman, and even doubted her artistic ability. However, Karólína was undeterred, signing up for a drawing course in her second year of college in Reykjavik. This course brought her to London, and it was here she established firm roots in the UK – and where she would call home for a period of around 50 years. She has a strong connection to Oxford, initially through her training at the Ruskin school, and latterly through gallery representation.

At the recommendation of one of her drawing tutors in London, she applied to the Ruskin school in Oxford, where she was immediately accepted. She graduated in 1967. The Ruskin School at that time was housed in the Ashmolean museum, where Karólína would have been free to wander among the collections, draw in the cast gallery and have access to a world-class art library.

Gallery director Sarah Wiseman first came across her work over twenty years ago, before her own gallery opened in north Oxford’s Summertown.

‘Angel and the Horse’ (c. 2010), by Karolina Larusdottir

‘Angel and the Horse’ (c. 2010), by Karolina Larusdottir - Credit: Karolina Larusdottir

“The first commercial gallery I worked at as a graduate was the CCA galleries in the High Street, Oxford. That’s where I first came across Karólína’s work and just loved it; I was in awe of it.”

When the CCA Galleries closed in Oxford, Sarah Wiseman decided to open her own gallery. However, even in the tumult of opening her own new business, Karólína’s etchings remained on Sarah’s mind.

“After that gallery closed, I opened my own gallery in 1998. I knew there was nobody representing Karólína’s work in Oxford and so I wrote to her – a good old-fashioned letter!

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“I asked if she would consider working with me in my new gallery. I didn’t get anywhere at first, being the new kid on the block, but after a couple of years of successfully running the gallery, she felt I was serious enough to represent her work.”

‘Tango’ (c.2010), by Karolina Larusdottir

‘Tango’ (c.2010), by Karolina Larusdottir - Credit: Karolina Larusdottir

Karólína agreed to send a few prints for Sarah to try and sell, which of course, they did. Sarah soon discovered there was a big audience for her work. Sarah says, “At the time, Gee’s restaurant had a stunning painting by Karolina on display. Jeremy Mogford is a known collector of her work. In fact, you can still see her work displayed in his restaurants – Quod and The Old Parsonage to this day.

“Jeremy kindly sponsored the first solo exhibition by Karólína I had here back in 2004, six years after I opened. And we’ve represented her work ever since.”

But what makes her work so special? “I think people are drawn to it because there’s a strange sense of familiarity in the visual language she uses, which really strikes a chord,” says Sarah Wiseman. “There are numerous threads running through her work, from her own family history, to the myths that are part of Icelandic culture, which captures people’s imaginations.

“In many of her works, we are witness to wordless exchanges among seated diners in a tea room or restaurant, attended by straight-faced waitresses or chefs. Their faces are unsmiling but never dour, their eyes watchful and expressive. In other images, angels are often seen, but are merely part of the story, told in a matter-of-fact manner.”

Iceland is a nation that prides itself on retaining customs and keeping mythology and folklore alive, and Karólína’s work certainly reflects this. Her favourite subject is people, in particular the eccentric characters that featured in her early life.

Perhaps most compelling of all is Karólína’s grandfather, who was a circus strongman in Barnum and Bailey’s Circus in the USA. After his circus career finished, he came back to Iceland and founded Reykjavik’s first grand hotel: Hotel Borg. As it was a family business, Karólína spent many afternoons after school here, becoming an observer of many social occasions, as the hotel became central to society life in Reykjavik. Teas, dances and children’s parties were hosted, with chefs and chambermaids scurrying here and there.

Her work centres around this time of her childhood; a time before television, when social events, visits and gatherings were much more at the forefront of people’s lives. Post-war Iceland was rather more insular and seldom visited by tourists as it is today.

Karólína is now resident once again in Reykjavik, after 50 or so years living and working in the UK. She is no longer making new work owing to ill-health. However, her solo exhibition Wondrous Happenings will no doubt do justice to this extraordinary artist’s achievements. “We are so thrilled to present this show,” says Sarah, “it will be an opportunity for those who know and love Karólína’s work to see a bigger collection of etchings; and for those who haven’t seen it before an opportunity to discover Karólína’s world. There’s also a chance to see some of Karólína’s paintings, which are rarely seen these days, so have been very kindly loaned to us by her family.”

Karólína was offered a membership of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers in 1986. The Royal Water colour society membership was offered in 1996. She is also the recipient of numerous prizes such as the The Dicks and Greenbury in 1989, and the 4thTriennale Mondiale D’Estampes Petit Format, France. In 1990, Karolina received a special award at the Premio Biella Internazionale per L’Incisione in Italy, and she was nominated graphic artist of the Year 2005, Islensk Grafik (Icelandic Printmaker’s Association) and was the recipient of the Aberystwyth University School of Art Collection Prize 2012. She has exhibited in numerous galleries all around the UK and in Iceland, including at The Royal Academy Summer show. Her biography was published in Iceland in 1993, and the book Karólína Lárusdóttir by Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson was published in 2013.

References: ‘Karólína Lárusdóttir’, by Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson (Published 2013, JPV).

Karólína Lárusdóttir’s exhibition ‘Wondrous Happenings’ is coming to Sarah Wiseman Gallery, 40-41 South Parade, Oxford OX2 7JL, March 2-30. wisegal.com

Since the time of writing Karólína Lárusdóttir sadly passed away on February 7, 2019.