Nikolai Astrup gets his due
Norway’s beloved artist comes to America
This summer, Americans will have the opportunity to luxuriate in the work of one of Norway’s most celebrated artists, Nikolai Astrup (1880–1928). Beloved in his home country, he is hardly known outside its borders. But, with his first ever solo exhibition in the United States, “Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway,” curated by Mary Ann Stevens at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., that is about to change. For those making travel plans, the exhibit will run for three months between June 13 and Sept. 13.
One may ask how has such a talented, unique voice been so overlooked? For one, the country of Norway has a small population but a large pool of accomplished visual artists, and unfortunately, they often get lost on the world stage. Case in point, about two years ago, I discovered the incredibly sublime Norwegian artist, Peder Balke (1804–1887) Where? At a small gallery featuring his work, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. I am ashamed to say that I had never seen his work or heard of him until that point—and I am a Norwegian American.
I knew a little more about Astrup—but not much more. Of course, Norway’s size and its subsummation by the dominant culture of the day—Sweden—are two reasons that artists like Balke and Astrup were pushed to the side. And Balke was even shunned in his own country, when he turned from making art to creating an artist’s colony.
But the question of why Astrup, who had been embraced by Norway, has been overlooked by others is one that Stevens has been exploring and attempting to correct for years. On Feb. 6 at Scandinavia House, she shared her insights about why Astrup has remained unknown abroad and why it is so important for this to change.
After an introduction by the Clark Art Institute’s Hardymon Director Olivier Meslay the evening switched to a musical interlude; Edvard Grieg’s Violin Sonata No.3, Opus 45, movement 2, played by Norwegian Ludvig Gudim on the violin and Korean American Jun Cho on piano. It was lovely to be enveloped by the sounds of Norway, setting a soothing tone, amid the towers of Manhattan. It was also the perfect pairing, as both Grieg and Astrup reveled in and were inspired by the magnificent environment that surrounded their bucolic homes, which were relatively close to each other.
Stevens described Astrup as “an artist beyond measure.” She stated some personal reasons for Astrup’s obscurity. He “suffered from ill health, psychological mood swings, a persecution complex and financial problems.”
But there was a larger shadow he could not overcome that dwarfed not only his light, but that of many other artists as well: the phenomenon known as Munch. Interestingly, the “father of Expressionism,” not only respected but also collected pieces by Astrup.
Stevens presented a variety of Astrup’s work in a very short time, while explaining his experimentation with painting and printing. For the latter, he worked on wood blocks, using the Japanese technique of carving along the lines of the grain. He usually printed each color separately. As a result, “almost every print is unique,” said Stevens.
Showing side-by-side images of Astrup taking a scene from paint to print and print to paint was enlightening. Stevens described it as, “a constant dialogue.” His attention to the specificity of changes found in nature—weather, seasons, light—while studying one area in detail are delightful and often mind-boggling.
How did he achieve such mastery? His father, a pastor, had hoped that his son would follow his career. However, Astrup wished to be an artist. At 19, he chose to leave his home and went to Kristiania (Oslo) to study at Harriet Backer’s school of painting, staying for about two years.
Continuing his education, like other artists of the mid-19th to early 20th century, he went on to Europe to tour museums in Germany and study in Paris. And, like other Scandinavian artists of his day, he chose to return home and celebrate his native landscape in paint and prints, focusing on the area around Jølster in western Norway, where he resided for most of his life.
Later, he began to question himself as an artist and chose to go abroad again, this time to Berlin, as he was interested in the avantgarde movement. There he even became involved in “an experimental mime and dance company.” Stevens attributed his use of “color, playing with scales and perspective” to his influence by the avant-garde. His “Rhubarb and Little Girl at Sandalstrand” (1927) is an outstanding example of this.
Norse culture and mythology dominates in Astrup’s dynamic “Midsummer Eve Bonfire” (c. 1915). Stevens pointed out how the rocks transmogrify into trolls and the fire as dragon’s breath. Here the dancers are motivated by the Hardanger fiddle, which originated in this western part of Norway. It was known as the devil’s music and had been outlawed by church: an interesting inclusion for a pastor’s son. One must notice, however, that the perspective of the pastor’s son is not as one of the dancers or even a contemplative participant, but instead he is a voyeur, watching from a distance.
Stevens ended with the bold statement that Astrup was “as innovative as Munch.” After a rousing round of applause for the curator, Meslay invited all to come and visit the Clark to see Astrup’s work, with the final statement, “For me it has become a revelation, and I think it will be a revelation for all of you.”
The rich sounds of the last movement of Grieg’s Sonata No. 3 filled the room. The tune brought to mind the exquisite nature found throughout Norway, a juxtaposition of powerful falls and quiet, wistful brooks. You could feel the power and joy of the music. It was a perfect finish, allowing the audience to feel what Astrup loved, lived, remembered, replicated, transformed, and dreamt.
This article originally appeared in the March 20, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.