Directed by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, Bergur Bernburg
Iceland/Denmark | 80 minutes | World Premiere
TUE | SEP 15 11:45 AM | TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 4 – Paul & Leah Atkinson Family Cinema | SUBTITLED
SAT | SEP 19 9:30 AM | AGO Jackman Hall | SUBTITLED
Artist documentaries have become a burgeoning field of late. With the success of Gerhard Richter – Painting (2011) and Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (2012) we were sure to see more explorations of the creative process in fine art production. The success of any film that examines fine art, lies as much in how well it provides historical context as with to what degree it grants the viewer subjective depth into the artist’s decision making process. Horizon, a film by Oscar nominated director, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson (Children of Nature, The Ring Road) and co-director Bergur Bernburg, about the late Icelandic landscape artist Georg Gudni, accomplishes these dual tasks exceedingly well.
The film, clocking in at a lean and tightly structured 80 minutes, plays as part of the TIFF DOCS selection and is a more than worthwhile diversion from the festival’s fiction film offerings. Most of us know little about Iceland, leave alone Icelandic art, and it is partly due to champions of Gudni, such as the Danish-Hollywood actor Viggo Mortensen as well as filmmakers Bernburg that we now have an opportunity to know more about the country’s rich artistic scene. The story of Gudni is partly an illustration of what Russian aesthetician Viktor Shklovsky called the “grandfather principle” in the history of the arts. In the battle between father and son, the son may often end up resembling the grandfather. The idea here is that often artists feeling constrained by a preceding tradition will skip back to previous generations for inspiration, employing intentionally archaistic techniques, through which to innovate.
Gudni, who studied painting in Holland, was like many of his eighties art school classmates, in the thrall of an academicized abstract expressionism and purely abstract modes of art making. The most immediate generation of artists, either Pop artists or those working in a dead-pan, eviscerated conceptual mode, offered no new paths for an ambitious young painter.
The film shows us how Gudni sought to excel in neoexpressionist forms of gestural abstraction, but this became a stylistic dead end. The artist’s breakthrough came when he found inspiration in a much older and ignored generation of Scandinavian landscape painters. But Gudni didn’t just paint “Sunday pictures,” the term used to described this kitsch and sentimentalized genre of paintings. Instead, he contemporized and revivified the genre, recasting its conventions with bold artistic innovations. Gudni radically abstracted the compositional techniques of the genre, often revisiting the actual motif many times, but then painting largely from memory. There was a multi-layered aspect to his signature works, often human-sized in scale. His works were produced through many hours of painstaking painterly application. The geographical and meteorological features of Iceland are also unique. The terrain is exceedingly flat, featureless with far-off distant horizons. In conversation with me, Fridrikson joked that Iceland has only one type of season: cold, rainy and glum. And these features are certainly showcased and maximized in Gudni’s atmospheric and austere canvases.
The documentary is economically stitched together using interviews with the late Gudni as he explains his artistic process and we watch him painting, discussions from art historians and famous collectors such as Viggo Mortensen; and shots of the natural landscapes that inspired the artist. One of the most striking aspects of Gudni’s multi-layered painting technique is how the pictures are not simply appeals to a disembodied vision but more bodily and affectively engulf and immerse the viewer into their contradictory spaces. We learn from Gudni how he sought to collapse figure and ground, so as to make the far-off background near, and the foreground distant. As simple as these paintings may initially seem, they viscerally affect viewers. Moreover, a deep naturalism and environmental consciousness informed the mild-mannered artist, as well as the filmmakers of Horizon. In many ways, the film itself approximates the meditatively austere tone of the late artist’s gloriously textured tableaux.