Culture / Editor's Own

Nikolai Astrup’s Sense of Place

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An exhibition last year at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London presented artist Nikolai Astrup, a national icon in his native Norway, to an international audience for the first time…


Xander Brett

Nikolai Astrup was an early twentieth century Norwegian painter and printmaker. A product of childhood memories, a strong sense of national identity, and international art movements, his focus was on promoting the notion of a ‘national visual language’ for a newly independent Norway. He hoped to achieve this through his depiction of an idealised Norwegian lifestyle and a pastoral, cultivated and self-adjusted landscape. While Astrup is widely known and respected in his home country, he remains overshadowed by his contemporary Norwegian artists, such as Edvard Munch, abroad. I believe that we are wrong to focus only on the stereotypical Norwegian ‘darkness’ and ignore artists such as Astrup, portraying an altogether more colourful landscape.

Astrup has often been passed off as a self-taught eccentric, creating an original art style that sprung out of nothing, without any source but himself. Many believe he fuelled his fires from the inside, refusing to conform to the critics of his day. I disagree. Astrup was in fact strongly influenced by both the domestic and international art movements with which he came into contact. Born in Bremanger, western Norway, in 1880, the family moved a few miles inland to the parish of Ålhus, in the Jølster municipality, in 1883. His father took up appointment as the village priest. Astrup would never again move from the shores of Lake Jølstravatnet until his death in 1928. When I visited Jølster, the pictorial appeal was impossible to overlook. Lush valleys and meadows hide beneath turreted mountains, sweeping towards a crystal-clear lake.


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NIKOLAI ASTRUP

Bremanger, 1880 – Førde, 1928

March Morning / Marsmorgen (c.1920)

KODE Kunstmuseer og Komponisthjem, Bergen


Astrup began his artistic training under the acclaimed artist Harriet Backer in Bergen, just south of Jølster. From Bergen, Astrup moved to what was then Norway’s only art academy, in Oslo. Disapproving of his son’s ambitions, Astrup’s father provided no financial support and Backer reported that Astrup often slept on the streets and was at times so poor he chewed on stolen oats. Backer introduced Astrup to the idea of a Norwegian ‘national visual language’. Technically, however, Astrup would soon leave Backer’s naturalistic style behind as his influences extended beyond the borders of Scandinavia.

The Oslo academy was inadequate for flourishing artists and Astrup, receiving a scholarship grand, swapped Oslo for Paris. He took a place at the Académie Calarossi, arriving at Christmas 1901. It was in Paris that Astrup first came into contact with the Impressionist movement. This clearly had a major influence on his later work, as we see in his blurred painting Ålhus Church (Ålhus Kirke), appearing as if painted from a train window. Most importantly, however, it was in Paris that Astrup first recognised the appreciation he held for Jølster: a home away from the confusion, noise and pollution of the city, where all was still, calm and majestic.

Astrup also made a study tour to London, staying for six months with members of the British art circle. He was a particular admirer of John Constable and his idealised sense of ‘Englishness’ appealed greatly to Astrup in his own search for a sense of ‘Norwegianess’. Johnathon Jones of The Guardian says that Astrup and Constable can both be described as ‘diggers’: they travelled widely but always returned to the same locale, whether it was the rolling hills of Suffolk or the sharp mountains of Jølster.

Despite the influences gathered during his European tour, perhaps the movement that left the greatest impact on Astrup came not from Europe, but from Asia. The Japanese tradition of ukiyo-e inspired Astrup from the moment he first saw an exhibition of the wood cuts in 1909. Interestingly, Astrup was not alone in his fascination with the art form. Both Munch, his contemporary for a time in Oslo (and who went on to buy three of Astrup’s prints), as well as the Impressionist painters, also held an interest in “Japonisme”. Vincent van Gogh once stated that he was ‘most pleased’ with ukiyo-e.


