The Ring Road (Route 1) is a 1330 km highway which loops around most of Iceland’s perimeter. Ben and I drove all the way around it this summer— and were entranced. Below, you’ll find our week-long itinerary — with star-ratings, travel tips, photos, and short descriptions. You can access the Google map of places we visited or considered visiting here.
If you’re planning a vacation to Iceland, this post is for you — especially if backpacking sounds a little too intense, but “great photo opportunity five minutes from the parking lot!” isn’t what you’re looking for either.
Read this section if you just want the “best-of” list. Otherwise, skip to the complete itinerary below.
The S3/S4 trail in Skaftafell National Park. Pass right above a giant glacier, climb a mountain with 360° panoramas (further glaciers, jagged rocks), descend down meadowy hills with view over the sea, end by waterfall with basalt columns. (16 km; day long hike.)
Jökulsárlón. Giant glacial lagoon with icebergs, seals, and a hundred shades of blue. (Not a hike; just the definition of sublimity.)
Stuðlagil Canyon. A natural cathedral of basalt columns, with a roaring river at the bottom. Hike through grassy meadows with only sheep for company, pass a gorgeous waterfall (basalt columns again), find your way down to the bottom of the canyon. (8 km (two-way) hike.)
Day 1: The Golden Circle
Overall: This requires driving off the Ring Road. If you’re in a hurry and more of a hiker than an attraction-check-offer, you can skip this day; the only thing you might be sad about missing is Gullfoss.
Þingvellir National Park: Site of the (10th-18th century) Icelandic Parliament. 3.5 stars: Lots of historical value (e.g. you see the place where alleged witches were drowned), not that much perceptual/aesthetic value. Beautiful cliffs and river, but you’ll see much better ones later in the trip. Very crowded.
Strokkur Geysir: Active geyser. 3.5 stars: Definite “yes” if you haven’t seen a geyser before. If you’ve been to Yellowstone, you might be underwhelmed.
Gullfoss: Giant two-tiered waterfall. 4.5 stars: Roaring sublimity, big chance of rainbows. Viewpoints both above and below the falls. Worth braving the (significant) crowd.
Kerið Crater Lake 3 stars: There’s an entrance fee and the lake is quite small. The colors are probably better earlier in the day; when we got there, the lake was in shadow. Worth it if you’re new to crater lakes.
Campsite: Hamragarðar. Amenities: Includes kitchen. Bonus: The waterfall right above the campsite is an explorer’s heaven in miniature. There’s a little cave, a view of the fall from between two slabs of rock, and an exhilarating scramble (with chains) up to (near) the top of the fall — all doable in ~20 min total.
Day 2: Fimmvörðuháls Trail.
Seljalandsfoss: Waterfall you walk behind. 4 stars: Worth walking behind; not worth getting up at sunrise. Details: The internet recommended going there at sunrise. This was weird, since in August you can’t see the sun from behind the fall. (Sunset might have been better.) Then again, the complete lack of people at sunrise allows you to really appreciate the roar of water from behind the fall.
Fimmvörðuháls Trail. Hike next to 25 or so waterfalls, then through a lava field left by the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull explosion. (25 km 1–2 day hike; we only did a few km.) Details: Start by the imposing Skógafoss waterfall. I recommend coming up close to it, to appreciate the height — but only if you wear waterproof clothes! The trail goes up to the top of the fall, and continues by the side of the Skóga river and its myriad waterfalls. (Sometimes the trail splits and you get to choose whether to come up close to a fall or appreciate it from afar.) 5 stars: We only did the waterfall part, which is indescribably beautiful. (Waterfall after waterfall in ultra-green landscape, the sea behind you, snowcapped Eyjafjallajökull to the side.) Our biggest regret after the trip was not doing the full hike — since it’s not a loop, this requires catching a bus at the end of the trail.
Dyrhólaey Lighthouse: Viewpoint with rock arch over the sea. 3 stars: After Fimmvörðuháls trail, this was underwhelming (and we wish we’d stayed longer at Fimmvörðuháls instead). The drive up there is steep, narrow, and a little scary. The view is great… but not really appreciable after a day with 20 waterfalls. Might be more worth it earlier in the summer, when you might spot puffins.
Campsite: Skaftafell Campground (two nights). Bonus: Glorious view of Skaftafell’s mountains and glaciers, which turn pink during sunset.
Day 3: Skaftafell Glacier Hike
The S3/S4 trail in Skaftafell National Park. Pass right above a giant glacier, climb a mountain with 360° panoramas (further glaciers, jagged rocks), descend down meadowy hills with view over the sea, end by waterfall with basalt columns. (16 km loop; day long hike.) Details: Take the S3 trail counterclockwise from the park visitor center. (Unless you prefer starting with meadows and ending with glaciers.) You’ll have the magnificent Skaftafellsjökull glacier to your right for ~5 km. Then, take the (excitingly strenuous) S4 trail up to where an unnamed path goes up Kristínartindar peak. I definitely recommend continuing up this path — it’s about a half hour of fairly arduous scrambling, but you won’t forget the view from the top (which includes two giant glaciers). Retrace your steps to the S4, then keep following the S4 until it rejoins the S3. Follow the S3 through soothing meadows, until you get to signs for Svartifoss waterfall. Follow these; from the incredible waterfall it’s just a short descent back to the campsite. 5 stars: Two giant glaciers, jagged rock formations, a peak to ascend, green meadows, ocean view, basalt-column waterfall… all in one hike just long enough to be pleasantly exhausting.
Day 4: Glacial Lagoons
Hnappavellir: Cliffs for outdoor climbing. (Iceland’s largest rock-climbing area.) 4 stars (1 star for non-climbers): This was our first time outdoor bouldering, so we’re not reliable judges. We had a lot of fun, but found the routes very challenging.
