SAGA. Iceland: Art and Narrative is an exhibition of several generations of Icelandic artists, curated by Norbert Weber and Halldór Björn Runólfsson, and currently showing at KUMU art museum, Tallinn. This is largely a show of contemporary art, though there are also references made to the more historic art of the nation, with paintings from as early as the late 19th century and the early 20th century. The title suggests a clear interest in relating the exhibition to Iceland’s famed literary narratives and sense of the dramatic. Having already been exhibited at the Kunsthalle Recklinghausen and at the National Gallery of Iceland, the show will remain in Tallinn until March 20, 2016.

SAGA is an exhibition that offers a huge amount to explore. On one hand, by the sheer number of artists within its white walls, as well as the depth of the many pieces (Gabríela Fridriksdóttir’s installation could absorb you for hours) and the playful nature of others (Björk’s virtual world of sound and text is as entrancing as it is curious and fun). Equally, with a range of artistic generations, styles and narratives it seems likely that everyone may find something with which they engage.

As the exhibition text states, Icelandic art is quite unique within art history and best viewed “without the preconceptions of doctrine”. This fact is owing to the small nation’s (there are fewer than 300,000 native speakers) relative isolation for much of its history, as well as to the wealth and depth of national literary and oral narratives. Indeed, though you may not sense that the styles of art are radically different, there are several works, which seem to open to the (non-Icelandic) audience a view of history or a narrative tradition that is notably alien, for example, in the dream-like paintings of Helgi Thorgils Fridjónsson and Jóhannes S. Kjarval, as well as the photographs of Ólafur Elíasson and Sigurdur Gudmundsson.

That being said, the title and exhibition text clearly suggest the curators were interested in creating an overall sense of narrative within the exhibition itself. This I would say is the weaker element of the show. Firstly, the proposed narrative journey through the exhibition space, poetically suggested to conclude with an ‘epilogue’, is less easy to follow, more nuanced and jumbled, especially given that there are multiple entrance points (and the oldest works may be encountered last depending on which way you move). This is not a problem in itself, though it does seem to differ from the stated curatorial goals.

Secondly, once outside of Iceland, this collection of works is exposed to an audience who may know little to nothing about Icelandic history, let alone its unique literary, and yet more obscure, artistic traditions. This returns us to the old discussion of how much information and text should be included within an exhibition alongside individual artists or collections of works. In this case, the curators have made a clear decision to let the works speak for themselves. This has the advantage of letting the magical iconography, the power of depicted landscapes, as well as many more conceptual elements, speak for themselves, creating a sense of intrigue and mystery around this country and its stories.

However, there is a downside, too. Several of the works seem to hold much potential commentary on both social and political elements, such as the elusively mentioned “crisis recently experienced in Iceland” (though not explained, this seems to refer most obviously to the devastating economic crash of 2008-2011). Thus, without many background footholds, an audience ignorant of the nuances of Iceland’s socio-political history is certain to miss the wider impact of many artworks. This makes the exhibition seem quite inaccessible to begin with, though time spent with many of the pieces will open them up, at least in the imagination of each viewer. There are many treasures to be explored, and the more adventurous audience might be drawn closer to the heart of a seemingly wild and unique nation.

Read more about the exhibition here.