Excerpted from ‘The Perfect Landscape’ (Hið fullkomna landslag) by Ragna Sigurðardóttir
Translated from Icelandic by Sarah Bowen
‘The Perfect Landscape’ (Hið fullkomna landslag) is Ragna Sigurðardóttir’s fourth novel. An Icelandic art historian, Hanna, returns home from Amsterdam to manage an experimental section of a museum in Reykjavík. The economic bubble has yet to burst, and rich businessmen are eager to stroke their egos by donating expensive artworks to local art museums, although they seem to have limited interest in or knowledge of art and culture. Hanna’s museum has recently received such a donation – a landscape from the early 20th century, painted by a known Icelandic artist. However, the painting’s authenticity is called into doubt, sending Hanna, in collaboration with a colleague, headlong into a tricky investigation of the painting’s origins. Her task, however, is undermined at every turn by a widespread unwillingness to upset the prevailing, cozy relationship between big money and high culture by revealing an embarrassing forgery.
Steinn has the knife poised but then someone comes down the stairs. They shrink back but it’s only the janitor who has been working overtime and saw a light under the door. He calls good-bye, goes back out and closes the door.
Putting his gloves back on, Steinn settles himself on a tall stool at the bench with the knife poised. While he examines the surface carefully to decide where best to start, he carries on telling Hanna what came out of the sample analysis. Hanna raises no objections; she trusts he knows what he is doing.
“The sample we took was a cross-section,” he says. “Right down to the canvas. The base layer is the wash which is put directly onto the canvas.”
He talks calmly and deliberately, this is his specialism.
“On top of that are oil paints which are free of alkyds. The old colors, that is. That’s the painting we think is Composition in Blue. On top of this is another wash. Naturally, whoever painted the The Birches put a wash over the previous painting and, luckily for us, he has used a poor quality wash which hasn’t adhered well to the oil painting below. The chemical combination is such that I should be able to tease off this second wash easily enough if I go about it carefully. We’re lucky that whoever did this was stony broke and couldn’t afford decent materials. And, just as I thought, The Birches is a mixture of new and old colors.”
At last Steinn finds a promising spot up in the right hand corner of the sky; he inserts the knife very carefully into a bank of white clouds. A minute flake comes loose, they hold their breath. Hanna takes a step back so as not to disturb him, and then moves forward again because she has to watch.
“There’s a magnifying glass on the table in the other room,” says Steinn and she goes through to fetch it and uses it to watch while he teases off the next sliver with the knife. She hardly dares breathe for fear of distracting him, but Steinn’s hands aren’t shaking in the least and he works slowly and smoothly. He looks up after a short while. They both look at the section which has been removed. It doesn’t answer their question either way.
“What shall we do if this is a completely different painting? By some Jesper Jansen?” asks Hanna without expecting a response, nor does Steinn give one.
Then she asks, “Where did Sigfus generally sign his paintings? It would be a stroke of luck to find his signature.”
“That’s just the problem,” replies Steinn. “He rarely did it in the same place. If only we could’ve been sure it was the bottom right corner, but that’s by no means the case. It could just as easily be the left hand side. Top or bottom, either way. Or not at all. I’ve looked at everything I can lay my hands on and there’s no pattern with him. And I can’t see anything on the X-ray.”
Steinn remains unperturbed; he just carries on calmly picking tiny specks off the surface of The Birches. The picture is already so damaged that repairing it is out of the question. He still hasn’t penetrated the wash which lies underneath. Hanna sees that he is hot; he isn’t as calm as he appears. He works in silence for a good while; the only sound is a low hum from the air-conditioning and the overhead lights. Finally a small white fleck comes loose and underneath is a glimmer of blue.
On the table next to them is a photocopy from the book about the CoBrA painters which shows a picture of Sigfus and his colleagues and in the background is a painting which looks like Composition in Blue. It’s in black and white but the outlines and shapes are unmistakable. On the painting which the gallery owns oblique yellow and white lines run from the right corner where Steinn is scraping off the paint. On the black and white photograph they look pale and it’s impossible to say what the color is. If it’s the genuine painting underneath then Steinn should be able to find a light colored line roughly where he is working, but the section he has opened up so far is only two to three millimeters.
Hanna stands perfectly still by the table, breathing calmly. Motionless, she follows the delicate movements of Steinn’s hands, the tip of his knife and how he carefully probes for the next speck. He probes a number of times before he teases off a tiny fleck of paint and then another and another. Hanna wouldn’t have missed this no matter what the consequences. Relief floods her heart and mind with every millimeter widening the expanse of blue. She feels her belief in what they are doing grow within her, bit by bit she becomes certain that this is right and they have found their treasure. Now is not the time to celebrate and she doesn’t say anything but she’s aware of a tiny invisible smile beginning to break out. Steinn is in a world of his own but it feels to Hanna like they are breathing in unison. Eventually he looks up and breaks the silence.
“Look at this!”
She leans forward, together they lean forward over the painting and peer at a small patch of blue and showing in one corner is a fine line of yellow.
Hanna gives a gasp then immediately regains her composure. They both appear calm but she sees Steinn’s hand is quivering. She is longing to jump up and down and shout for joy, fling her arms round him, and tell everyone about it. But she does nothing, she keeps her cool, she senses her foil at the ready and the strength within her. Yes, they probably are right, but now they have to work out their next move.
Ragna Sigurðardóttir is the author of five novels, and has worked as an artist, a critic and a literary translator. Her most recent novel, ‘The Perfect Landscape’ (longlisted for the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award), was published in Reykjavik in 2009, with an English translation published by AmazonCrossing in 2012. She lives and works in Reykjavik.
About the translator: Sarah Bowen graduated from University College London with first class honours in Icelandic Studies. Her other translations include ‘My Kingdom and its Horses’, a short story by Auður Jónsdóttir, and ‘The Creator’, a novel by Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir. She and her husband are based in Surrey, England. They have three grown-up daughters.
‘Under The Birch Trees’ is excerpted from ‘The Perfect Landscape’ (AmazonCrossing, 2012) with permission from the author, translator and publisher.