Friday, June 3, 2016

Iceland: Reykjavik - Penis Museum, Art Museums, Dining

Our second full day in Reykjavik was spent touring three very interesting and diverse art museums featuring the works of three major Icelandic artists.  We also visited the very unique Icelandic Phallological Museum (a.k.a Penis Museum).  To prepare for this unusual experience, we watched a documentary called "The Final Member" which dealt with the founder of the museum, Sigurður Hjartarson, how he first got started with this odd collection, and his quest to top it off with the ultimate prize–a human penis.  Sigurður was first given a bull's penis (called a pizzle) as a child.  As an adult when he was headmaster at a school, some of his teachers who also worked at a whaling station, brought him whale penises.  Thus started the genesis of the collection and the museum, whose primary mandate is to display a collection of phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammal found in Iceland.  Hjartarson needed this final human member to complete his goal.

The movie focuses primarily on two potential human penis donors.  First there was 95-year-old Icelander Pall Arason who offered to bequeath his penis to the museum after his death, stating "I have no use for my penis once I'm dead".  Then there was middle-aged American Tom Mitchell who is so obsessively proud of his penis that he wants to have it surgically removed and donated to the museum while he is still alive so that he can visit it and watch people admire it!  The documentary is actually quite hilarious as it follows Hjartarson's interactions with the two potential donors.  He preferred to acquire the Icelander's penis as the first human specimen, as this was more in keeping with the mandate of the museum. However, both he and Pall were concerned that Pall's advanced age had caused his penis to shrivel and shrink below the "legal length of 5 inches".  The concept of legal length is based on an old Icelandic folklore about a woman who sued for divorce because her husband was not sufficiently endowed.  On the other hand, while Mitchell's member was definitely more than legal length, he was so weird and demanding and annoying that it seemed to scare Hjartarson away from accepting his donation.  Mitchell was so enamoured by his penis that he named it "Elmo" and regularly dressed it up in various "costumes".  He even went as far as having the American flag tattooed onto his penis (ouch!).  As of the end of the movie, Hjartarson still did not have his human specimen, so we were eager to visit the museum to find out what happened.

Well armed with this background, we were ready to see the Phallological Museum for ourselves.  Walking around the small museum, we saw the penises of a variety of mammals including an antelope, elephant, reindeer, seal, porpoise, polar bear, goat, horse, dog, cat, mouse and multiple types of whales including the sperm, sei,  bottlenose, fin, humpback, minke, blue and killer whales.  The members were either mounted on the wall or sat in jars of formaldehyde.  The largest penis on display came from a sperm whale and was literally longer in length than I was in height.

An informative chart illustrates the relative lengths and widths of various mammals with the whale leading the charge both in length and girth, followed distantly by the elephant and the giraffe.  It was interesting to see that the pig penis is slightly longer than the porpoise but significantly narrower while the human penis ranks last on this chart.  It should be noted that while the whale has the relatively largest penis size, it is also the largest mammal and relative to its body size, its penis is just average in proportion.

In addition to actual mammal penises, the Phallological Museum boasts quite the collection of penis-shaped paraphernalia including a telephone, a hanging mobile, a lamp, a jewelry rack, a ry pan, cutlery, salt and pepper shakers and various liquor organizers and service trays.  Even then door handle of the public toilet was shaped as a penis and was probably the only "penis" object in the museum that we were allowed to touch.

There was also quite the collection penis-themed art.  In addition to the typical sculptures and figurines that were similar to ones we have seen in other "sex-themed" museums, there were also some unusual pieces. The entire Icelandic National Handball team, Olympic silver medalists in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, had bronze casts made of their members.  A sketch of a sea of penises seems to take on a Dali-esque feel.  I chuckled at the caricatures of iconic historic and pop-culture figures such as Hitler, Einstein, Elvis, and the Beatles, drawn with penises for their noses.  I also liked the photo of penis shapes carved out of peppers, carrots and potatoes that was labeled "For Vegetarians Only".

But what of the human member donation?  It turned out that Pall Arason passed away in 2011 and his posthumous donation was fulfilled.  Unfortunately the harvest was mishandled and the resultant penis was an unsatisfactory "a greyish-brown, shrivelled mass".   While it is still on display in the museum along with his testicles, Hjartarson is still waiting for a better specimen.  He has three other donors who have signed their donation forms–a German and a Brit who will donate after death, and American Tom Mitchell who still intends to make a "living donation", although it has been over a decade since he made that promise, so one wonders how serious he is.

The Reykjavik Art Museum is a bit of a misnomer since it is actually three separate and distinct museums run under one umbrella.  Each museum is dedicated to the works of a famous Icelandic artist.  The first one, called Ásmundarsafn, is actually the former house and studio of sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893-1982).  Ásmundur designed and built the house between1942 to 1950, using a Bauhaus style reminiscent of Le Corbusier.  The white structure with the striking domed centre is flanked by two of Sevinsson's sculptures.

Ásmundur was one of the pioneers of Icelandic sculpture, finding inspiration in Icelandic nature and literature.  Behind his house is a beautiful sculpture garden with around 30 works artistically placed to blend in with the green backdrop.  His themes were often of men and women at work including ones of  a woman washing clothes in a basin and another who appears to be churning butter.  In the 1950s, Ásmundur's work moved more towards the abstract.

Misunderstanding the price structure for the three museums, we thought that it was 1500ISK ($18 Canadian) per museum and did not bother going into the Ásmundarsafn since we had already seen so many examples of his work for free by wandering through the garden.  As it turns out, the price was 1500ISK for all three museums so we could have gone into this one anyways since we planned to pay for the other ones.  I looked up some photos on the internet to see what we missed, and while the sculptures were smaller examples of the similar styles we saw outside, what was really spectacular was the way they looked against the background of the beautiful architecture of the house.  It's too bad we did not take the opportunity to see this in person.

