Painting Norway: Nikolai Astrup, Dulwich Picture Gallery, until 15 May 2016

I wished . . . to wash myself in the raw colours of Western Norway in order to cleanse myself of everything that I may have ingested from the art of others in order to escape from all the influences and to arrive at my own [style] . . .

–‘Thoughts on Art’ by Nikolai Astrup

Since 1905, Nikolai Astrup has been lionized in Norwegian art history. The year marked Norway’s independence from Sweden, ending four centuries of foreign rule, as well as the artist’s first exhibition. But the abounding, verdant glories of Astrup, who painted so prolifically and died so young, are little recognized outside his home country. Bringing together over 120 oil paintings and archival material, many on public display for the first time, ‘Painting Norway: Nikolai Astrup 1880-1928’ is the artist’s first major international exhibition, commencing at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery. The exhibition will then return full circle to Oslo’s Henie Onstad Kunstsenter museum, before spending the winter in Germany, at Kunsthalle Emden. The first scholarly literature in English on Astrup was published in 2010; the exhibition in Dulwich is, in effect, the first time that the Norwegian artist has been transported and translated for English-speaking viewers.

‘Nikolai Astrup is considered the quintessential Norwegian artist’, the art historian MaryAnne Stevens states in the show’s exceptional catalogue. During the two decades leading up to independence, young Norwegian artists, including Erik Werenskiold and Harriet Backer (one of Astrup’s early supporters and his teacher in Oslo), were galvanized by the call for a Norwegian neo-romantic art, which advocated the cause of the national Norwegian cultural identity. Surveying the country’s contribution to the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1905, the artist William Walton captured the movement’s dependence on the Norwegian landscape as its defining subject:

As in Norway nature is more crude . . . more somber and harsh, and inhospitable . . . so does the nature of the people become affected by these qualities of their environment, and their art takes on a like character.

Though Astrup was outwardly a Norwegian national artist and a man of his time, he was also a man apart. He rejected the conventional flat, aerial perspectives and embraced the Expressionist experiments with colour that he witnessed in Berlin. Along with his compatriot, Edvard Munch (whom he admired from afar), he pioneered the woodcut medium in Norway. It is more than slightly ironic that Astrup’s seemingly nativist-pastoral land- scapes, which serve as longitudinal studies of acutely personal interroga- tions with nature, have now achieved a kind of posthumous cosmopolitan- ism. He was one of the most original landscape painters at any period, working out his innovations in printmaking in almost complete isolation.

Foxgloves, 1927 Colour woodcut on paper, 70 x 78 cm © The Saving Bank Foundation DNB / The Astrup Collection / KODE Art Museums of Bergen
Foxgloves, 1927 Colour woodcut on paper, 70 x 78 cm © The Saving Bank Foundation DNB / The Astrup Collection / KODE Art Museums of Bergen

Astrup was born in 1880, and after completing his training in Oslo and Paris in 1902, he chose to live and die in his native village. The Dulwich Picture Gallery welcomes visitors to a beautiful slice of Jølster – quite lit- erally, the opening gallery is painted a pale, soft vegetal green, and above the inside entranceway is a half-circle double-hang framing a painted map of the Jølster region. Combined with the room’s focus on Astrup’s paintings of spring in western Norway, with their swooning blue skies and grassy hills buttered in sunshine, the quality is immersive, suggesting not so much a geography lesson as it does an invitation – to step into Astrup’s reimagined homestead. The next four exhibition rooms are divided by theme, focusing on the old parsonage at Alhus, where Astrup grew up, as well as his printmaking, woodcuts, and his family’s utopic farm-garden, Sandalstrand (colloquially referred to as Astruptunet), which was his constant project until his death. These rooms are painted in variations of browns and greys, evocative of earth and weathered timber. (The installation designer, Eric Pearson, who will also design the exhibition’s home at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, was inspired by a group of traditional rural timber buildings at the Norwegian Folk Museum.)

The key to Astrup’s originality is that each work feels like a one-off urgent confrontation, even when it is repeated in other paintings or prints. Ian A.C. Dejardin, the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Sackler Director, draws a useful contrast between the particular motifs depicted by Astrup and Claude Monet: Monet’s paintings are often subtle analyses of changing light from a fixed viewpoint, while ‘It is not changing light that Astrup identifies as the factor that makes repetition possible, but changing mood’. It is the interdependence of two processes that exhilarates when we are exposed to Astrup’s printmaking. He regularly worked a brush and oils over his woodcuts, often printing directly onto canvas and using the result as the starting point for paintings. In this way, compositions that were first attempted as prints later appeared in his paintings, and painting inspired his prints. Well before the contemporary vogue for network-related concepts began to dominate conversations about painting, Astrup treated his work as an interrelated system. The touchstone The Moon in May (1908) series, which looks out onto a small vegetable garden perched next to a lake, is without backdrop – whether far or near, stroked or dabbed, transformed into spring or winter, the colour woodcuts on paper have a just-right measure of effervescence. The way the paint moves on the moon-reflecting lake is as transfixing as what it portrays.

Key 22 Rhubarb BKMdep_360_07

The son of a strict Lutheran pastor, Astrup was not allowed to attend the pagan bonfires celebrated by Norway’s midsummer eve’s festivals. They became his obsession. The last exhibition room, a mirror of the opening Jølster gallery, suggests that something lies just beneath its surface: it is dimly lit and painted a dark inky blue, reinforcing the hallucinatory quality of the bonfire pictures that seem to float on its walls. Viking cosmology saturates this collection of bacchanalias and erotic abandon. Perhaps the most stunning example is Midsummer Eve Bonfire (after 1917), in which smouldering purples and emeralds vein a deep fjord that seems to both protect and bear down upon the revellers. In the more thickly brushed Midsummer Eve Bonfire (c. 1899 – before 1908), we see a dark figure sitting on a rock at the periphery of a bonfire celebration, turned away from the others. Here we may find the artist and the man apart.

Examples of secondary work have their virtues, too, partly in encouraging the importance of Astrup’s non-prescriptive curiosity and interest in local folklore, a peculiar though vital feature of his work. Astrup saw his early death as the climax of an inner battle that had never ceased. He died of pneumonia on January 21, 1928. Tuberculosis and asthma had weakened him since childhood, and the painter accorded a symbolic dimension to his illness, attributing his convalescence and subsequent confinement to the liberation of his imagination and his art. As a painter, childhood memories were the creative weapons on which he continued to cleave to while he lived. Funeral Day in Jølster which was painted before 1908, envisages what Astrup’s own funeral must have looked like. Led by a priest in a distinct white collar, a mourning-clad procession files to the graveyard in the left of the picture. The horizontal planes of the Jølster mountainscape coverage upon the scene, but they are also quieting – as if nature is waiting to exhale as she allows the figures to slowly pass. Though Astrup distanced himself from the Christianity preached by his father, he depicts the mood generated by the rite of passage of a human’s final journey, as overseen by local tradition. Even with death, he turned his biography of humans and landscape into painting, and painting into testimony.

By Megan Bradshaw

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