Fjallsárlón Glacial Lagoon 3 stars: In any other context, this would be 5 stars — but this glacial lagoon pales in comparison with the bigger Jökulsárlón, which it borders on. And it doesn’t have seals.
Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon 5 stars: Giant glacial lagoon with icebergs, seals, and a hundred shades of blue. Leave yourself plenty of time to take in the view! (It took up all of my attention, so it didn’t even matter that there were a lot of other tourists.)
Camping: Eyjolfsstadir Campsite 5 stars: This was our favorite campsite (and the only one which stood out to us on the trip). Inexpensive (by Icelandic standards), nestled between two cliff/mountain ranges, with a really friendly owner. You drive right by the fjords to get there. Bonus: Sveinsstekksfoss is an easily missed waterfall marked by an “Enter at your own risk” sign a few minutes’ drive from the campsite. The marvelous view of the fall has the fjords as background.
Day 5: Stuðlagil Canyon
Klifbrekkufossar: Waterfall with view over the fjords. 2 stars: It’s a 25 km drive away from the #1, and indistinguishable from countless more easily accessible ones. (E.g. Sveinsstekksfoss is more exciting.) We were misled by this site, which calls it “one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland.”
Stuðlagil Canyon: 4 km (one-way) hike to basalt-column canyon with river at the bottom. 5 stars: You’ll find the sublimest part of the canyon at the end of a 4 km hike through meadows, with a basalt-column waterfall to rival Svartifoss halfway along the way. It’s possible to descend almost to the canyon floor, which I highly recommend. Few experiences compare to visiting this natural cathedral, with its geometric basalt columns, and the water roaring right next to you. The spot is almost entirely unknown to tourists. It also has a fascinating history: most of the canyon had actually been underwater until a dam built around 2006 affected the sources of the river! The hike itself might feel a little monotonous, but in the right mindset it’s completely idyllic (meadows! sheep! no other people!) Warning #1: Don’t let Google maps guide you to Stuðlagil — that will take you to the wrong side of the river. Instead, turn off four kilometers earlier and follow the hiking instructions found here. Warning #2: Finding the safe path to the canyon floor is tricky; descending down the safe path is not particularly tricky. Do not try scrambling down rocks to get to the bottom — there’s a safer way down, you just need to keep looking for it. (If you see a micro-waterfall in an area with reddish stones, you’re following the right path.)
Goðafoss: ultra-wide waterfall. 5 stars: I was so tired that I didn’t even want to stop here, I’d already seen a million waterfalls, and I still managed to be impressed! (We were so exhausted from Stuðlagil that for once we were glad that the parking lot was right by the falls.)
Camping: Camping Tjaldstæďi 4 stars: Had a kitchen with a goat (!) that vacuumed the floor and accepted pettings. Buildings with borderline cute/kitsch thatched roofs.
Day 6: Lake Mývatn
The area around Lake Mývatn is full of post-volcanic attractions. There’s a lava field (Dimmuborgir), a volcanic crater (Mt Hverfjall), steam vents, and more. All the attractions are close together and have parking lots, so you can drive between them or, as we did, string them together into one of the hikes here.
Dimmuborgir — Hverfjall — Grjótagjá Hike 4 stars: All the attractions are wonderful, but quite crowded. Tip: There are several routes through the Dimmuborgir lava formations. The one marked “dangerous” is the only one worth doing if you’re in decent shape — it’s unpaved and less crowded. No dangers in sight. The estimated hiking time they give you for this is also way too high.
Day 7: Drive back and Reykjavik
The northwestern part of the Ring Road has relatively few attractions, so we decided to just drive back to Reykjavik on the last day, stopping only for a picnic and short stroll by a random river along the way. [Note that the northwest part of Iceland has plenty of attractions that aren’t along the #1; we left those for another trip.] If you prefer leaving best for last, you might consider going around the #1 clockwise instead.
When we got back to Reykjavik, we felt pretty done with tourism, so we decided to go indoor rock climbing instead.
Klifurhúsið: Bouldering gym in Reykjavik 4 stars: Typical bouldering fun! Around $13 entrance fee — by Iceland standards, this is really good value for money.
Ready to pack your bags? Here are some tips before you do.
Getting there: Iceland is the perfect place for a stopover on a flight between Europe and North America. Icelandair and WOW Air both let you stay in the country for a week (sometimes longer) between two legs of your flight without paying extra — but in my case, booking a separate Warsaw-Reykjavik flight with Wizz Air and Reykjavik-Boston with WOW Air turned out to be the cheapest option. So look around!
Getting around: All of the places on our itinerary were accessible by a two-wheel-drive vehicle — so you can still see amazing places if you rent the cheapest possible car.
Weather: Prepare for rain, wind, and cold temperatures, even in the summer.
Wind-management: Use your car to shield your tent from the wind at night. Also, a bandana doubles as a muffler for the howling and a face mask for the midnight sun.
Saving money: Iceland is fiendishly expensive. In order to not go completely broke, try:
Camping. Campsites are “only” about $20/person (as a psychological trick, we pretended that we were paying for a hotel room) — I’m not sure I want to know how much staying in a hotel room would have been. It’s legal — and free — to camp anywhere that isn’t a national park (or, presumably, someone’s backyard), so if you’re braver than us, you could try that.
Bringing your own food. We brought peanut butter and tortillas for lunch (this is a surprisingly good hiking meal — just bring a lot of peanut butter), dry dinner ingredients (red lentils, freeze-dried vegetables, couscous, powdered sauce) and a camping stove, oatmeal for breakfast (adding nuts/sugar/dried fruits recommended) and snacks.
Getting VAT refund forms for large expenses. We didn’t realize you have to ask for a special document along with your purchase to get a refund at the airport. (This only works for purchases over 6000 ISK (~$60).)
