Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



December 2009

"A painting is not a structure made up of lines and colors, it is an animal, a night, a scream, a being…indeed, all these things in one."


Constant, The COBRA Manifesto

The Right Conditions

Dear Reader,

We left Reykjavik, Iceland at 5 p.m., and because we were flying west to Boston for five hours at 35,000 feet above the clouds, I could see one continuous sunset from my window seat. These were the right conditions for providing me with quite a sight: unending bands of colors: fiery red, oranges, ochre, gold, pale green, pure green, and blue greens that blended into cerulean, then ultramarine, then sapphire, then blue-black. The full spectrum of colors was there for me to study and admire while squashed into my seat.

On the other hand, the right conditions were not present the night we traveled to the southern tip of Iceland to see the Northern Lights. I was forewarned because the morning we arrived, there was a full moon casting its eerie light over Reykjavik. Clouds and fog could not erase that big, white, luminous plate of light. Even though the weather cleared for the rest of our stay (clear sky = right condition), the moon would present some competition in the sky, if we were lucky enough to see the aurora borealis.

I did not know if the most important of right conditions had occurred. Had solar storms sent charged particles 93,000,000 miles to earth two to three days prior to our visit? And, even though the weather was clear, would there be the necessary cold and windy conditions? Alas, the temperature during that week stayed relatively warm, so another condition would not be optimal for seeing the aurora borealis.

John and I decided to book a Northern Lights excursion and hope for the best. Remember "Before I die, I want to see the Northern Lights" (Judy's Journal, 2009 August)?

Who could complain about what we did see? We stood on the beach, surrounded by benevolent lava formations lit by the full moon, waves crashing around us, looking at a band of phosphorescent green glowing on the horizon. Our guide suggested, no, she insisted, that what we were seeing was a form of the Northern Lights. Ah, me, what's in a name? as Juliet would say. Whatever it was, it was lovely. The Big Dipper hung so large and low, I felt as if I could reach up and touch it. On the opposite horizon, Venus showed off her most blazing and intense light.

The next day, John and I visited the Listasafn Islands/National Gallery of Iceland (free admission) and were introduced to an entire museum filled with paintings by Icelandic artist Svavar Gudnason (1909-1988). As John pointed out immediately, Gudnason's work became our Northern Lights display!

An early practitioner of abstract expressionism, Gudnason's colors fly on his canvases. The museum brochure described his "personal invention called 'fugue,' after the musical baroque style indicating a melodic flight." His style is intense, colorful and musical, rather like Kandinsky gone out of control. And yet, they can also be read as a sustained, wild homage to nature. Svavar Gudnason was a member of the COBRA group. If you are curious, you can Google COBRA, his name and/or visit this gorgeous museum's web site:

The conditions were right for color in Iceland, but not for seeing the Northern Lights. Who's complaining? Not me.