Nikolai Astrup: Painting Norway @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928) is one of Norway’s favourite painters, but a well-kept secret everywhere else. This typically thorough, persuasive, well-hung and attractive exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is the first major show of his work in the UK and a wonderful opportunity to explore a rare and beguiling sensibility.

Astrup grew up in a remote part of coastal Norway, born in the village of Ålhus in Jølster, where his father was the Lutheran pastor. One of his early paintings shows a funeral procession to the local graveyard, set against the stunning scenery of the place. His father is the isolated figure at the front, still wearing the black robes and white tunic of the 17th century.

Funeral Day in Jølster by Nikolai Astrup (Before 1908) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

Funeral Day in Jølster by Nikolai Astrup (Before 1908) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

Nikolai was one of eight children. They grew up in a cold damp climate in a cold damp wooden parsonage, which was later condemned and demolished, but not before many of the Astrup children died of childhood ailments (scarcely believably, no fewer than three died in one traumatising week). Nikolai was a sickly child and spent a lot of time in bed, staring out of the windows.

The parsonage

The views of the lake and surrounding mountains, and the feeling of warmth and security, impressed themselves deeply on his childhood mind. When a young man he travelled to Paris, to Berlin, to study contemporary art, but his heart was always here in his native country, where he returned and lived and painted until his early death, aged 47 in 1928.

The Parsonage by Nikolai Astrup. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

The Parsonage by Nikolai Astrup. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

Repetition

Based in the same valley (he moved in adult life to a village across the lake) and haunted or inspired by those childhood memories, Astrup painted the same views, the same scenes, from different perspectives or viewpoints, over and again. Repetition with variations is a key aspect of Astrup’s art.

Thus the first room contains a selection of early works, the most impressive of which are half a dozen versions of the same view – from the lakeside looking back at the village nestling in the shadow of its hills. Seen from this vantage point the most striking thing is the pattern of bright yellow marsh marigolds forming a striking yellow diagonal across the canvas.

A Clear Night in June by Nikolai Astrup (1905-1907) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen.Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

A Clear Night in June by Nikolai Astrup (1905-1907) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen.Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

Night works

These marigolds appear in numerous paintings and prints and, in another characteristic motif, often at night. The parsonage at night, the village at night, the marsh at night, even housework, even sowing and planting crops, a surprising range of activities are depicted being done at night. And then you realise – it’s Norway, with a short growing season and long, long nights. Of course night life, in this broadest of senses, would be a subject for him. And hence the large number of shimmering mysterious scenes painted by moonlight.

Landscape

So Astrup’s art is entirely rural: there is nothing urban at all in these images, no towns let alone cities. Painting at the turn of the century, he is the opposite of the cosmopolitan Fauves and Expressionists and Futurists who were grabbing the headlines and who are the artists we mostly remember from that period. Astrup paints archetypal scenes of Norway – a lake, a snow-capped mountain and the brief spring and summer when the yellow marigolds and foxgloves blossom. A wet, green and often breath-taking country.

March Atmosphere at Jølstravatnet by Nikolai Astrup (Before 1908) Private Collection, Oslo. Photo © Anders Bergersen

March Atmosphere at Jølstravatnet by Nikolai Astrup (Before 1908) Private Collection, Oslo. Photo © Anders Bergersen

People

Astrup’s human figures are not his strong point and could be described as naive or clumsy – at one point the commentary compares some distant figures to Lowry’s matchstick men – elsewhere the commentary mentions his liking for the paintings of the super-naive French painter, ‘le Douanier’ Rousseau, which he saw in Paris. There is something unrealistic about the hang of his subjects’ bodies and the faces are vague or unseen. But in this he was not unlike the more experimental contemporary painters who were abandoning a Renaissance-inspired, scientific accuracy of human depiction, in favour of shaping the human form into emblems, patterns or motifs in an art work.

In this as in so many ways, Astrup’s work shimmers with the influence of his radical contemporaries, incorporates hints of it, but goes its own way. Take one of his most famous images, apparently a famous print in Norway, Foxgloves.

Foxgloves by Nikolai Astrup (1927) Colour woodcut on paper. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Anders Bergersen

Foxgloves by Nikolai Astrup (1927) Colour woodcut on paper. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Anders BergersenPicture 008

Would it be better without the two girls picking mushrooms? Are they emphasising the gawky naivety of much of the detail in the image, or helping place it in a naturalistic tradition? This, like many of the other paintings, gave me a warm, happy, childhood feeling. His occasional clumsiness, the imperfection of the figures, just doesn’t matter compared to the warmth of his vision.

Marriage and home

Astrup married Engel, a farmer’s daughter from across the lake. She was just 15 so he would be arrested, named and shamed and called out on social media these days, but in those less intrusive and judgmental times it developed into a full and loving marriage. After some renting and moving about, in 1913 he bought a plot of land and buildings on the opposite side of the lake from Ålhus, at a place called Sandalstrand.

In the following years he and his wife had no fewer than eight children. They built more buildings on the plot and planted and tended a wonderful garden. The roofs were covered in turves to keep them warm, on which the couple planted wild flowers. It looks magical and the exhibition includes enchanting black and white photos from the time showing loads of little children playing in what must have seemed a fairy land.

Here Nikolai designed, planted and tended his beautiful garden (reminding me of the continent-wide passion for gardening which is recorded in the Royal Academy’s current show, Painting the Modern Garden). In fact he became well known in the area for cultivating over ten varieties of rhubarb and from the tasty wine he made from them. The buildings and garden are there to this day and have been turned into a museum, named Astrupnet. The exhibition has some stunning photos of them.

