The culture of Iceland is rich and varied as well as being known for its literary heritage which stems from authors from the 12th to 14th centuries. Other Icelandic traditional arts include weaving, silver crafting and wood carving. The Reykjavík area has several professional theatres, a symphony orchestra, an opera and a large amount of art galleries, bookstores, cinemas and museums. Iceland's literacy rate is among the highest in the world, and a love of literature, art, chess and other intellectual pursuits is widespread.
Icelandic architecture draws from Scandinavian influences and, traditionally, was influenced by the lack of native trees on the island. As a result, grass- and turf-covered houses were developed. The original grasshouses constructed by the original settlers of Iceland were based on Viking longhouses.
The architecture of Iceland is mainly low rise. Houses and smaller municipal buildings are wood-framed, which are then clad with wooden planks or corrugated metal. They are then painted in traditional bright colours.
Icelandic art has been built on northern European traditions of the nineteenth century, but developed in distinct directions in the 20th century, influenced in particular by the unique Icelandic landscape as well as by Icelandic mythology and culture.
The first professional secular painters appeared in Iceland in the 19th century. This group of artists included Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval who was famous for his paintings portraying village life in Iceland. Ásmundur Sveinsson, a 20th century sculptor, was also from Iceland. Silver working and its old traditions have been preserved. Einar Hákonarson is an expressionistic and figurative painter who brought the figure back into Icelandic painting in 1968. He is a pioneer in the Icelandic art scene and art education. He has been called “The crusader of the painting”, due to his involvement in those conflicts many Icelandic painters had with the public fine art centres. He was a driving force in founding The Icelandic Printmaking Association and its first president.
The portrayal of the landscape through visual art has remained a prominent theme in Icelandic art to the present day, often reflected in the exhibitions at the country's national gallery. Its 2007 summer exhibition, for example, was called "Alas Nature!" and described as an exhibition which "aims to examine nature in a different light and from a different angle from what is generally accepted". Debate has occurred within the artistic community as to whether an appropriate balance has been struck in the support of galleries and public institutions for different media, traditions and subjects in Icelandic visual art.
Iceland has produced many great authors including Halldór Laxness, Guðmundur Kamban, Tómas Guðmundsson, Davíð Stefánsson, Jón Thoroddsen, Guðmundur G. Hagalín, Þórbergur Þórðarson and Jóhannes úr Kötlum.
Iceland's best-known classical works of literature are the Icelanders' sagas, prose epics set in Iceland's age of settlement. The most famous of these include Njáls saga, about an epic blood feud, and Grænlendinga saga and Eiríks saga, describing the discovery and settlement of Greenland and Vinland (modern Newfoundland). Egils saga, Laxdæla saga, Grettis saga, Gísla saga and Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu are also notable and popular Icelanders' sagas.
W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice wrote Letters From Iceland (1937) to describe their travels through that country.
The music of Iceland is related to Nordic music forms, and includes vibrant folk and pop traditions, including medieval music group Voces Thules, alternative rock band The Sugarcubes, singers Björk and Emiliana Torrini; and Sigur Rós. The only folk band whose recordings are available abroad is Islandica.
The national anthem of Iceland is Lofsöngur, written by Matthías Jochumsson, with music by Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson. The song was written in 1874, when Iceland celebrated the one thousandth anniversary of settlement on the island. It was in the form of a hymn, first published under the title A Hymn in Commemoration of Iceland's Thousand Years.
Traditional Icelandic music is strongly religious in character. Hallgrímur Pétursson wrote numerous Protestant hymns in the 17th century. This music was further modernised in the 19th century, when Magnús Stephensen brought pipe organs, which were followed by harmoniums. Icelandic folk music was collected by the work of Bjarni Þorsteinsson from 1906 to 1909. Many of these songs were accompanied by traditional instruments like the langspil and fiðla. Epic alliterative and rhyming ballads called rímur are another vital tradition of Icelandic music.
There are also many folk songs which are not religious that include elves and other hidden creatures. Ólafur Liljurós is an old Icelandic folk song who about a man who is going to meet his mother but while is riding his horse, an elf lady seduce him and kisses him. Ólafur eventually dies. In Faroe Islands they have a similar song called Ólafur riddararós. Old folk songs are often about trolls, elfs and hidden people as well as hard winters.
Rímur are epic tales, usually a cappella, which can be traced back to the Viking Age Eddic poetry of the Skalds, using complex metaphors and cryptic rhymes and forms. Some of the most famous rímur were written from the 18th to the early 20th century, by poets like Hannes Bjarnason (1776-1838), Jón Sigurðsson (1853-1922) and Sigurður Breiðfjörð (1798-1846). Rímur were, for a long time, officially banned by the Christian church, though they remained popular throughout the period. A modern revitalisation of the tradition began in 1929 with the formation of the organisation, Iðunn.
Heyr himna smiður (Hark, Creator of the Heaven) is probably the oldest psalm which is still used today. It was written by Kolbeinn Tumason in 1208.