Otto Sandgreen

Otto Sandgreen : The church of Zion in Ilulissat, 1992

Through the art history in Greenland the catechists* throughout Greenland often have been artists or created art. Otto Sandgreen (1914-2014) was a catechist, a teacher and priest. During his life he also wrote 44 books and he painted. One of his paintings is in the collection of Nuuk Art Museum; a painting made by Otto Sandgreen in 1992 of the church of Zion in Ilulissat.

The church occupies the left half of the painting – angular and a little clumsy in the perspective. In the background are the ice fjord, a horizon of clouds with the sun shining from behind and the clear sky above. In the centerline of the painting a priest is walking to a church entrance on a down-trodden pathway through the snow. With his black Geneva gown he is the biggest person in the painting and becomes the eye catcher. On another down-trodden pathway two people are walking in their national costume to another entrance; probably the entrance assigned the community. To the right of this entrance are a small gathering of three people; one of whom is pointing to the sunbeam in the water. The sunbeam can be viewed as a third pathway in the painting. All three pathways unifies in the right side.

The painting seems a didactic painting. Otto Sandgreen wants to communicate and to teach us something. The painting has Christian messages about community, priest, church and the way to God. First it is a painting of a church, and then there is the priest who occupies the center of the painting walking towards what seems to be his own entrance to the church.

The sun and the light are in a Christian perspective belonging to God. In the painting the third pathway is the sun or the light – maybe leading to God, maybe coming from God – not down-trodden as the two human pathways, but created by and made of sunlight.

The right side of the painting seems to be made of three pathways – the number three are a central part of Christianity with the trinity – God, Christ and the Holy Spirit.

On the other hand the painting can be viewed as any given Sunday where people are on their way to church.


Naïve art is often connected to the art of the people – a naïve and unschooled way of painting and drawing.

Naïve art is sometimes compared to children’s drawings as using a lot of bright colours and an awkward, kind of clumsy, perspective, where the picture unfolds on the surface not creating any feeling of depth. In the negative sense of naïve art the lack of capability and competence is emphasized, and it is viewed as something more like a curiosity and a spontaneous expression than “real” art. In a more positive manner naïve art is seen as a narrative, spontaneous, naturally and honest art form.

Otto Sandgreens painting is a part of a naïve tradition in the Greenlandic Art History going back to the middle of the 19th century, where Danish official Hinrich Johannes Rink (1819-1893) began collecting folkloristic – both stories and pictures – and used the local Greenlanders to collect and draw both myths, stories and everyday life supporting them with painting, pencils and paper and paying for their work. Prominent painters in this tradition are Aron fra Kangeq (1822-1869), Jakob Danielsen (1888-1938) and Johan Markussen (1904-1994).

Neither the positive or negative sense of naïve art is fair to the individual paintings because it easily miss details and nuances in the paintings. Common to naïve art in Greenland is the unschooled approach to painting – meaning not being schooled as an artist – but an approach demonstrated in numerous different ways and art forms.

In its own way Otto Sandgreen’s painting of the church in Ilulissat is part of a naïve tradition; an unschooled artist and a painting where Christianity and an everyday scene is the narrative.

In Qeqertarquaq Museum a room is dedicated the memory of Otto Sandgreen where his belongings, books and other of his paintings can be viewed.


*An occupation and an education where you both serve as priest and teacher in the town or in the settlements.