Tóroddur Poulsen - A contemporary avant-garde artist

 Tóroddur Poulsen in his studio in copenhagen

Tóroddur Poulsen in his studio in copenhagen

Summer is arond the corner and so are the tourists, the visitors. It seems like the interest for Faroe Islands is increasing, not only concerning the beautiful landscape and surroundings but also art and culture. This is in fact the reason for why this text that you read at the moment is in english. I usually write this art site, listaportal.com (art portal) in my native language, which is Faroese and I will contue to do so - because it is a very special and beatiful language, spoken only by some 70.000 people. But from now on and during the summer period I will write about Faroese art in English on this place. The first article is about the prolific contemporary artist Tóroddur Poulsen in Raadvad Denmark who was born in Tórshavn in 1957.

Of Tóroddur Poulsens almost forty publications, some are novels. Poulsen published music as well, but most of his publications are poetry collections. He is, however, more than a literary artist. He has produced the largest number of lithographic prints in the lithographic workshop Steinprent, than any other artist and he has created a multitude of oil paintings, collages, watercolour paintings, installations, book sculptures and objects and he also has a blog on the internet.

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His body of work, which is constantly growing and expanding, is characterized by extensive plenteousness and interconnectedness. By this I mean that the artist is continuously commenting on parts of his work in his other work. This means essentially that we the recipients become parts of the artistic process, as it unfolds in his comments, blogs, artwork, poems, installations, music and prose.

Within the Faroese art tradition, Tóroddur Poulsen’s graphical work represents a new departure. In his massive treatise, Sekel/ Century - A Hundred Years of Faroese Art, the Danish art historian, Mikael Wivel, finishes his exploration of Faroese art with Tóroddur Poulsen, whose stone lithographs are very well represented, taking up some six pages of the book. In a review of the Stensætninger [Stone Phrases] exhibition at Kunstmuseum Sønderjylland, the art critic, Lars Ole Knippel also stressed that Tóroddur Poulsen’s work represents something new in Faroese art. Under the headline: “The Faroese Innovator”, the critic gave the exhibition five of six stars and noted:

“Tóroddur Poulsen has distanced himself from the landscape art that many of his fellow countrymen almost shamelessly and monotonously have been cultivating for many years. They produced a very safe and rewarding commercial product, but with nary a thought for any artistic greatness. Therefore, it is truly liberating to experience a graphic artist with something on his mind, who actually risks something instead of leaning uncritically towards a tradition. He comes like a fresh wind from the Atlantic and renews Faroese art with 120 graphic works, installations and poems”

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With its constantly confrontational attitude, coupled with its innovative, provocative and experimental nature, the work of Tóroddur Poulsen can be best categorized as “avant-garde”, according to the oldest definition of the concept, i.e., the one formulated by Italian literary critic, Renato Poggioli, in The Theory of the Avant-Garde published in 1962. Poggioli linked the avant-garde with the revolutionary and radical. He also tied the avant-garde to the Bohemian culture of Paris in the middle of the 19th century. Even though more recent and more precise definitions have been formulated for “avant-garde”, the emphasis that Poggioli put on antagonism, nihilism and activism is consistent with the confrontation with Faroese society that Tóroddur Poulsen constantly exhibits.

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Tóroddur Poulsen writes like a visual artist and paints like a poet. He has always been drawing, he says. Between the words, small drawings and doodles have emerged together with the poems. In his artistic work, he has succeeded in keeping an easy, spontaneous appearance, even though the works themselves are complex and deep. The poem Dreymur um skerpikjøt undir morgunlestrinum / Dream about dried cured meat during morning prayers, which describes a video installation that the poet saw at an exhibition in Charlottenborg in Copenhagen, and which, apparently, was built up in the same cumulative way as the poem, which is a listing of different kiosk goods and clothing. In several of his poems, there is an interesting accord between the graphic form and the content in the poem:

it is thundering

and the words

are pouring down

when I shout now!

the animals

and the birds

dive down into a flood

of poems

where the fish

welcome us

with fresh bubbles

This poem, in both form and content, envisions a vertical descent, which begins in the firmament above. The movement starts above and pours downwards into the ocean until bubbles lead us up again in a poetic orbit. Some poems deal with or comment on pictures and some pictures are so-called calligrams, where a picture is made up of words in which the picture conveys or is related to the meaning of the words themselves. The artistic expressions thrive together. Tóroddur Poulsen explains:

Even though any idiot could get, for example, into parliament, not every idiot can write poetry, but you have to be an idiot to try to earn a living from it. I have been one now for many years. Over the last several years, I also have been working more in the visual arts. I have experimented with pictures and texts together. For me, the text itself has always been a picture. And the reverse. I also learned something during those years when I worked at Grótvirkið [the stonemason]. About form and material. To drill, blow up, saw, cut, carve and grind stones. To engrave names and the dates of birth and death into the gravestones. Yes. Gravestones are also poetry. Stones are also language..”