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NIKOLAI ASTRUP

Bremanger 1880 – Førde, 1928

The White Horse in Spring / Den hvite hesten om våren (1914-15)

Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo


The Norway Astrup knew was a young nation, still finding its feet in the world. The country gained full independence from Sweden in 1905, when Astrup was twenty-five, following almost a century of post-Napoleonic rule from Stockholm, and many centuries of occupation from Copenhagen. Years of foreign rule had crushed the ancient, Viking rooted, identity, and the country was forced to search for its own, entirely new personality.

Astrup was by no means alone in advocating this need for a ‘New Norwegian’ force. Ivar Aasen had managed (with limited success) to leave Bokmål (a language almost identical to written Danish) behind, and to create a new national language by mixing numerous dialects. Edvard Grieg, although never living to see Norwegian independence, had also been successful in creating a ‘national musical language’. Furthermore, the theme of Norwegian nationalism in art was far from non-existent. The works of the ‘Romantic Nationalists’ (artists such as J.C. Dahl, Erik Werenshield and Frits Thaulow), portraying Norway in a proud and majestic light, have so often been overlooked by the stereotypical ‘Nordic Noir’ images of Edvard Munch and Peder Balke, where, as Andrew Graham-Dixon explains in his documentary Art of Scandinavia, “storms rage and seas churn under skies without memory of morning or hope of night.” While Astrup is said not to have imitated his Romantic Nationalist contemporaries, he is known to have admired Erik Werenshield from a young age, and certainly tried his best to impress him and those around him in the ‘Lysaker Circle’.

The expression of Astrup’s patriotic feelings are demonstrated not only in his artwork, but in his farmstead at Sandalstrand, now renamed Astruptunet and adapted to a museum. The farmstead was Astrup’s lifelong project. Purchased in September 1912, Sandalstrand was to become Astrup’s home until his death in 1928. But far from being just a home, Sandalstrand acted also as Astrup’s studio, his source of food and a purpose-built expression of self-sufficiency in a challenging landscape. Upon the family’s arrival from neighbouring Myklebust, the precariously situated dwelling was in desperate need of repair. The walls were rotting fast, the roof leaked, and small landslides regularly rolled down the hill. When I visited, it astonished me that anyone would attempt to build a studio – let alone a farmstead – on the gradient. But Sandalstrand reflected Astrup’s individuality and perseverance, and he soon cultivated the slope. He also built a barn, a studio and several new domestic buildings, all of which survive today (the studio even retains his iconic ‘painting hat’).


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NIKOLAI ASTRUP

Bremanger 1880 – Førde, 1928

Birthday Party in the Parsonage Garden Fødelstag i hagen (1911-27)

KODE Kunstmuseer og Komponisthjem , Bergen


While being a provocation to his father (who continued to live across the lake in whitewashed order of the Ålhus Parsonage), Sandalstrand, with its chaotic collection of self-built structures, was also intended to be a shrine to the Norwegian ideals of family. Astrup’s family was unconventional. He married a farmer’s daughter (to the predictable displeasure of his father), he had no regular income, and he had a large family to support. His attempts at self-sufficiency were precarious and he was crippled by tuberculosis.

The best depiction of Astrup’s ‘ideal Norwegian family’, perhaps the family he never had, can be seen in Fødelsdag i Hagen, my favourite Astrup painting. In this idyllic, pastoral scene, we see man in absolute harmony with his surroundings. It’s the evocation of Astrup’s faith in the population’s relationship to their landscape. Not only do the figures appear to be in absolute accord with the nature surrounding them, but they seem in accord with each other too. They are brought together to form an idealised, colourful scene in a summer idyll. Astrup’s wife, Engel, dressed in a blue and white blouse, joins nine children on the steps of the house: a typically Norwegian dwelling. Beyond the house we’re given a glimpse of the landscape. The house is not the ramshackle Sandalstrand, but the house of his childhood: his father’s parsonage at Ålhus. This is a setting he returns to more than most. He is rooted to the formative sensations of his childhood.

