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…
Nikolai Astrup has often been seen as a self-taught eccentric in Norway, creating an original art style that sprung out of nothing, without any source other than himself. Many believe that Astrup fuelled his creative fires from the inside and refused to conform to the critics of his day, but I believe that Astrup is misunderstood in this regard, and was in reality strongly influenced by both the domestic and international art movements with which he came into contact.
Astrup was born in Bremanger, western Norway, on 30th August 1880. The family moved a few miles inland to the parish of Ålhus in the Jølster municipality in 1883, where his father took up appointment as the village priest. Astrup would never again move from the shores of Lake Jølstravatnet until his death on 21st January 1928. I visited Jølster in May 2016, and the pictorial appeal of the landscape is impossible to overlook: lush valleys and meadows hide beneath turreted mountains, and sweep towards a crystal clear lake.
Astrup began his art training under highly acclaimed Norwegian artist, Harriet Backer, in Bergen. From Bergen, Astrup moved to what was then Norway’s only art academy in Oslo. Astrup’s father sincerely disapproved of his son’s artistic ambitions and provided no financial support for his study, Backer reports that as a result Astrup often slept rough and was at times so poor that he was forced to chew on stolen oats to satisfy his hunger. Most believe that it was Backer who first introduced Astrup to the idea of creating a Norwegian “national visual language”, nationalism being a prominent theme in her work. Technically, however, Astrup would soon leave Backer’s naturalistic style behind as his influences extended beyond the borders of Scandinavia.
Harriet Backer’s At Bleikevollen (På Bleikevollen)
The Oslo academy was entirely inadequate for flourishing new artists and Astrup, despite continuing to receive no financial support from his family, swapped Oslo for Paris after receiving a scholarship grant to the prestigious Académie Calarossi, arriving at Christmas of 1901. It was in Paris that Astrup first came into contact with the new Impressionist movement. This clearly had a major influence on his later work (although he paradoxically dismissed the Impressionists as “boring” him later on in his life), as we see in the blurred Ålhus Church (Ålhus Kirke) for example, appearing as if painted from a train window. Most importantly, however, it was in Paris that Astrup first realised 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. Continuing his education in Berlin and Münich, Astrup retained his study of Impressionism, at one point working under the renowned Impressionist painter, Max Liebermann.
Astrup also made a study tour to London during this time, staying for six months and visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Gallery, as well as spending time among members of the British art circle. He was a particular admirer of John Constable, describing him as “the best English artist when all is said and done”. While Constable’s influence is not necessarily evident at first glance in Astrup’s work, his idealised sense of “Englishness” appealed greatly to Astrup in his search for a sense of “Norwegianess” for his own art. Johnathon Jones of The Guardian says that Astrup and Constable can both be described as “diggers”; travelling widely but always returning to the same locale, whether it be the rolling hills of Suffolk or the sharp mountains of Jølster.
But despite the influences gathered from his European study tour, perhaps the movement that made the greatest impact on Astrup came not from Europe, but 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 (who coincidently went on to buy three of Astrup’s prints), as well as the Impressionist painters he met abroad, also held an interest in the “Japonisme” of ukiyo-e (Vincent van Gogh once stated in a letter to his brother, Theo, that he was “most pleased” with the art form).
The Norway that Astrup knew was an incredibly young nation, still very much beginning to find its feet. 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 beforehand. Years of foreign rule had essentially crushed the ancient, Viking rooted, uniquely Norwegian 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” identity. Ivar Aasen had managed (with limited success) to leave Bokmål (a language almost identical to written Danish) behind and create a new national language, Nynorsk, a mélange of numerous dialects. Edvard Grieg, although never living to see Norwegian independence, had also been hugely successful in creating a “national musical language” for his nation. Furthermore, the theme of Norwegian nationalism in art was far from non-existent. The works of the “Romantic Nationalists”, such as J.C. Dahl, Erik Werenshield and Frits Thaulow, portraying Norway in a proud and majestic light, have unfortunately so often been entirely overlooked both in Norway and abroad by the stereotypical “Nordic Noir” images of Edvard Munch and Peder Balke, where, as Andrew Graham-Dixon states in his documentary The 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 when studying in Oslo, 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”, a dominant force in the Norwegian art scene at the time.
