Einar Hákonarson

Einar Hákonarson (born 14 January 1945, Reykjavík, Iceland) is an expressionistic and figurative painter. He is a pioneer in the Icelandic art scene and art education. He is credited for bringing the figure back into Icelandic painting in 1968.

Hakonarson was the director of the National Art School of Iceland (MHÍ) and the artistic head of the Reykjavik City museum.

In the beginning of the 1990’s Hakonarson became the most avid spokesman and activist against the exclusion of the painting in the public museums of Iceland. He built the first private owned art center in the country; Listaskálinn í Hveragerdi so painters had a platform to exhibit their work to the general public of Iceland.

In 2015 Hakonarson was honoured with a retrospective of his career at Reykjavik City Museum, after more than a two decade exile from the public museums.

Hakonarson works with oil painting, printmaking, sculpture, stained glass, enamels and mosaic.

Early life

Einar Hákonarson was raised in a WW2-army barrack during the housing crisis implemented by the war, before moving to Kleppsholt, Reykjavík. His father was an amateur artist and his two uncles were avid art lovers. The arts were often the topic of discussion in the modest household, which was quite unusual in Iceland for the period. Hakonarson showed a talent for drawing and painting from an early age and used to borrow his father’s painting equipment and occasionally used to paint over his fathers works when he ran out of materials to paint on.
Hakonarson was only 14 years old when he was admitted to The National Art School of Iceland. There was a controversy within the school committee if the boy should be allowed to draw nude models at that young age. He was eventually accepted but could not attend any nude drawing lessons his first year. There he received his education for the next 4 years. He then went abroad to Gothenburg Sweden to study at Valand School of Fine Arts where he came under the influences from new modes of art, such as figurative painting and pop art. Whilst Hakonarson was still studying in Sweden he won the Nordic countries art prize for painting at an exhibition in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen, Denmark. He won a prize in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for his printmaking, and an international printmaking prize in Ljubljana, former Yugoslavia, for The Auschwitz series, series of pictures after a trip to the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz in Poland.

Hakonarson returned to Iceland after his education in Sweden and held his first solo exhibition in Bogasalur in Reykjavík 1968. His show distinguished itself from the Icelandic art scene then current as Hakonarson’s paintings were pop, figurative and expressionistic. This exhibition brought the figure back into the Icelandic painting, which had been dominated by the abstract art and landscapes for years.


Hakonarson has always been consistent in his art and his values through out his career. He primarily paints with oil on canvas but also works with other mediums like printmaking, sculpture, stained glass, enamels and mosaic.

Hakonarson about his art:

“I am first and foremost an Icelandic painter, and my works are mainly concerned with Icelandic history, society and nature. The human figure has always been the focus of my works, and they are often expressionistic and laden with narrative. Social criticism, a lyrical ode to the land, and religious overtone, in combination with purely expressionistic paintings, have been at the heart of my fifty-year artistic career.”

Hakonarson claimed that he was more influenced by feeling for nature, rather than by trying to paint a specific part of it. His works display different kinds of focus, for example on city life and the modern family unit. He has done a series about The Icelandic sagas, the Holocaust and communism, to name but a few. Religious themes are common in Hakonarson’s art and he frequently makes artwork from the Bible.
In later years Hakonarson’s painting style became more loose versus the more strict style at the beginning of his career, but without having abandoned a disciplined composition.
Apart from Iceland, Hakonarson lived in Sweden (7 years on and off) and for shorter periods in the USA, Germany, and the Czech Republic.
Hakonarson is one of the leading portrait painters in Iceland. He has painted some of Iceland‘s most influential people, ranging from politicians to national poets and artists. His work can be found in large numbers in official buildings, for example schools, banks, churches and at the Icelandic parliament.


Hakonarson has won international awards for his printmaking. He was the first Icelandic artist to exhibit only printmaking in an art show (1968) and to publish printmaking folders (Icelandic sagas). He was a driving force in founding The Icelandic Printmaking Association in 1969 and served as its first president. Later Hakonarson founded the printmaking department in The National Art School (MHÍ). Hakonarson has also decorated numerous books with his printmaking.


Hakonarson was 21 years old when he started teaching in the National Art School of Iceland. He grew a beard, since he was younger than most of his students, and has kept it ever since. Hakonarson founded an art school in 1970 (Myndsýn) with his colleague Ingiberg Magnússon.
Hakonarson was appointed director of The National Art school of Iceland in 1978. He founded the department of printmaking and the department of sculpture, and reconstructed the department of ceramics.
Hakonarson was criticised by some scholars and conceptual artists for being too conservative in running the school, when he intended to shut down then the two year old “New art department”. He stated that he did not want a department that focused so heavily on a specific artistic style, but rather on the core values of art, from where students could shape their artistic styles.
The New art department stayed open and developed into a conceptual art department.

Years later, or in 2005 Hakonarson expressed his disappointment with the National Art School. He felt the school had abandoned most of its classic core values and conceptual art consumed the school, by in later leaving out classical teachings and other art mediums, including the painting.
“In my day it took years to train and develop as an artist. Now everything and nothing is considered art. Conceptual art has become so dominant in Iceland, it has become the State Art.”