The inspiration for this painting, I think, springs from the Swedish artist Carl Larsson. Fødelsdag i Hagen holds many similarities to Larsson’s idealised Swedish family, in Frukost under Stora Björken for example. Perhaps Astrup, painting a country that had only just shaken off Swedish rule, wished to counteract Larsson’s uniquely Swedish painting with his own, Norwegian version. Interestingly, the painting is unfinished and unsigned. This suggests that Astrup was working on the painting between 1911 and his death, making the picture an emotionally invested family memento. Astrup confirms the personal significance of the painting in a non-addressed letter: “We often sat at the stone table in the evenings… whooping it up… drinking coffee with something illegal added, or with a bottle of blueberry or rhubarb wine. The vicarage was right next to us: wide, white and low… the evening sky reflected yellow, like a glint from an evil eye in a window.”


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NIKOLAI ASTRUP

Bremanger, 1880 – Førde, 1928

Foxgloves / Revebjeller (1909)

KODE Kunstmuseer og Komponisthjem, Bergen


At a time when large swaths of the population were leaving Norway for North America, Astrup hoped to remind the Norwegian people that the country could, despite difficult conditions, support itself. Astrup’s views on self-sufficiency are most evident in Foxgloves (Revebjeller), a print repeated with slight adjustments five times. Having seen the prints displayed together at exhibitions in Dulwich and Bergen, I’ve been able to explore the fine variations through the image’s development. While the paintings are composed in largely the same way, although varying in overall size, many of the prints contain considerably thicker areas of paint, as well as slight visual adjustments to the landscape. This confirms the idea that Astrup used several printing plates when composing the prints: a pioneering achievement at the time.

Revebjeller presents us with a pair of typically Scandinavian (almost identical) little girls, foraging in a forest of silver birches, lined like rhythmic piano keys. Foxgloves dominate the foreground, placed among smooth, mossy boulders and sawn tree trunks, where the sap spills out. These tree trunks have been placed deliberately in the frame, as if to remind us that if Astrup had not felled the trunks, we would not see the girls. The children are both wearing red dresses and blue headscarves and there’s something undeniably fairy tale-like about their appearance, bringing to mind such traditional tales as Little Red Riding Hood. Astrup is known to have recalled Norwegian folkloric stories in his work, and this is certainly one such picture. My guide at Astruptunet, Ane Dale Erikstad, explained that, by tradition, every year in Jølster a woman places a basket of glowing coals in the stream, with the hope of warming the soil. Astrup is perhaps paying homage to this peculiar Jølster convention.


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NIKOLAI ASTRUP

Bremanger, 1880 – Førde, 1928

By the Open Door / Ved den åpne døren (1902-11)

KODE Kunstmuseer og Komponisthjem, Bergen


The idea of including folklore in artwork was almost certainly an influence gathered from the ‘Lysaker Circle’. The group sought to rejuvenate the work of Asbjørnson and Moe, who had together collected traditional folk stories from around Norway in the early nineteenth century, attempting to revive the culture of times gone by. Furthermore, we know that Astrup held an interest in the work of Theodor Kittleson, an early pioneer of transforming folk tales to art. We see Kittleson’s influence appear repeatedly in Astrup’s other paintings, where his ‘potential images’ of trolls come to the fore. Folktales were an idiom for the entire Norwegian population; something they could all relate and identify with. However, folk artists in Jølster were not among Astrup’s role models when it came to naïve art. If there were any folk-art traditions in Jølster, we don’t hear of them in his notes and letters. There’s clearly a difference of opinion as to how willing Astrup was to take up the calls of Werenskiold’s circle, and to engage with folklore. Some believe that the closer Astrup gets to folklore, the less effective he is, and Astrup is at his best when he was not ‘making it up’.

I asked Tove Kårstad Haugsbø, Astrup Curator at Bergen’s KODE Museum, if there’s something so intrinsically Norwegian in Astrup’s work that it’s impossible for a foreign audience to appreciate it. She disagrees, and points to the success of Astrup’s first foreign exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, bringing him to an international audience for the first time, almost ninety years after his death. However, the fact that Astrup’s work was so Norwegian centric, and at its extreme in a highly peculiar naïve style, certainly resulted in its not travelling well at the time it was created, and even then only holding limited appeal in Norway.