Edvard Munch’s The Road to Børre (Veien til Børre)
Crucially, 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 in 1986 in his honour). The farmstead was Astrup’s personal 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 for Astrup, his wife Engel and his eight children, 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, where they had lived in a perfectly practical rented house set in gentle pasture, the precariously situated dwelling at Sandalstrand 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 in May 2016, it astonished me that anyone would attempt to build a studio, let alone a farmstead on the gradient.
But Sandalstrand was a reflection of Astrup’s individuality and perseverance, and in the years after purchasing the property he soon managed to create what he referred to as “green walls”; a cultivation of the slope above the house for the production of his locally renowned rhubarb wine and other vegetables. He had also managed to build a barn, a studio and several new domestic buildings, all of which survive today (the studio even retains his iconic “painting hat”). Essentially, whilst being a provocation to his father, who continued to live in the comparative calm, whitewashed order of the Ålhus Parsonage on the opposite shore of the lake, Sandalstrand, with its chaotic collection of self-built structures and impractical setting was also intended to be a shrine to the Norwegian ideals of family.
Astrup’s own family life was hugely unconventional. He married a farmer’s daughter from the far end of the lake (to the predictable displeasure of his father), he had no regular income and a large family to support and his attempts at self-sufficiency were precarious to say the least. To make matters worse, he was also crippled by tuberculosis and treated in high suspicion by many of his neighbours.
In my view, the best evidence of Astrup’s “ideal Norwegian family”, perhaps the family he never had, can be seen in Birthday Party in the Parsonage Garden (Fødelsdag i Hagen), my favourite Astrup painting.
Birthday Party in the Parsonage Garden (Fødelstag i Hagen)
In this idyllic, pastoral scene, we see man in absolute harmony with his surroundings; an evocation of Astrup’s beliefs in the population’s relationship to their physical landscape. Not only do the figures appear to be in absolute accord with the nature around them, but they are also brought together to form an idealised, colourful family scene in a summer idyll. Astrup’s wife, Engel, dressed in a blue and white blouse, which she first saw in a Parisian catalogue, joins nine children on the steps of the house; a typically Norwegian dwelling. Beyond the house we are given a glimpse of the stereotypical Norwegian landscape; wild and barren mountains surrounding a crystal clear lake. But the house is not the ramshackle Sandalstrand, but the house of his childhood, his father’s parsonage at Ålhus. Although he visits various interpretations of the setting as his artistic style evolves, this is a place he returns to repeatedly, as if rooted to the formative sensations of his childhood.
It is perhaps conceivable that the inspiration for this painting sprang from fellow Scandinavian artist, Carl Larsson; the painting holds many similarities to Larsson’s idealised Swedish family in Breakfast under the Big Birch (Frukost under Stora Björken) for example. Perhaps Astrup, painting a newly autonomous country that had very recently shaken off Swedish rule, wished to counteract Larsson’s uniquely Swedish painting with his own, uniquely Norwegian version.
There are in fact signs that suggest the picture could be unfinished. The tree on the far right hand side of the picture is only roughly rendered, as is the girl standing behind the handrail on the left of the picture, behind the silver birch. In addition, the catalogue of the Bergen Art Society’s commemorative Astrup exhibition in Bergen lists it as “unsigned”. These factors appear to point to the notion 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 as follows 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.”
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 and the work that, as Rachel Campbell Johnson explains, “caused him the most trouble and anguish.” Having seen the prints displayed together at exhibitions in Dulwich and Bergen, I have 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. The fact that these differences occur confirms the idea that Astrup used several printing plates when composing the prints, a pioneering achievement at the time.
Foxgloves presents us with a pair of what one might describe as typically Scandinavian, almost identical, little girls foraging in a forest of silver birches, lined up like rhythmic piano keys, striking lighter tones under the foliage of the wooded interior. Foxgloves dominate the foreground, placed among smooth, mossy boulders and sawn tree trunks, where sap can be seen spilling out. These tree trunks have been placed deliberately in the frame by Astrup, as if to remind us that if he had not felled the trunks, it would not be possible for us to see the girls. This technique is repeated in his other work also, in images such as Bird on Stone (Fugl på Sten), as I will discuss further on.