Using the bathrooms in gift shops. Though it’s not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, paying $2 to use the bathroom is a little absurd. At a lot of tourist attractions, the gift stores will have free bathrooms.
Bringing your own data/phone plan. If you’re traveling from within the EU/EEA, your cellular plan will work in Iceland at your country’s rate.
I love art. Monet’s Water Lilies make my heart beat faster, my insides somersault, and my mind swirl with words and colors. Few experiences compare.
I don’t love the things that get exhibited in contemporary art galleries. If you prefer: I don’t love contemporary art. It makes me feel empty and bored, sometimes a little annoyed, at best slightly amused.
I’m far from alone in my preferences; among amateurs, they’re the rule rather than the exception. Like many people, I love color, beauty, representational illusion, emotional expression, painterly texture — and these are things contemporary art doesn’t typically give its viewers. Modern artists are just interested in very different things than I am.
By itself, this state of affairs would hardly be worth mentioning. I have my preferences; the art world has its. I would be happy to leave it at that — if it weren’t for two claims fans of the contemporary insist on repeating.
(1) A dislike of modern art is a symptom of insufficient education. Given enough art-historical and philosophical background, anyone should appreciate modern art. Furthermore, such background is worth acquiring.
(2) Modern art is preferable to representational painting in some objective sense: modern art is serious and cutting-edge; representational painting is shallow and outmoded. It’s fine to create and appreciate art which is merely beautiful, but in this day and age we ought to aim for something more.
These are the claims I’d like to question in this post. The first section tackles modern art directly; the second discusses the features of representational painting which allegedly make it inferior to modern art. The final section compares the two varieties of art.
My aims are relatively modest. I’ll argue that going to contemporary art galleries simply isn’t worth my effort. Acquiring the historical and philosophical background necessary to begin to appreciate contemporary art is a huge time investment — and even after this investment, I value the appreciative experiences I end up with much less than I value the experiences I have of, say, Monet. Furthermore, the claim that art has somehow “progressed” beyond representation, or that contemporary art is more relevant to our times than, say, representational painting, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
I’m not claiming that there’s nothing valuable in contemporary art for you.In fact, I know that there are artworks in contemporary galleries that even I like. I’m just arguing for a statistical claim: for me, the worthwhile artworks are so few and far between that going to a MoMA or a MoCA typically just isn’t worth my time.
I. “No, Thank You” to the Modern
Perhaps the most baffling variety of modern art is so-called conceptual art: art in which the artwork is, supposedly, an idea rather than a thing.¹ These days, this sort of art occupies a large chunk of museum space, and it will occupy a proportionally large chunk of this post. I won’t attempt a definition, but here are some common features of conceptual art:
the use of found objects (“readymades”)
only a minor (if any) use of traditional media like painting or sculpture
features which make the question “what/where is the artwork?” hard to answer: including the gallery space as part of the work, performative aspects, audience participation, invisible elements, etc.
reliance on a background aesthetic theory or references to art history/philosophy.
Many who reject conceptual art would also reject abstract expressionism, or even cubism; for the most part, I wouldn’t.²
Difficulties with Difficulty
I can’t shoot down a whole artistic practice without giving concrete examples; otherwise, you’ll rightly suspect me of strawmanning. But here I encounter a problem: when I visit a modern gallery, I find most of the exhibits so incomprehensible that (a) I have nothing to say about them and (b) I immediately forget about them. Among my reactions to modern art, mute bewilderment is the norm.
To criticize a work is already to grant that there’s something there to be talked about. The examples I’ll discuss are therefore only the interpretable tip of the bewildering iceberg. Here’s a piece of that iceberg; I can only point to it in frustration. The pointing is part of the argument; without it this post would paint a picture of modern art that is altogether too rosy.
With that in mind, here’s an example. Martin Creed’s Work № 227: The Lights Going On and Off is an empty gallery room in which the lights go on and off (every five seconds). It won the 2001 Turner Prize.
Here’s what the Tate’s communications curator had to say about the work.
Creed is a kind of very pure extreme kind of artist. The fact that many people find his work so baffling indicates that he’s working on the edge.
Bafflement is a sign of difficulty — right? And difficulty is a good thing — right?
Here’s a case where difficulty really is an admirable thing. We admire Einstein because he not only understood the theory of relativity, but came up with it himself. The latter is more difficult; Einstein had to put in more effort into coming up with his theory than he would have had to put into understanding it, if someone else had come up with it earlier. Furthermore, Einstein’s theory tells us how the physical world works. Learning it is not just difficulty for difficulty’s sake.
The case of modern art is different — often, the hard work lies entirely on the side of the viewer. We have to contort our mind into strange shapes to get anywhere near a state we might recognize as appreciation. The work is difficult in the sense of being difficult to appreciate — but it isn’t necessarily difficult to create. (It’s also often not difficult to understand, in the sense that there isn’t much there to be understood.) The artist gives us an instruction (“appreciate this!”), but he doesn’t need to know how to follow it. Just listen to what Creed has to say about his own work — does this sound like the sort of deep appreciation we expect from viewers?
If I can make something without adding any objects I feel more comfortable. It’s like, if I can’t decide whether to have the lights on or off then I have them both on and off and I feel better about it.
The art world makes a virtue of things that have no independent value. Its proponents treat mere difficulty as if it were a virtue — as if steeper mountains were better, independently of the views. As if standing on one leg were better than standing on two, simply because it’s harder. I suspect that modern art’s difficulty, rather than being a reason to call this art “good,” is caused by its badness. It’s extremely hard to learn to like unlikeable things — but that’s not to those things’ credit.
Modern art is only difficult in the sense in which a rebellious teenager is difficult.
A Good Insult Isn’t a Good Thing
I once heard an art historian say, in response to a student’s complaint that he didn’t like an artwork: “How do you know you’re supposed to like it? What if the artist wasn’t trying to please you? What if his aim was to annoy you?”
