One of his century's most important portrait sculptors, Ólafsson was born in Eyrarbakki, a village at the south coast of Iceland. Trained as a house painter, he entered the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1928, from which he graduated in 1935, having supplemented his studies with a year in Rome. In 1930, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Academy for his sculpture Labourer.
From early in his career, Ólafsson worked in abstract sculpture forms that were often controversial, but he also developed the realistic style that characterizes his portrait busts and statues. His largest sculpture project in the thirties was his 3 x 4 metre relief Stacking Salt Fish (Saltfiskstoflun), on which he worked from 1934-35. The relief, a tribute to the Icelandic working class, exhibits some of the features of the purist art that was then in vogue, most notably in its rounded and massive planes. In 1938, he was awarded the Danish Eckersberg Prize for the portrait My Mother, casts of which were immediately bought by leading museums in Scandinavia.
In 1939, he created his first completely abstract sculpture, Man and Woman, which caused great controversy at the time but which is now considered a sculptural landmark in Denmark where Ólafsson is known as a pioneer of spontaneous abstract sculpture. Ólafsson's most challenging commission was the Vejle sculpture group, two large cube-shaped groups of figures placed at the centre of the main square of the town of Vejle, flanking a staircase in front of the city hall. Each group, almost 2m high, features symbolic figures for the town´s main occupations: agriculture and handicraft, trade and industry.
Ólafsson returned to Iceland in 1945. As one of the leading artists of the country, he was commissioned to create numerous challenging projects, among them a 90m long relief at the Búrfell hydropower station. There are eighteen public monuments by him in Reykjavik alone, with the works Emblem of Iceland at the Hotel Saga and Throne Pillars (or High Seat Pillars), located in front of the Höfði House where Reagan and Gorbachov met, being perhaps the best known.
Ólafsson was an experimental artist who brought both classical schooling and artistic insight to a wide variety of techniques, styles and materials, from clay and plaster to wood, metal, stone and concrete. This versatility has inspired younger generations of Icelandic visual artists. His works are found at museums and private collections in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Italy and the United States. The Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum, headed by his widow Birgitta Spur and situated in the artist's former studio at Laugarnes in Reykjavík, is dedicated to research of the artist's life and art and houses an extensive collection of his works.
Contributed by Chrystopher J Spicer, with the assistance of the Sigurjon Olafsson Museum.