Astrup is most accessible when he’s not excessively himself, in Bird on Stone (Fugl på Sten), for example, with its clear Japanese influence. Bird on Stone confirms the notion that Astrup remains compelling even when he’s super-imposing a foreign style.  He’s able to deliver a new perspective on something well- known. The striking use of colour and the low perspective, with the inclusion of cut tree stumps, provide a striking contrast of shape, colour and texture.  Less obviously, but perhaps no less importantly, the cut tree trunks provide another example of Astrup’s willingness to ‘adapt nature’ to suit his purpose… to impose himself, however subtly, on the landscape.


Courtesy of http://www.galleryofthemasters.com


NIKOLAI ASTRUP

Bremanger, 1880 – Førde, 1928

Bird on Stone Fugl på sten (pre-1908)

KODE Kunstmuseer og Komponisthjem, Bergen


Before I conclude, I wish to address Astrup’s sense of regional identity. Norway has always been a particularly regionally centred country. This is true politically, linguistically, and even in terms of clothing (with the style of traditional dress varying from area to area). In Norway, one identifies as much with one’s region as with the country as a whole. Astrup certainly plays to this reality. Oslo probably felt just as foreign to him as Paris or London. When travelling in Germany, Astrup immediately recognised the similarities between German regional identities and those in his home country. This was particularly true in the Grötzingen region, where strong local loyalties and distrust for modern civilisation were fast becoming common denominators. The difference, however, came in the fact that while Norwegians were trying to shake off their inherent regional differences, attempting to create a unifying language and common media, Germany, as a newly unified nation state, was attempting to retain its regional differences by way of remembrance to the jigsaw of former states.

So, which factor had the biggest influence on Astrup’s sense of place?  Was it his childhood home at Ålhus and the influence of his upbringing?  Or was it his early training with Harriet Backer and his exposure to the ‘Lysaker Circle’, generating a sense of what it meant to be Norwegian at the birth of his country?

One could point to the inherent colonial ‘Danishness’ of his Lutheran father, and the reactionary influence that placed upon him. Astrup rejected his father’s ideals in the most part, turning instead to more ‘Norwegian’ neighbours in the village. In particular, he befriended the goat herder, Bertil, with whom he played often. As his biographer, Øystein Loge, states: “Astrup was familiar with everything related to life on a farm, but simultaneously aware he would not inherit it.” Astrup was known to collate stories from other inhabitants in Jølster, placing them in his notebooks. In many of his notes, he references the ‘J-book’, something critics have interpreted to be an unfinished piece on the traditions of Jølster. But it is perhaps a misunderstood conclusion that Astrup was accepted by his neighbours. In truth, he was rather an unpopular ‘oddball’, treated with high suspicion.

If not his family, possibly then, it was a more academic influence that left the greatest impression on his work. His contemporary Norwegian artists perhaps, particularly those in the ‘Lysaker Circle’. There is, however, much consensus that Astrup adhered to no specific artistic influence and strove to learn what his teachers conveyed to him while holding onto the un-schooled manner that he developed during his youth. Harriet Backer is believed to have said that there are two things she must remember when it came to Astrup: not to teach him too much, and not to learn too much from him herself.

I believe it was neither his contemporary Norwegian artists, the artists and art forms he encountered during his travels, nor the impact of his family and upbringing that had the most profound influence. Rather, it was his self-developed sense of regional identity. Astrup’s sense of place was not Norway as a national entity, but Jølster: the area where he started and ended his life. Astrup’s sense of place may not even be the tangible and physical landscape of Jølster, but an idealised, mentally concocted landscape – one that overcame rejection by his father, parlous finances and crippling illness – the translation of which allowed the peculiar self-expression which has only now been recognised by an international audience.


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