What if, indeed. The rhetorical question was posed as if it settled the matter — which it certainly doesn’t. If the artist’s aim was to annoy me, and he succeeds in that aim, I can rightly ask: “what’d you do that for?!” If I go to a massage therapist, and instead of giving me a massage, he kicks me, telling me that his intention was to hurt rather than massage me doesn’t help his case. You don’t get brownie points simply for achieving your aims.
Of course, annoying your audience — or just making it uncomfortable — is often done in the service of grander aims. We’re shown uncomfortable truths, often moral or political ones. This is a fine aim, except (1) modern art, with its tiny, highbrow audience, and amenability to multiple, inconsistent interpretations, is a highly ineffective tool for changing the world, (2) the aim comes with an ascetic suspicion of pleasure that I think is deeply misguided. I get the sentiment behind “no poetry after Auschwitz,” but was I really born too late for art that is beautiful… or simply kind to its audience? Is mourning till the end of time really the best response to tragedies? Of course we shouldn’t get complacent, but making art that brings joy to people is, other things equal, still a finer thing than art which merely scandalizes them.
This Is a Bad Artwork
A hundred years ago, Marcel Duchamp submitted a store-bought urinal, under a pseudonym, to the Society of Independent Artists (of which he was a board member!) The Society had agreed to exhibit any artwork by a fee-paying artist, but refused to exhibit “Fountain.” (It wasn’t an artwork, so they were within their rights.) I refer the reader to Wikipedia for details on how the story evolved from there (including a discussion of the intriguing possibility that “Fountain” was in fact thought up not by Duchamp, but by a female artist).
What was Duchamp’s intention in submitting “Fountain”? On one interpretation, he was criticizing the romantic idea of the artist as sovereign creator of transcendent value. The artist was just a chooser among things, and there was no difference in kind between a urinal and a painting. Art was bankrupt; we should all go home.
If this had been Duchamp’s aim, he failed to achieve it — spectacularly. In “Fountain’s” aftermath, the artist became a magician transforming everything he touched — even a urinal — into gold. Art galleries were given the power to — with the appropriate incantations about the death of art, in the appropriate jargon of the initiated — transmute bread into flesh and wine into blood.
To understand a little better how this could have happened, imagine a gallery room with a neon sign saying “THIS IS A BAD ARTWORK.” What would you make of such a work? Well, it’s just a freaking neon sign. It’s pretty bad, right?
Aha! But that’s precisely what the sign says. How witty! What a good artwork!
I hope this little neon sign illuminates the frustrating features of the works of Duchamp, Creed, and others like them. The artworks, among other things, draw attention to their unspectacular nature. They say something close to “this is bad art.” But then if you use those very words to criticize them, you’re just agreeing with them, adding fuel to their “greatness.”
Self-critical works immediately transmute criticism into praise. But they don’t stop there. “What a good work!” is an unstable conclusion too: if our neon sign is a good artwork, then its initial wittiness is undercut. Now we have a good artwork saying of itself that it’s bad—which means that it’s either lying, or mistaken.
The art world stops at “it’s a good work,” but this is an unstable conclusion which depends on the inferential cycle starting with “it’s a bad artwork.” Perhaps the difference between fans of the contemporary and me is that for them, oscillating between verdicts is itself a positive aesthetic experience — whereas for me, it’s a cheap self-referential trick.
Unmasking Is Impossible
Last year, as a prank, two teenagers placed a pair of glasses on the floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Almost immediately, people began photographing the glasses. The teenagers gleefully tweeted about their unmasking of modern art. In response, the SFMOMA welcomed them into the art world, tweeting “Do we have a Marcel Duchamp in our midst?”
The rules of the game are such that unmasking is impossible. The teenagers wanted to take something that clearly wasn’t art and show that museum-goers wouldn’t know the difference between this and “modern art.” But to succeed in this project means to turn a lowly item into something that makes a statement about the bankruptcy of art — which is to say, to change it from a lowly item into… modern art.
And this, of course, undermines the message. If the glasses are art, then gallery-goers weren’t mistaken at all, and the art world can go on just as it has before, applauding the brilliant self-criticism of a pair of glasses.
Duchamp said “we should all go home.” For a hundred years, the art world has been standing in the gallery, applauding this statement.
Concepts Don’t Live in Galleries
I once went to the Warsaw contemporary art gallery, only to find, in one of its rooms, a puddle in a glass container. The label informed me that this had been an ice sculpture, left to the unpredictable summer temperatures as a meditation on impermanence. There had been a heatwave, and the sculpture barely lasted a few hours.
The work achieved its aim, I guess — but looking at a puddle wasn’t worth the hour-long train ride into Warsaw. (To counter that since, after all these years, I still remember this annoying experience, the art must have been good, is to, once again, change the rules of the game so that badness becomes goodness.)
If the artwork really is the idea, then, reading gallery catalogs may be worthwhile, but going to the galleries themselves is not. Furthermore, when — as is often the case — the idea involves a commentary on art itself, it really isn’t worth the time of someone who isn’t a fan of the art world to begin with. If the idea embodied in Duchamp’s “Fountain” is that art is dead, then the ideal viewer is one so convinced of the message that she doesn’t bother coming to the gallery.
All Great Nonsense Was Misunderstood in Its Day
“Contemporary art is just too young to be fairly evaluated,” apologists sometimes explain. “It’s no wonder we don’t appreciate the greatness of contemporary art; all great art was misunderstood in its day.”
Everything about this argument is wrong.