To reach Ásmundarsafn we walked about 40 minutes east away from the touristy downtown core of Reykjavik and into more residential areas.  The museum is definitely off the tourist beaten path and we had trouble finding it or even finding someone who knew where it was.  Finally we ran into a local who pointed the way and also told us that this was the up-and-coming residential area for Icelanders who could not afford to live in the downtown area anymore.  After seeing Ásmundur's works in his sculpture garden, we started noticing more examples of his sculptures near our hotel.

The next art museum we went to was Kjarvalsstadir, named after one of the most beloved Icelandic painters, Jóhannes S. Kjarval (1885–1972).  Kjarval specialized in painting Icelandic landscapes including mountains, glaciers and lava formations, capturing the beauty and mystic of the land.  He is credited for teaching Icelanders to appreciate the splendour of their own natural environment.  If you look closely at some of Kjarval's pieces, they seem to be a cross between cubism and pointillism.

Some of Kjarval's works deal with myths and folklores, as he paints faces and mysterious images into mountains, oceans, and even what seems like depictions of the wind.  It is said that he spent so much time out in nature that he started to feel that there were beings out there beyond the "visible world".  This seems to tie into the common Icelandic belief of gnomes, elves or trolls that live under rocks.

The most impressive works on display are a series of black and white works called "The Course of Life" which Kjarval painted on the wall surfaces, radiators, trim and floor of his attic studio.  The description for the murals indicate that they display Kjarval's usual themes of landscape, working life and fantasy.  When I first saw the murals, I thought it was a depiction of Vikings, especially based on the mural with what seemed like Viking ships.  Looking closely, you can see that many of the images are comprised of a bunch of black and white diamonds, again leaning towards the Cubist style.  One interesting fact from Wikipedia is that Kjarval is featured on the Icelandic 2000 króna banknote.

The last art museum, Hafnarhus, formerly functioned as the harbour's warehouse and fisheries office but parts of it look more like Kilmainham Prison in Dublin.  We were confused about where this museum was, even when we were standing right in front of it, since we were looking for something called "Hafnarhus" but the sign on the building read "Listasafn" (which we later found out meant Art Gallery).  It now displays the works of pop artist Erró (nee Guðmundur Guðmundsson 1932), the only one of the three artists that is still living.  Erró's early work deal with themes of oppression and include images of  skeletons, corpses and other grotesque figures.  His piece "Death of an Art Collector" reminds me of a ghoulish version of the iconic "Dogs Playing Poker" painting.

Erró went through a robotics phase where his paintings, sculptures, photographs and documentary films all seemed to deal with human body parts adorned with mechanical components.

Erró is best known for his work in collage, where he re-assembles imagery from a variety of popular sources including advertisements, comics, and posters to create a new piece.  He mixed iconic works by famous artists like Picasso or Van Gogh, as well as photo clippings from magazines with cartoon images including ones from fairy tales, children stories and Disney characters.

Right next to the Hafnarhus gallery was the Grofarhus Museum of Photography where an exhibition called "Vanishing Culture - West Fjords" by Olarfur J. Engilbertsson, which consisted of beautiful black and white photos of scenery and life in this large peninsula in northwestern Iceland.  It was interesting seeing what Iceland is like in the cold, stark winter.  I can only imagine how cold it might be, since I was cold in their July "summer".

We had some interesting dining experiences in Iceland.  Surprisingly the most famous eating establishment in Reykjavik is the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand, reputed to serve the best hot dog in Europe. The steamed sausages are lamb-based, mixed with pork and beef, and are served in a bun with a choice of condiments including ketchup, sweet mustard, remoulade, crisp fried onion and raw onion. We had an excellent meal at Icelandic Fish and Chips, starting with a mesclun salad with orange slices, spring onion, spiced sunflower seeds with a lemon vinaigrette.  Our fish (cod and redfish), as well as pieces of cauliflower and broccoli were all perfectly breaded with a coating similar to Japanese panko, and accompanied with roast potatoes and three sauces that we selected from the long list of choices.

At Islenski Barinn, we started with deep-fried cod skin, and a green salad in a jar with blueberries, skyr, pickled red onion, herbs and the tiniest slivers of grilled puffin meat. For my main course, I had the grilled fin whale, bacon glace, mashed potatoes, and a bacon & herb salad.  The puffin and whale tasted a bit like gamey beef steaks and were moist, tender and tasty.

For dessert, we shared Icelandic pancakes, with whipped cream, salty caramel sauce & nut crumble, and a hot chocolate.  I had forgotten to bring my reading glasses to the restaurant and was squinting and holding the menu at arms length towards the light of the window.  The waiter took pity on me and brought over an entire bucket full of reading glasses so that I could borrow one.  What a great idea!

Saegreifinn Seafood Baron was another unique place to eat, as it specialized in skewers of seafood, cooked on demand.  We went into what felt like a fish store, reviewed the choice of skewers, made our selections, then waited for the grilled skewers to be brought out to us as we sat on wooden bench tables.  We ordered bowls of lobster bisque, whale steaks, as well as skewers of pieces of grilled scallop and chunks of trout.

We thought we were eating like Icelanders when we tried puffin and whale but on a walking tour of the city, we learned that this was no longer part of the local diet and that restaurants served these items more as "tourist traps".

Our short 3.5 days layover in Reykjavik gave us a good sense of Iceland as a country and allowed us to check another destination off of our bucket list.

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