Mykines · September 3rd, 2016

Ultima Thule

After a long trip through rough waters, an
island of little more than steep cliffs appears out of the fog. This is Mykines, home of 1200 sheep, countless puffins and 13 humans. And the birthplace of the
greatest painter from the Faroe Islands.

On the 8th of March 1934 disaster struck. Two fishing boats shipwrecked off Iceland, drowning nearly half of Mykines’ men. Later that year, Sámal Joensen-Mikines (1906–1979) lost his father to tuberculosis. The grief left a lasting impression on him, clearly visible in his art.

A decade earlier, young Sámal (he took the Faroese variant of his birth name, Samuel), found his true calling when a Swedish artist visited the Faroe Islands. William Gislander had travelled from Skåne to paint the landscape and the birds living on Mykines. Captivated, 18-year old Mikines followed Girlander’s every step. It was with what little paint was left in Girlander’s discarded tubes he painted his first strokes. A natural artist – first convinced the violin would make his career – he soon surpassed his mentor.

Having made his debut as an artist on the premises of the Temparance Society in Tórshavn in 1927, William Heinesen convinced Sámal to apply for the Royal Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen. He was accepted the following year, and studied under professors Aksel Jørgensen and Ejnar Nielsen.

He made study trips to Bergen, Oslo, Göteborg, Stockholm, Paris and Amsterdam, and was greatly influenced and inspired by contemporaries like Edvard Munch and Eugène Delacroix.

Just as Mikines completed his art studies in Copenhagen, set to return home, the fateful accident struck the isle of Mykines. His colourful and naturalistic painting style took a sudden dark turn. From here on, death was a recurring topic in his art.

He returned to Copenhagen in 1938 – a stay that would be unexpectedly prolonged with WWII and the British occupation of the Faroe Islands. It was during this time he started painting the pilot whale drives. The traditional grindadráp fascinated him. Mikines viewed it as a Faroese struggle to stay alive, and described the visual spectacle as emerging from “the shadow of death”.

Directly after the war, Mikines returned home. He married the Faroese graphic artist Elinborg Lützen, but the marriage fell apart soon after, and Mikines moved permanently to Copenhagen in 1953. There he met Karen Nielsen, a Danish nurse who became his second wife.

His old professor, Ejnar Nielsen, would eventually become his close friend. Together, they often contemplated the role of death in their art. ”I don’t understand why people don’t want to see death in its immense beauty as they see life,” Mikines scribbled in one of his notebooks. When Nielsen died in 1956, Mikines wrote in his obituary that “suffering, pain, loneliness, and life and death were described with such cognisance and master as never before or since in Danish art.” One could interpret this as Mikines’ own credo.

Mikines kept returning home every summer until 1971. Arriving at Mykines today – whether by ferry summertime, or the state-subsidised helicopter during winter season – tourists often lodge in the Kristianshús guesthouse, a blue building near the entrance of the village. Through its narrow hallways, and up a steep staircase, Sámal Joensen-Mikines’ attic studio is still kept intact.

Of the island, Mikines wrote: “A few words about colours: Here in the islands, they break in a wonderful way in the moist air, often spreading the light. I have experienced this when the sea and air melt together in pink and grey tones, glimmering like the shell of a red whelk, or in waterfalls of light which are suddenly cast down between dark, dark bulky clouds in a dramatic, imposing weather system shimmering on the sea, the rocks, the green grass and the black houses. In both cases, the light is at the same time both strong and soft. It is fascinating.”

The postage stamps in this entry of our #nordvesttour travelogue features the art of Samal Joensen-Mikines. They have been typeset with Nordvest. Mikines’ work can be view in a permanent exhibition at The National Gallery of the Faroe Islands, Listasavn Føroya.