The point that this is at most a reason to remain agnostic about the goodness of modern art, not a reason to call it great (since even if all great art is misunderstood, not all misunderstood art is great), is almost too obvious to be worth stating. But it’s worse than this — all the presuppositions of this argument are simply false. Much great art wasn’t misunderstood in its day — take Raphael or Rubens, for instance. And the great art that was misunderstood was misunderstood by institutions like the French Academy and by the rich people who bought art. Contemporary art isn’t even misunderstood in this sense. The scribbles that fetch exorbitant prices on the art market aren’t the work of starving geniuses. Modern art is over- rather than undervalued. Finally, contemporary art isn’t young — Duchamp’s “Fountain” is 100 years old, and we philistines still don’t get it. How much longer are we supposed to wait?
Now You See It, Now You Don’t
Let’s return to The Lights Going On and Off. I confess that while writing this post, my judgment of this work has flickered between “worthless” and “cool.” Here are some cool things the work does:
draws your attention to features of galleries which are usually in the perceptual background: the color of the walls, the shape of the room, the lighting
invites you to pay attention to similarly overlooked features of your everyday environment
refers to other works which have done something similar, like Cage’s 4’33”
flickers in an out of being really simple and really complicated, being just a room with lights and an artwork with complex meaning
brings to mind antonym pairings — being and nothingness, good and bad (art), exuberance and depression, understanding and bewilderment, meaning and meaninglessness, simplicity and complexity — and abrupt shifts between one and the other
asks about itself: which side of these boundaries do I lie on?
That’s a lot of cool features for a light switch in an empty room! But it’s not enough to rehabilitate conceptual art for me.
First, none of these features are reasons to go and see the work in person. I might try paying more attention to the way my environment shapes my perceptions, but I don’t have to travel to a gallery to do that. (And if I were seeing Creed’s work for the first time, I would probably be too angry to do what it asks of me and focus on the aesthetic features of the environment.)
Second, the work is still just a room with lights going on and off. The above “features” are just my interpretations — the coolness lies in the story I tell. You can write a great poem about lights going on and off in a room. But that doesn’t make the room great art—it makes you a poet.
As to self-reference, and reference to other works — they get tiresome. I wrote an undergraduate thesis on the liar paradox, so I really get the appeal — but there’s only so many times you can go through a paradoxical loop in your head without wanting to look at some deliciously textured paint.
Let’s turn off the lights and softly close the door.
II. “Yes, Please” to the Old-fashioned
Nothing Mere About Flowers
I overheard the following conversation at a nondescript Oxford reception.
“Why do you have to do all that modern art stuff? What’s wrong with just painting flowers?” a student at the Ruskin School of Art was asked. She responded: “Maybe in Van Gogh’s time, it was fine to just paint sunflowers, but today’s art has to do something more, make itself relevant. What could a painting of mere sunflowers have to tell us about the pressing concerns of critical discourse, politics, philosophy, morality?”
I can still hear the tone of confident derision in which she said “sunflowers.” How arrogant to be this certain — at twenty — that you know better than Van Gogh!
This student apparently believed that Van Gogh lived in an innocent age in which the simple pleasures of sunflower painting were still permitted—but we have learned better. But consider this bit of (oversimplified) art history. The French Academy, which existed between the 17th and 19th centuries, was an institution controlling which French artworks got to be exhibited (and what artistic training looked like, which artists got prestigious awards, etc.). One of the dogmas upheld by the Academy was the “hierarchy of the genres:” “heroic” depictions of historical and religious scenes were deemed superior to representations of humble still lifes. In fact, still life painting occupied the very bottom of the hierarchy. It wasn’t until Impressionism’s rebellion against the Academy that the hierarchy was overturned and still-life paintings were (briefly) treated as full-fledged, serious artworks.
The art favored by the French Academy was heroic, pompous, political, and needed to be decoded with the aid of textbooks. Sound familiar? At the same time, still lifes flourished on its outskirts, and found an enthusiastic market of non-experts wishing to decorate their homes. In my humble opinion, these outskirts are where French art’s true masterpieces, like Chardin’s The Ray, were created — and, perhaps, where our times’ masterpieces reside too.
Van Gogh did live during a special time — the extremely short period of art history during which landscape and still-life painting were at the center of the art world’s attention. (Or, perhaps, the extremely short period of art history during which there were two alternative art worlds.) But it was not a time during which there were somehow fewer philosophical, political, or moral concerns for artists to grapple with. More often than not, though, the artists who grappled with these things were forgotten; the still lifes have stayed with us.
What could be more universal than sunflowers? Van Gogh’s mere sunflowers — made of color, texture, emotion, mortality — will stay relevant when all the world’s most sophisticated art fades into obscurity.
Nothing Mere About Beauty
The admirable Youtube show “The Art Assignment” would have converted me to modern art if anything could have; it certainly reversed some of my judgments. In one episode, its host, Sarah Urist Green, answers a viewer’s question. “Can something beautiful be considered art if it doesn’t provoke thought or reflection?” She responds:
Art can make you marvel at its beauty, art can make you uncomfortable, art can make you think. Some art’s function is to make you appreciate its beauty, [but] personally, I like art that does something more.
Urist Green is being slippery here. If beauty and provoking thought are both valuable, then, of course, beauty plus thought is better than just beauty. It’s tautologously true that “something more” is more than “something less.”
But if this is all Urist Green means by “something more,” I can use her argument to make my own point: “Some art’s function is to make you uncomfortable or make you think, but personally, I like art that does something more: art that is also beautiful.” (In fact, this is one of the main points I’m making in this post.)
I think Urist Green would be unhappy to grant me my symmetric argument. There’s more behind her “something more” than a tautology. She’s insinuating a value judgment: it’s not just that beauty plus thought is better than beauty, but thought by itself is better than beauty. Beauty without thought is mere beauty; thought without beauty is thought, period — or perhaps: bravely ascetic thought.
Modern art’s distrust of beauty has many sources, which I can’t hope to untangle here. Suffice it to say that, to me, none of these sources amount to a compelling reason for such distrust. (An art historian once told me that beauty is “irrelevant.” She didn’t care to specify — irrelevant to what?)