Hakonarson held many art workshops and seminars through his career. He held teaching positions in Sweden, Valand School of Fine Arts (1964–1967), Hovedskou art School (1989–1991) and Domens Art School (2000–2002).

The painters’ conflict

In the 1990’s, painters in Iceland became discontent with the public exhibition rooms and museums. They felt that the painting was left out in the Icelandic art world, and the directors of the National galleries and museums only focused on conceptual art. The painting was even declared dead by some of the country’s art historians. Hakonarson later said that Icelandic painters had not had a public place to show their work in 20 years. Hakonarson, who previously was the artistic counselor of the City Museum (Kjarvalstadir), became the most energetic spokesman of the Icelandic painting and its right of existence in the Public Museums, to this date.

Hakonarson’s said “People don’t dare to criticize authority in our society, as they might be excluded for their views. I am aware of this but I also criticize these views.”

In an interview with Icelandic state TV Hakonarson said: “Conceptual art can be good art, but when everything is considered to be art, there will be no art. Still we all agree that there is something in our society we call art but we cannot define it. It is not meant to do be defined.”

The Art Center

In 1997 Einar Hákonarson built, the first privately owned cultural center in Iceland. The Art Center (Listaskalinn in Hveragerdi) was a 1000 square meters multi-cultural center, with the main focus on the painting and the art Hakonarson felt had been left out from the public art centers. The Art Center produced over 20 exhibitions of paintings and sculptures, along with numerous concerts, theater performances, poetry and book readings. Some of the exhibitions were the best attended in Iceland’s fine art history to date. Hakonarson said ”Finally there is a place for painters and other artists who do not fit into the governmental art, run by its long lasting directors”.

The Art center however did not prevail. Hakonarson’s pioneering drive could not cope with the loan system of its time, nor the politics. The Art Center went under after being active for two years, leaving Hakonarson in financial ruins, losing all of his possessions, home and atelier. He had been hailed as the crusader of the Icelandic painting by supporters and named its Don Quixote, fighting windmills by opponents.

Loss of the Art Center

The loss of the Art Center was a great defeat in Hakonarson’s life. Iceland’s biggest art collector Mrs. Sonja Sorillo tried to buy The Art Center to house 100 of her collected art works, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Francis Bacon, Willem De Kooning and Jackson Pollock. That fell through when The Art Center was sold in an auction to The West Nordic Fund. To date, no international art collection exists in Iceland like Mrs. Sorillo’s. Her collection was broken up and sold abroad after her death. The Art Center was then sold to The Arnesinga Art Museum (Museum of the region) who had previously declined any collaboration with Hákonarson’s Art Center.

The Painters House

After being knocked down Hakonarson returned on the art scene in 2002 when he opened along with a fellow painter Haukur Dor, The Painters House in, a non profitable exhibition place for painters. Later, the painter, Oli G took Dor’s place and 19 exhibitions were held there by various artists.


Hakonarson opened an unusual exhibition at the so-called “Cultural night” in Reykjavík 2005. He put up 600 square meters tents and showed 90 of his own paintings in the city centers park, to demonstrate a 15 year exclusion of the painting in the public art centers. He called the show “In the Grass Root” as people literary walked on the grass during the show. What followed was unheard of in Icelands art history. 3000 people (1% of the country’s population) attended the exhibition in one day and showed their support for the Icelandic painting. After the show, many Icelandic painters formed a group to push for more democracy to the public art world.

Still, the long lasting museum directors did not open up their museums for painters and Hakonarson eventually went on a self appointed exile and moved to the remote Westfjords of Iceland where he would paint in solitude for the next decade and focus on his painting.

Return of the painting

In 2015 Einar Hakonarson’s 23 year exile from the public museums and galleries came to an end when The Reykjavik Citiy museum held a retrospective show on the artist, to celebrate his 70 years old birthday. The exhibition “The Pulse of Time” gathered significant media attention in Iceland. In an interview at the shows opening, The City Museum’s director Mr. Hafthor Ingvason declared the comeback of the painting and announced future shows with 85 Icelandic painters in the museums. The then prime minister of Iceland Mr. Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson opened the exhibition and hailed Hakonarson as one of Icelands most important artists.

Cultural scene

Hakonarson has held various prominent positions in the Icelandic art world, where he has been active in promoting Icelandic art nationally and internationally. He was the artistic counselor of Kjarvalstadir, The Reykjavík Art Museum 1987–1988 and a chairman of many exhibition committees. He designed and directed the exhibition of The History of Iceland, on Iceland’s 1100 birthday in 1974. He was a deputy to the mayor in the governing body of the Hässelby Slott, cultural site of the Nordic capital cities 1982–1992. Hakonarson established Iceland’s involvement in the Venice Biennale during his time at the Reykjavik Art Museum.
Einar Hákonarson lives and works in the village Hólmavík and in Reykjavik city Iceland, with his wife Solveig Hjalmarsdottir.