Engel became a designer in her own right, showing an Arts and Crafts style interest in ‘the House Beautiful’, designing tapesties and carpets, curtains and rugs, ensuring the house was always full of flowers and fruit. Photos of the house show the very table cloth featured in this painting.

Still Life Interior by Nikolai Astrup

Still Life Interior by Nikolai Astrup

Mystery and symbolism

But often there is something extra in these paintings. Hints and suggestions of the uncanny. He was aware of the Symbolists working in Paris and of other mystical trends in contemporary art and philosophy. But like the other influences of the time – the bold colour of the Fauves, the nonchalant attitude to human figures of the post-Impressionists – they are only hinted at, and only in some of Astrup’s work. The naked figure in the painting above: is she one of Astrup’s daughters come down for a midnight feast? Or something more arcane: a pixie or sprite from local folklore?

Paganism

Probably the image in which he lets himself go to express his native mysticism or paganism is the much-repeated image of a pollarded tree willow by a lake. The exhibition shows four or five versions of it, painted on canvas, and then made into a woodcut. The willow tree is obviously turning into a… what? A troll? A goblin? A human figure? A distant relative of the screaming man in his older contemporary, Edvard Munch’s, most famous painting?

Spring Night and Willow by Nikolai Astrup (1917/after 1920) Colour woodcut on paper. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen

Spring Night and Willow by Nikolai Astrup (1917/after 1920) Colour woodcut on paper. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen

The (sensitive and informative) commentary tells us that Astrup himself pollarded the trees on his property and deliberately crafted them into semi-human shapes. It goes on to explain that the mountain on the horizon, painted in off-white, can be interpreted as the body of a naked woman lying on her back. He didn’t invent this, it’s actually what it looks like and was known in the vicinity as the ‘Ice Queen Mountain’.

The Ice Queen wasn’t alone. In another painting of an apparently mundane village scene with hill, the commentary points out how you can make out in the snow-capped hilltop the features of an old friend of Astrup’s who had recently died. Most striking of all is the painting known as Grain poles, in which a group of spindly straw poles have magically been given eyes, and one has a stick leaning against it, like the walking stick of an old man. The paganism, if that’s what it is, the sense that the landscape is somehow responsive to human presence, is so subtle it is barely there. It flickers at the edge of the paintings’ consciousness.

Midsummer bonfire celebration

The sixth and final room in the show explores this side of Astrup, his understated pagan feel for the world around him and which is embodied in his numerous paintings of the Midsummer bonfire festival, which took place in all the surrounding valleys. His strict Lutheran father tried to keep young Nikolai and the other children away from this obviously pagan event, with its licentious music and the scandalous mingling of men and women, dancing to the leaping light of the shimmering flames. What a scene it must have made, and what a variety of ‘naive’, colourful and stylised images Astrup has made of it.

Midsummer Eve Bonfire by Nikolai Astrup (After c.1917) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen

Midsummer Eve Bonfire by Nikolai Astrup (After c.1917) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen

This is one of the many images which exist as oil paintings and as woodcuts, giving you the chance to see which medium you prefer. Astrup depended for his livelihood on woodcuts and prints, hussling friends to buy them or publicise them. The exhibition features many of these woodcuts and explains in fascinating detail how they were made and the arduous technical and physical difficulties Astrup faced (not least because the heavy wood he laboriously carved his images into sometimes warped, making the process of pressing paper against it to get a full, clean image, sometimes impossible, and always difficult).

Since he reworked the same subjects over and over, you are able to directly compare the paintings and the woodcuts of similar viewpoints, ideas and motifs. Because I’ve always like strong lines and composition, I found myself warming to the woodcuts a bit more than the oils.

Midsummer Eve Bonfire woodcut

Midsummer Eve Bonfire woodcut

Favourites

Among so many to choose from, I liked:

  • A clear night in June (See top of this review) The commentary points out that you can see the silhouettes of two large figures in the foreground, which Astrup subsequently painted over. Maybe he lacked confidence in his human figures; maybe he realised the landscape was enough. Whatever the reason, they shed a typically ambiguous ghostly presence onto the scene.
  • Growing season in Sandalstrand A later image which he recycled as black and white and colour prints, an image of simplicity, peacefulness and beauty.
  • The moon in May
  • Birthday in the garden A party of laughing children. Note Engel’s dress which, like many, she made herself.

I wanted to feature several more but none of them were available on the internet.

The contemporary scene

Compare and contrast Astrup with similar scenes from a) the lingering 19th century figurative tradition:

and b) the bold new avant-garde of someone like Cezanne

to see how Astrup reconciles the influences of his time, simplifying the human figure, using unnaturally bright and primary colours, but not departing in feel from a faithful naturalistic depiction of the scene in front of him. One of the pleasures of his paintings is the way they hold the powerfully conflicting influences of turn of the century art in such a delicate balance. They foreshadow much of the simplified rural art of between the wars, the childlike, book-illustration quality to be found in this country in the work of Paul Nash, or simpler, in Eric Ravilious.

Conclusion

Astrup is not an instant classic. You don’t go Wow yes! at the sight of many of his paintings, and it is easy to pick out flaws of composition and colouring, especially of the people. But cumulatively, this gorgeous exhibition gives you a powerful sense of the landscape and climate and customs and quiet beauty of this under-explored part of the world and of a unique artist who ‘recorded Norway for the Norwegians’, but also left a legacy of lovely, colourful, life-affirming pictures for all of us.

The video

Related links


Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

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