To me, there’s nothing “mere” about beauty. Monet’s “Water lilies” come as close as any paintings to aiming at being “merely” beautiful. There are subsidiary aims, of course: capturing a light effect, an instant, the interplay of flower and reflection; giving expression to something spiritual or transcendent; exploring color relationships and textures; teetering on the edge between surface and depth, between representation and abstraction. But none of these amount to “provoking thought and reflection” of the sort modern art prizes. Monet has nothing to tell us about politics or morality, and he’s certainly not “problematizing” the concept of art.
I spent an exquisite half hour with the “Water lilies” at the New York MoMA. At first, I was disappointed — the paintings were too familiar, too similar to their reproductions. But I stayed with them, and they grew richer and richer. They coalesced when seen from the far corner of the gallery, engulfed me when I came closer, offered something new and just barely comprehensible — or barely incomprehensible, I couldn’t really tell — with every glance. None of this was “thought;” all of it was supremely valuable.
While I gasped at Monet, other visitors came and went. Some said “Too much pastel; not sophisticated enough.” Others: “Ooh, look at the pastel colors! I’d like this in my living room.” They disagreed, but they were seeing — skating across — essentially the same surface. None of them plunged in.
When people call beauty “mere,” they’re seeing only the pastel surface. They think that pursuing “mere beauty” would lead artists to become Thomas Kinkade — rather than Claude Monet.
Modern art has simply never given me the depths that Monet has.
III. The Art Worlds Meet
For a long time, I was dissatisfied with my responses. If modern art grew out of my very favorite late nineteenth-century art, there had to be something to it, some family resemblance which I was missing between Duchamp’s “Fountain” and Monet’s “Water lilies.”
In this section, I bring the discussions of conceptual and representational art together, and conclude my long and fruitless search for resemblance.
Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” is a short story about an artist who specializes in professional fasting. He achieves great renown by fasting for forty days straight — but his agent advises him that after forty days, his audience’s attention would wane. This is a source of great discontent for the Hunger Artist, since it prevents him from achieving the heights of artistic perfection he dreams of. Eventually, professional fasting falls out of fashion, and to sustain himself, the artist joins a circus, where he is free to fast for as long as he likes. He has the artistic freedom he had craved — but he lacks fame and attention, and he withers.
In his brave and provocative article “Why Artists Starve,” the philosopher Kevin Melchionne argues that Kafka’s story explains why contemporary artists continue to create such (in Melchionne’s own words) awful art. Briefly put, artists are attention seekers, and the artworld is a machine for creating status and attention.
Last year, I attended the MoMA’s glorious exhibition of Degas’s monotypes. Nudes emerging from half-lit, textured spaces, the glow of lamplight and fireplaces, the curves of bathtubs and sofas combined to put me into a state of dizzy, tingling intoxication.
After I feasted on Degas to overfulness, I wandered through the MoMA’s 1960s gallery. Tingling subsided and turned to numbness. Only one work caught my attention: Dieter Roth’s “Literature Sausage,” a sausage-shaped object made according to time-worn recipes, with a sole replacement: ground books instead of ground meat. I chuckled at that.
At the end of Kafka’s story, the Hunger Artist starves to death. With his dying breath, he explains the true reason for his fasting: “because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.”
Melchionne dismisses the importance of this revelation; he thinks the Hunger Artist is deceiving himself, and attention-seeking remains his true motivation. I’m not so sure. If Dieter Roth had really tasted what I tasted in Degas, could he have kept grinding out art which insists that all art is only ground-up words? Could he have confined himself to substituting juicy sensations for dry discourse, euphoria for a chuckle?
I find it hard to believe that someone could love Degas the way I do and then renounce beauty, sensuality, tastiness… for ground up books. I suspect that the conceptual artist — the hunger artist — is a monk devoted to a celibate lifestyle simply because he has never fallen in love.
Let Hunger Artists patiently chew their discourses; I prefer food.
But Is It Art?
Duchamp once called painting “olfactory masturbation.” (“Olfactory” is supposed to be a reference to the smell of turpentine.) This inane insult is based on three blatantly false (if venerable) assumptions: (1) that there’s something wrong with masturbation, (2) that smell and touch are primitive senses, unworthy of attention, (3) that the intellect can be separated from the senses and is superior to them.
The Platonist (3) — and the anxiety to distinguish art from “mere” craft — lurks behind much modern art. Well, I prefer craft to empty thought.
Is conceptual art “art”? You’d be a fool to say “no.” Modern art galleries are called “art galleries,” and furthermore the work they exhibit engages in conversation with art history in the traditional sense.
It’s a foregone conclusion, then, that conceptual art is art. But it’s still up for debate whether it’s the art — whether what gets exhibited in galleries really is modern art, in the sense of being the best, or the most representative, or the most interesting art of our times. Who’s to say that the really great art of our times isn’t hanging in a basement or on a cafe wall somewhere, too “old-fashioned” to be appreciated?
Conceptual art didn’t grow out of impressionism; it grew against it. Painting, even representational painting, didn’t die with Duchamp; Monet continued painting water lilies for 10 years after the “Fountain” fiasco, and there are representational painters all over the globe to this day.
In the 19th century, the French Academy controlled what art got to count as good. Impressionism was a revolution which briefly gave artists some degree of freedom. We’re taught that the bewildering array of styles — the “anything goes” attitude of postmodernism — which came after was an expression of this freedom. I think, instead, that it was an expression of imprisonment. Not anything goes — still lifes and landscapes are, once again, forbidden.
The art world has been dancing at art’s funeral pyre for 100 years. But this is its own funeral — not painting’s, and not beauty’s. Beauty has been problematized, interrogated, critiqued, and beaten over the head with every ugly, pretentious cousin of a perfectly ordinary word, and so it fled the art world.