Stone has in fact been extremely important to the artist not only symbolically, but also in a very tangible way, if we but look, for example, at the great number of lithographic pictures and books he has produced. Tóroddur Poulsen has worked with all sorts of graphic techniques, but, first and foremost, it is his lithographic work he created at Steinprent that is most remarkable, working alongside Jan Andersen and Fríða Matras Brekku, who own and run the workshop near the old western harbour in Tórshavn. This workshop has had great importance for Tóroddur Poulsen, as has the artist for the workshop. In addition to being technically competent, a lithographer must also listen closely to and resonate with an artist to capture the artist’s vision and intent. This they do very well at Steinprent. In addition to the three book projects (Villvísi, Avbyrgingar and Fjalir), Tóroddur Poulsen designed and published with Steinprent, he also created some 300 lithographs in the workshop.

At the moment 3 graphic works by Tóroddur Poulsen can currently be viewed in the Faroese Art Museum which is focusing on the classic modernist painting http://art.fo/fo/

Other works by Tóroddur Poulsen can be seen in the book Out of Darkness. Tóroddur Poulsen: A contemporary avant-garde artist


If you come to the Faroe Islands, The workshop Steinprent certainly is a must. They have all of Tóroddur Poulsens great graphic works there. Steinprent is open to the public every day from 10 am to 17 pm. Sundays closed. Here you can see amazing works like Tingini:


An interest in silence and silence machines also reoccurs. In the print Tingini / Things (2010), a Dadaistic silence machine is featured in a colourful composition. Technically, the picture is simpler than it looks, as the five colours are all printed at the same time in a so-called iris lithography, where the colours flow and blend together during the printing process. Thus, we get some extra colours because of the mixing. The motif seems a bit messy; in the middle, there is a tall version of a silence machine on long legs, which is producing silence. The machine seems to be necessary, not the least in the Faroese Parliament, because: “Tingmenn larma illa / Members of Parliament make considerable noise” is written in the bottom right corner, and on the left side appears the text: “Harra formaður. Tað er hetta skrálið, sum er á skránni / Mr. Chairman, it is this howling that is on the agenda”. There is a characteristic play on words in the phrase, for it imitates a typical pronouncement in Parliament using “skrál / howl” instead of the typical “mál / issue”. It would appear that the artist had been listening to a direct broadcast from the Parliament while he has been working on the lithograph. He has recorded words like “Eykajáttan / supplementary grant”, but in places he is a bit sarcastic, even aphoristic: “Veðurlagsbroytingar avtaka høvdalagið / Climatic change abolishes the bedhead”. The words are written in different ways and in different sizes, so that some of them almost disappear while others are big and almost intimidating. On top of all the elements, there is one big word written diagonally in the picture: “TIGIÐ! / SILENCE!” in capital letters. It is interesting that this big word in the imperative is written laterally and reversed, as if it is a cry from someone inside of the print. All in all, these elements in fact make the picture rather complex. Even though at first blush the print appears to be a crude two-dimensional cartoon, the artist has actually created a mysterious, three-dimensional critical space that elicits questions rather than offering answers.


Bonus track from the DVD edition of "A Line a Day Must Be Enough!", a film by Katrin Ottarsdóttir. Blue Bird Film


when darkness suffocates

i escape into language

and breathe light


when light suffocates

i escape into darkness

and breathe language


when language suffocates

i escape into light

and breathe darkness


that´s how i see everything

and become the breath

the suffocator breathes


(translated by Randi Ward)

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  Kinna Poulsen    I am a teacher in upper secondary school in visual arts and Danish language and litterature. I live and work in Tórshavn, Faroe Islands. For some twenty years I have communicated art and literature as a critic and author, later also as a curator and I have written several books about Faroese artists and art. I write and run the art site listaportal.com. I have a MA (cand mag dansk og kunsthistorie) from the University in Copenhagen.
Kinna Poulsen
I am a teacher in upper secondary school in visual arts and Danish language and litterature. I live and work in Tórshavn, Faroe Islands. For some twenty years I have communicated art and literature as a critic and author, later also as a curator and I have written several books about Faroese artists and art. I write and run the art site listaportal.com. I have a MA (cand mag dansk og kunsthistorie) from the University in Copenhagen.