Ragnar Jónsson (né Einar Ragnar Jónsson, February 7, 1904 – July 11, 1984), commonly known as Ragnar í Smára, was a key figure in the cultural life of Iceland as a major art patron, book publisher and art collector.
Like all the young men and women of his generation, Ragnar had reasons to be optimistic. After six and half century of devastating colonialism Iceland’s struggle for independence finally bore fruit in 1918. His generation would be the first to reap the benefits. Like thousands of young men and women who flocked from the provinces into he fledgling capital of Reykjavik he was eager to help rebuild his country.
Fresh out of business school at the age of 18 he started working for the Smári margarine manufacturing company. Through hard work he eventually became its co-owner. Before long he was harnessing his success as an industrialist to finance his dream: To help a new generation of artists lift their country out of darkness and obscurity.
A passionate music lover Ragnar co-founded the Reykjavik Music Society, which, under his helm for over half a century, brought many of the world’s greatest names in classical music into Iceland: concert pianists, opera singers, as well as chamber music groups. To educate and train a new generation of musicians, the society went on to establish the Reykjavik Music School as well as take over managing the Reykjavik Orchestra which later became the foundation for the Iceland's internationally recognized Symphonic Orchestra.
Compared to music the visual arts had considerably deeper roots in Icelandic culture beginning with the brilliant illustrators of the medieval Icelandic sagas. Ragnar started early on to support Icelandic painters and sculptors by buying their works. To help the public to get to know the artists and their works, he then diverted a part of his book-publishing efforts into printing high-quality art books. When this was not enough he began to produce and market exquisite “full-size” reproductions of many of their greatest works, which to this day adorn the walls of many Icelandic homes.
Eventually, Ragnar would become best known for his work in book publishing. Of all the arts, literature was Iceland’s strongest. Late in the Middle Ages the country had produced some of history’s greatest poetry and novels. Now a new generation of writers and poets was beginning to make their mark. During the Great Depression many of these artists became radicalized. Their favorite hangout was an innocent-looking red-painted house on the outskirts of Reykjavik called Unuhús. It was in Unuhús that Ragnar met many of the most talented (and radical) writers of the day.
In the mid-1930s, Ragnar went into the book-publishing business. After partnering with Kristinn E. Andrésson in Heimskringla, he struck out on his own with Viking and later Helgafell Publishing Company. Soon he was publishing many of Iceland’s greatest authors including the “Unuhús writers” such as the legendary Halldór Laxness and Steinn Steinarr as well as the more “bourgeoisie” Gunnar Gunnarsson, Tómas Guðmundsson and Davíð Stefánsson. Twenty years later, in 1955, the entire Icelandic nation celebrated when one of these writers, Halldór Laxness, received the Nobel Prize for Literature. The land of the sagas was back on the literary map.
During this period of explosive growth in all branches of Icelandic arts, local reactionary politicians continued to maintain that radical artists and abstract “degenerate” painters were killing off the arts. During World War II this growing political harassment reached a climax forcing the politically diverse art community to unite and take a stand. In November 1942 Ragnar was instrumental in orchestrating Iceland’s first national festival of the arts to disarm the naysayers and prove once and for all that the arts of Iceland were indeed flourishing.
In 1961 Ragnar and his wife Björg Ellingsen donated their legendary collection of paintings and sculptures to Iceland’s blue collar workers thus laying the foundation for a new museum: the ASÍ Art Museum in Reykjavik. In the late 1960s Ragnar was instrumental in the founding of the now internationally acclaimed Reykjavik Arts Festival and was the only individual to sit on its board. Ragnar died in 1984.