But beauty isn’t dead. It’s safe and sound in its proper home: the world of the art lover.
 For the purposes of this post, “modern” or “contemporary” art is just the sort of thing you’re likely to find in a MoMA or MoCA. While “modern” has a technical art-historical meaning, here I use it interchangeably with “contemporary.”  I would group scribbles — like Cy Twombly’s — with conceptual art, especially since they often form parts of installations, but I can imagine a future in which I like Cy Twombly, but not one in which I like Duchamp.
Two paintings. One — rough rainbows, jagged angularity, empty textured patches. The other — soft rounded glow, smattering of light, pearly overflowing haze. An etching table, some mushrooms. Between them — an unmistakable, unexplainable thread of kinship. In front of them — me, heart racing.
It was supposed to be just another stopover. I might have easily gone to see Magritte instead, but I hesitantly opted for the unknown and the temporary. It was meant to be a little excursion to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium; just passing the time on the outskirts of the real adventure: a week in Morocco.
Morocco pales in comparison.
Rik Wouters, this painter I’d never heard of before, followed me all the way to magical Marrakesh. His life and paintings kept me up at night for the entire trip.
What was it about Wouters? Many of his paintings are seemingly unfinished, as if he just stopped as soon as he got bored. This might sound like a weakness. In fact, it means the complete banishment of boredom from the canvas. It means achieving one of the alleged aims of impressionism — “capturing the moment” — like no impressionist ever had. It means staying true to the essences of things, even if these turn out to be no more than a smudge of paint. Just look at the shoe below!
Others of his works are filled to the brim with paint. Filled even to overflowing — I wasn’t the only person to audibly exhale in front “Apples and artificial flowers B.” So gloriously too much.
Wouters loved Cézanne, and the kinship between their work is clear — but their paintings have different personalities. Where Cézanne is meticulous, Wouters is fervent.
Wouters is all intensity.
A woman’s face recurred in these paintings over and over. With romantic naivety, I found myself thinking “please let it be his wife!”
It was. Nel Wouters appears in her husband’s works again and again and again. Sleeping, waking up, ironing, looking out the window, ill with tears in her eyes, dancing, hugging herself tight — in all the motley instants which held her husband’s gaze.
And reading. “Woman reading” is warmer than any painting I’d ever seen. Nel is perfectly self-contained, wrapped in her own shoulders mirroring the curve of her engrossing book. I come closer, scrutinize her face, and am startled, almost upset to find that it reveals nothing more. There is only the instant.
In “Woman reading,” Wouters painted love itself. I can’t put it any other way.
As I look at yet another portrait of Nel, I have an epiphany. Love is the missing link, the glue which holds all of Wouters’s paintings together. In the empty canvases and in the overfull ones, the soft and the jagged — everything is there because it’s loved. Everything is seen with the lover’s intoxicated eyes. Not just Nel, but the mushrooms, the furniture, the light. And, of course, the paint.
Wouters painted not so much the impression of things as their atmosphere. In one work, he depicts only the feeling, the glow of furniture in a living room. He painted domestic life as it is — suffused with meaning.
I stand in front of “Domestic cares” — a monumental sculpture of Nel, strikingly intimate despite its grandeur, which Wouters sculpted in his basement in 1913–14 — listening to the audioguide. The accumulation of portraits of Nel in the room, witnesses to love, becomes almost unbearably moving. The larger-than-life “Domestic cares” in front of the miniature “Woman reading.” In their opposite ways, each doing exactly the same thing —giving off the same love.
The audioguide informs me that “Domestic cares” was supposed to represent the overcoming of financial hardship. Rik and Nel had been living in poverty for years, but this was the turning point after which everything would get better.
This was the turning point after which the war started. The days of domestic cares, the audioguide tells us, had been their happy days.
I don’t quite know what’s coming— but behind my eyes, tears are getting ready.
The last room cut me with the abruptness of death. One minute —love’s kaleidoscope. The next — a handful of dark paintings, “Self-portrait with an eyepatch” — and the exit door.
Wouters was conscripted in 1914. He couldn’t bear the horrors of war. On top of that, he started suffering from horrible headaches. It soon turned out that he had sinus cancer. He had to have several operations, and in 1915 he lost his eye and part of his jaw. He died in 1916.
He was 33. Nel was 27.
I can’t do justice to what Wouters’s paintings did to me. I’d hit the highest notes of praise too soon, in posts about puny Munch and Matisse, and I ran out of notes for Wouters. I’d lied about Munch — it turns out that was nothing like seeing a painter for the first time. With Wouters, there was no bewilderment — just instant connection.
Why hadn’t I heard of Wouters before? Maybe universal renown is too much to ask for a painter who spoke to me on such a personal level. After all, he’s famous enough in Belgium, and not many are privileged to be remembered outside of their homeland.
Still, I think art history has been unfair to Wouters. He puts more famous painters to shame. Why did Matisse have to buy all those antiques, if there is so much to shimmer in Wouters’s humble interiors? Just look at Wouters’s paintings of Nel — did Gaugin really have to leave his wife and kids? What good are Munch’s tormented mirages when there is so much color in a plate of mushrooms?
I like those famous guys — but Wouters is mine like they never will be.
As critics emphasize, Wouters’s work is touchingly simple. But these words have to be carefully cleaned of misguided associations to be recognized for what they are: the highest possible praise.
It’s a simplicity that doesn’t give up anything that matters. A refusal to give the viewer empty riddles, to show off your personality, to be part of a movement. An homage to the beauty ordinary people and things exhibit not despite their ordinariness — but because of it. An exuberance rather than a calm contemplation. A cutting open of the smallest things to reveal the jewels inside. A fervent polishing of surfaces till they shimmer from all angles — with their own natural light.
