Kjarval loved to paint the Icelandic lava fields, highlighting their volcanic abstraction and seeing in them faces and figures, often of uncertain meanings.
Jim Lane for Art-Now-and-Then.blogspot.com about Johannes Kjarval, the legendary Icelandic artist and longtime Kirkjubaejarklaustur resident
This story is part of our continuing series on the Magic of Iceland.
Iceland’s volcanic southern coastline is chock-full of breathtaking visual experiences and Nora and I were thoroughly enjoying them from the Ring Road on our westbound morning drive. As we approached a roundabout in the tiny village of Kirkjubaejarklaustur (population estimate: 120), Nora was still giddy talking about a farmhouse with two waterfalls in its backyard that we had encountered minutes earlier.
We barely noticed the roundabout lacked clear directional markings but it didn’t really matter. Did we want to stay on the Ring Road? That seemed to be our plan. We didn’t know very much about Kirkjubaejarklaustur. Our decision to wing it by continuing straight ahead failed unexpectedly when we pulled up to the end of a dead end road.
It didn’t take long to realize we had stumbled upon something so much more.
Getting out of our truck to investigate, Nora and I heard the roar of a waterfall coming from behind tall pine trees to our right. The trees were high enough to provide shade for the Klausturhof Guesthouse which was directly in front of us.
Much to our surprise we had just found the historic waterfall Systrafoss!
The timeline of Kirkjubaejarklaustur dates to the year 1186, when a Benedictine convent was established. Kirkjubaejarklaustur is actually a combination of three words (Kirkju translates to English as church, baejar = village and klaustur = convent) so its religious link to Systrafoss (which translates to English as Sisters’ Falls) is well established. According to legend, Systrafoss was named for two nuns who drowned in Systravatn (Sisters’ Lake) after attempting to retrieve an unusually beautiful golden comb that was extending from it.
A combination of two waterfalls side by side, Systrafoss is fed from the overflow of Systravatn, which sits in the middle of a vast grassland on a mountainside above the village.
Nora and I were introduced to the legend of Kjarval by a plaque dedicated to him at the base of the falls. The historic volcanic remnants and lava formations in the area have attracted visitors and landscape painters for centuries, none more well known than Kjarval. Famous for his abstracts, Kjarvjal spent many summers in Kirkjubaejarklaustur indulging in the rich volcanic landscape until his death in 1972 at the age of 86.
We climbed up a slick, rocky path from the road to get to a wooden platform which gave us a great view of the falls. The mist from Systrafoss added some risk to the short hike but nothing of much concern. From the platform, we had a great vantage point to see the unique look provided by the lava rock formations etched onto the face of Systrafoss, making it one of the most photogenic waterfalls in all of Iceland.
Nora and I were amazed to see what appeared to be a fox’s face emerging from the volcanic rock at the top of the falls. Yes, upon further review, it was easy to create different visions from the highly unique rock formations!
The region surrounding Kirkjubaejarklaustur, beloved by Kjarval, has hosted some of Iceland’s most historic volcanic activity. The most renowned is the Laki eruption of 1783. The ash cloud it produced led to an outbreak of widespread famine and disease throughout the country. In Kirkjubaejarklaustur, the miracle was that the village even survived, as it narrowly avoided being engulfed by the massive lava flow. Elsewhere, the ash clouds from the Laki eruption resulted in crop failures throughout Europe. Many have said the havoc it created indirectly led to the French Revolution beginning in 1789!
Kjarval’s fame did not end with his death. His prolific paintings were honored in Iceland with the opening of the Reykjavik Art Museum – Kjarvalsstadir in 1973. Then in 1987, Kjarval was bestowed a rare national honor by having his likeness placed on the 2000 Kronur bank note.
For Nora and I, it was interesting to become more familiar with the stories connected to the unique lava rock formations. The landscape artwork of painters such as Kjarval have a powerful presence in Icelandic culture. It was also humbling to know that Kirkjubaejarklaustur, a tiny village of just over 100 people, continues to live on at the mercy of Mother Nature’s potential volcanic fury nearly 1,000 years after its founding.
Check out the entire Magic of Iceland series right here (Click on each link):
Part 1-Overview, Part 2-The Golden Circle, Part 3-Latrabjarg, Part 4-Midnight Sun Drive, Part 5-Westfjords and Isafjordur, Part 6-Fire and the Mountains, Part 7-Date Night at Hverfell, Part 8-Surreal Saturday, Part 9-Beyond Fire and Ice, Part 10–Taking the 939, Part 11-Lost in Skaftafell, Part 12-F208 Dilemma, Part 13-Volcanic Highlands, Part 14-Homestretch to Remember