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Nina Saemundsson

Theme/Style – Modernism, portraits, figurative art, landscapes

Media – Sculptures in wood, terracotta, cement, marble and plaster, oils, pastels, charcoal drawings

Artistic Focus – Once one of the most well-known and sought after sculptors among Los Angeles collectors, celebrities, and socialites, and in 1942 said to be “among the very few good sculptors working west of the Mississippi” by Arthur Millier in the Los Angeles Times, Nina Saemundsson was as comfortable creating large-scale public figural works as she was sculpting smaller, more personal portrait busts and figures. Sensitive, emotionally-charged, and superbly crafted, Saemundsson’s portraits and figures in clay, wood and stone are accessible, yet somehow otherworldly. Though half her life was spent in the United States, Saemundsson is known in her native Iceland as the country’s first professional woman sculptor. Critic Arthur Millier said “…she brought a rare capacity to feel deeply and to express emotions with strength and clarity.”

Career Highlights –

• Born in 1892 on a farm in rural Iceland and the youngest of 15 children, Nina Saemundsson is said to have molded her first sculptures out of snow. While living with an aunt in Copenhagen she began working in clay and studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Upon graduating in 1920, Saemundsson traveled and studied in Rome, London, and Paris. It was there that she started working in marble and was soon noticed by critics.
• Saemundsson traveled to New York in 1926, but instead of returning home she rented a studio, began working, and was to remain in the U.S. for the next 30 years. As in Paris, Saemundsson attracted the attention of critics and collectors. One of her large works, Motherhood (aka Maternal Love) was purchased by the government of Iceland and installed in Reykjavik, the first independent work by a woman to be on public display in that country.
• In 1931 a competition was held for a statue to be placed in front of the new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Of the 400 artists that entered their work, Saemundsson's sculpture, The Spirit of Achievement, was selected. To this day it graces the entrance of the hotel.
• By the mid-1930s Saemundsson was living in Los Angeles, and in 1935 her nine-foot concrete statue of Prometheus Bringing Fire to the Earth, created under the aegis of the Federal Public Works of Art Project, was dedicated in what is now MacArthur Park.
• In 1936 Saemundsson's statue of Leif Erikson, commissioned and gifted to the city by the Nordic Civic League, was unveiled in Los Angeles's Griffith Park. Another Saemundsson sculpture of Erikson, a full figure standing on the bow of a Viking ship, was installed in Erikson's birthplace in Eiriksstadir, Iceland in 2000 to mark the millennial anniversary of his voyage to North America.
• In 1939 Saemundsson's granite sculpture of actress Hedy Lamarr traveled to New York for exhibition at the World's Fair. That same year her sculptures were included in the Scandinavian-American Art Society exhibition at the Stendahl Galleries in Los Angeles, which included sculptures by Ejnar Hansen, and paintings by Christian von Schneidau, Armin Hansen, and others.
• Saemundsson went on to have a solo show at Gump's Galleries in Los Angeles's Ambassador Hotel. Included was her sculpture Swan of Tuonela, and among the attendees were many of her celebrated friends, including Cole Porter.
• 1941 marked another solo show for Saemundsson, at the Grace Nicholson Galleries in Pasadena, which comprised 50 pieces of her sculpture including her busts of Hedy Lamarr and actor Richard Cromwell, and was dubbed “The Art Thrill of the Week” by critic Arthur Millier.
• Saemundsson also created sculpture for feature films such as “The Moon and Sixpence” (1942).
• For the “Artists of Los Angeles and Vicinity” exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1943, where the sculptures were selected by Boris Lovet-Lorski, Saemundsson's piece Awakening was included, along with work by Eugenia Everett and others.
• In 1947 Saemundsson traveled back to Iceland as a guest of the government. Seventy-five of her sculptures were shipped there for her one-woman show in Reykjavik, and while there she was decorated with the Order of the Icelandic Falcon in recognition of her artistic achievements.
• Around this time Saemundsson had also begun painting, and she and her domestic partner, scriptwriter Polly James, entertained friends and collectors at their home on Camrose Drive near the Hollywood Bowl. Saemundsson often appeared in Hollywood society columns, mentioning her dinner parties where guests such as Dalzell Hatfield socialized and viewed her recent work.
• Active in local art circles and the Scandinavian-American community, Saemundsson exhibited often during the early 1950s, including a solo show of her sculpture, as well as paintings of her native Iceland, at Los Angeles's Landau Gallery.
• Saemundsson returned to Iceland in 1955, with a solo show at its National Museum in 1956.
• Nina Saemundsson passed away in 1965, but she remains one of Iceland's most revered artists. In 2008 there was an exhibition of her sculptures at the Reykjavik Art Museum, and in November of 2010 her work was singled out in the Internet blog of the U.S. Ambassador to Iceland as a highlight of his visit to Iceland's National Gallery.