It’s a simplicity that manages to paint love itself, over and over. Without a trace of boredom or sentimentality — only earnestness.
Simple, but not easy — like all great art.
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The paintings were baffling. The fact that they were also exactly right made the bafflement itself baffling. I fell immediately in love — everyone else seemed to, too—but had no idea what to do with this love.
It was obvious that these forest scenes presented inner vistas (though they were probably also literal landscapes.) But what were my grounds for this certainty? The anthropomorphic tree trunks, writhing, embracing, slouching, bending over to whisper, propping each other up — sure, but somehow that wasn’t enough.
What explained my sense that this snowscene was painted from the pines’ perspective — that the trees frame the vista the way I might frame a question to myself? (Is the tree closest to us leaning into the painted space to see better?)
Why couldn’t I tear my gaze away from the scene below — one you might call a spectacular failure of realism? The trunks seem to be floating, shadowless, with inept green horizontals for foliage. Reading this foliage as the edge of a swamp, I thought for a while that some of the trees were reflections in water.
That’s how I felt about so many of the paintings: I loved them, but I couldn’t tell which way was up.
The works were sparkling with emotional charge — but I didn’t even know if this charge was positive or negative. And it was anything but neutral. That tree stump in the foreground is surely expressive — but is it aghast, dejected, whimsical?
As my frustration mounted, I started to notice its sources. I came to the Munchmuseet knowing I’d write a blog post about my experience. I was looking for something to say — instead, I found overwhelming presence. I’d come armed with readymade admiration — but the paintings demanded to be seen on their own terms.
I’d expected a locked gate — to my frustration, I found an open door.
I photographed the paintings and felt relief. Caught on my phone screen, in the palm of my hand, they were tamed. Their obviousness, their presence were there for all to see. Photography confirmed the rightness of judgments I couldn’t quite articulate.
But by this very taming, something was lost. I realized that what had baffled me most was also what drew me to the paintings — some unresolved tension, questionmark, ambiguity. Something in the space between drawing away from the paint and coming towards it — something in the uncertainty about where to stand.
It turns out bafflement was pretty much exactly the audience response Karl Ove Knausgård, who curated the exhibition, intended. He chose unknown pictures to get us “to experience Munch as if viewing him for the first time.” Bafflement, a failure to take it all in — combined with a striking sense of immediacy, rightness, presence. Munch viewed for the first time.
In fact, I had seen Munch for the first time here — seven years earlier. (Both times, I was only stopping by, on my way elsewhere. This year I had a seven-hour stopover in Oslo before my flight to Warsaw; in 2010, I was heading up into Norwegian mountains.) I came away from that exhibition with the sense that Munch’s life had been a progression from darkness to light — and from electrifying to lifeless paintings. I’m not sure if I’d brought my own preconceptions to the exhibition, or if the curators actively encouraged this interpretation, but it seemed like the only really interesting painting Munch had made after the eight months in 1908–1909 he spent at a psychiatric institute had been the triumphant “Sun.” Everything else was happy — and empty.
“Towards the Forest” — this year’s exhibition — radically corrected my misconceptions. It begins with a lopsided version of The Sun — a wonderfully imperfect exuberance. Then paintings from different eras in the painter’s life — pre- and post-sun — are indiscriminately juxtaposed. What emerged was a striking unity, and a vital force that transcends any simple dark-light divide.
I returned to my failure to assess the emotional valence of some of the paintings. Could it have been based on a false assumption? Are all emotions really either positive or negative? Try introspecting at a random moment during your day: does what you find in your head necessarily feel either good or bad? If not — must it be unemotional?
Last summer, I tried carrying out this somewhat mad experiment on myself: every 15 minutes for 12 hours, I stopped what I was doing to introspect and take my “emotional temperature” — i.e. pay attention to what my mood felt like. The results? Emotional — yes. Clearly positive or negative — almost never.
Perhaps Munch’s forestscapes are just this: glimpses of a fully particularized internal space, richly emotional without a “plus” or “minus” sign.
By reshuffling Munch’s pictures, and bringing new ones out of storage, Knausgård changed the story I tell myself about Munch’s life and work. Now I know, as Knausgård tells us, that Munch “never became stale.” But Knausgård also claims that Munch “never found inner calm” — and this I’m less sure about.
Inner calm doesn’t mean boredom — that’s precisely what Towards the Forest demonstrates. It doesn’t mean lack of emotion either — it doesn’t even mean lack of twisted, writhing trees. It may mean fewer twisted trees — along with a certain power to transform them.
“Towards the Forest” is named after two series of woodcuts Munch painted in 1897 and 1915 (I think). They show two figures huddled together in the dark, walking towards an empty field to a forest looming on the horizon. It’s a startling image — what are these people doing, heading towards the darkest depths — in rather than out — in the dead of night?
The two wooduts are strikingly similar. The fact that Munch returned to the same motif 18 years later lends credence to Knausgård’s contention that he never found inner calm. Still, there are important differences. The two figures — Munch and his femme fatale — have been transformed into abstract forms of light and darkness. It’s as if the forest needed light as well as darkness, and as if Munch had managed to transform his troubled romantic history into something more universal — without ever letting go of it.
Like the forests in Munch’s paintings, the ones in the woodcuts are inner realms. What both woodcuts agree on is that sometimes the way out of your head is through your head, out of darkness — through darkness.
Munch’s forest is also — art. Quite literally — the horizontal marks on the woodcuts are marks left by the natural grains in the woodblocks Munch was using. He’s making a representation of wood out of wood — and a dark, transformative realm out of the stuff of life. He fed his life into his art — and in turn, his art sustained him.
Munch may never have broken through the forest to find a permanent triumphant light. Instead, he travelled from forest into forest, into forest again— each overgrown with bafflingly perfect trees.