The two girls are both wearing red dresses and blue headscarves while picking small flowers, which they are then placing into round wicker baskets. This means that there is 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 and shown fairy-tale like images 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 peculiarly Jølster convention.
The idea of including Norwegian folklore in artwork was almost certainly an influence 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 in an attempt to revive the culture of times gone by. We know that Astrup was a keen follower of the Circle and, like his tutor Harriet Backer, was clearly roused by Werenskiold’s nationalist ideals. Furthermore, we know that Astrup held an interest in the work of Theodor Kittleson, an early pioneer of transforming folk tales into art.
We see Kittleson’s influence appear repeatedly in other fairy tale-esque images, such as Grain Poles (Kornstaur) and A Morning in March (Marsmorgen), where his “potential images” of trolls come to the fore. Astrup’s comic woodcut of 1905, The Goat that Came to Heaven (En Glad Gut) also bears reference to a scene from Bjørnsterne Bjørnson’s tale Øivind and the Goat (Øivind og Bukken). 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 at the time, we do not hear about them in his notes and letters. There is clearly a difference of opinion as to how willing Astrup was to take up the calls of Werenskiold’s circle and 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 is not “making it up”.
I asked Tove Kårstad Haugsbø, Astrup Curator at KODE Museum in Bergen, if there is something so intrinsically Norwegian in his work that it is impossible for a foreign audience to fully appreciate it. She disagrees, and points to the success of Astrup’s first foreign exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery (which I visited in April 2016), bringing him to an international audience for the first time, nearly 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 within Norway. Astrup is most accessible when he is not being excessively himself, in Birthday Party in the Parsonage Garden for example with its similarities to Larsson’s Swedish style or Bird on Stone with its clear Japanese influence.
Bird on Stone (Fugl på Sten)
Bird on Stone confirms the fact that Astrup remains compelling even when he is super-imposing a foreign style on a Norwegian setting. He is able to deliver a new perspective on something well- known, as with Birthday Party in the Parsonage Garden. This sets it apart from Astrup’s work with a more naïve focus, although the work certainly retains distinct Astrup peculiarities, the striking use of colour and the low perspective with the inclusion of the cut tree stumps in the foreground to provide a striking contrast of shape, colour and texture for example. Less obvious, 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.
Finally, I wish to address Astrup’s sense of regional identity. Norway has always been a particularly regionally centred country. This is true politically, with large scale decentralisation programmes, linguistically, with all Norwegians speaking in dialect and writing in either Bokmål or Nynorsk, and in terms of clothing, with the style of “bunad” (traditional dress) varying from area to area. In Norway, one identifies as much with one’s region as with the country as a whole, and Astrup certainly plays to this. Oslo probably felt just as foreign to Astrup as Paris or Algiers (where he spent time with Engel). 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 (similarities could also be drawn in the common regional clothing variations). 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 forms of 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 highest 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 as an independent nation state?
One could point to the inherent colonial “Danishness” of his Lutheran father and the reactionary influence this placed upon him. Astrup rejected his father’s ideals in the most part, turning instead to more “Norwegian” neighbours in the village; in particular befriending the goat herder, Bertil, with whom he played often during his childhood; from Bertil. As his biographer, Øystein Loge states, “Astrup was familiar with everything related to life on a farm, but simultaneously aware that he would not inherit it.” Astrup was in fact known to collate stories from other inhabitants in Jølster and place them in his notebooks. In many of these notes he references the “J-book”, something critics have interpreted to be an unfinished book of 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” among his father’s parishioners, and, as I mentioned earlier, was treated with high suspicion.
If not his family, possibly then, it was a more academic influence that left the greatest impression on him, his contemporary Norwegian and European 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 had developed in his youth. Harriet Backer is believed to have said that there are two things that 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 that it was neither his contemporary Norwegian artists in the “Lysaker Circle”, the artists and art forms that he encountered during his travels, nor the impact of his family and upbringing that had the most profound influence on Astrup. 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 began and ended his life. Furthermore, 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.
NIKOLAI ASTRUP was a Norwegian printer and painter. An exhibition of his work, Nikolai Astrup: Painting Norway was shown at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2016. Most of his works are currently housed at KODE in Bergen.