Nikolai Astrup, Norway’s “second artist”
Born 17 years after Edvard Munch, Astrup has often been referred to as Norway’s “second artist,” having never attained the same level of international fame as Munch, both in his own day up through contemporary times. In fact, Astrup was only first exhibited abroad in the United Kingdom in 2016, 88 years after his death.
Nonetheless, Astrup holds an important place in Norwegian art history—and his work has held up over time. In addition to being on permanent exhibit at KODE, his paintings and woodcuts are part of the National Gallery collection in Oslo, and his works have sold for up to $500,000 at auction.
Both Munch and Astrup were Neo-romanticists. They created works of art that could be described as depictions of a subjective inner reality, part of the l’art pour l’art movement, a world view in which art existed for its own sake. Astrup, who called himself a “naturalistic naïvist,” was inspired by the greats of the Romantic movement, who painted idyllic landscapes of the Norwegian countryside. In his own words, he created works of “memory and mood,” as opposed to any depiction of an outer reality.
Nikolai Johannes Astrup was born the son of a pastor in 1880 in Bremanger in Sogn og Fjordane in western Norway, the eldest of 14 children. Early on, the family moved to Jølster, an idyllic rural community on the shores of a clear blue glacial lake surrounded by majestic mountains.
As a child, he suffered severe bouts of asthma, and he would draw and sketch to pass the time. His father wanted him to go into the clergy and later sent him to the Cathedral School in Trondheim, but young Astrup found himself more interested in drawing and painting than the study of religion.
Astrup showed signs of artistic talent, and with time his father gave in and sent him to study with two of the greatest Norwegian artists of the day, first Harriet Backer in Kristiania (Oslo) and then Christian Krohg in Paris.
With their depictions of life in the countryside, Astrup’s teachers left strong influences on his work, in terms of motifs, light and color, and technique. Astrup became one of the most accomplished oil painters of his day, and with time he also became a master of woodcut relief color printing technique.
After further studies that took him to London, Paris, and Berlin, Astrup returned to Jølster in 1903. This was a profound decision, both professionaly and personally. Jølster and the surrounding country became the subject matter of his entire oeuvre, and he married a young peasant woman, Engel Sunde. The marriage was not welcomed by his father, who felt that his son was marrying below his class, but the couple held together.
In the face of Astrup’s persistent health issues and economic hardships, Nikolai and Engel Astrup raised eight children, supporting each other as partners and artists. They purchased a farmstead at Sandalstrand, where Engel became an accomplished weaver and collector of rustic antiques. She had a significant impact on her husband’s work, and he, in turn, designed patterns for her prized textiles.
The Astrups embraced their way of life in the countryside, and the artist’s work may be interpreted as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the urbanization it was bringing to Norway. Astrup loved the old folklore and traditions of western Norway, rituals and pagan elements. One of his favorite motifs was the St. Hans bonfire on Midsummer Eve. In his paintings, it comes to life with bold color and sweeping lines, which serve to capture the movement of the dance. An entire gallery room is devoted to these paintings at KODE, and you cannot help but be drawn into the excitement when surrounded by them.
Farm and family activities also figure prominently in Astrup’s work, be it picking marigolds or cutting rhubarb, a simple children’s game, or a family celebration. The artist lovingly depicted the farm buildings at their home, Astruptunet.
Suffering from fragile health most of his life, Astrup was often confined to the indoors. He rendered impressive interior and still life motifs, or if his longing for the mountains and meadows became too great, he would sit at the window and depict his view, each time with a new mood and changing nuances.
If any idea is evoked by Astrup’s art, love of nature first comes to mind. He painted the landscape of Jølster over and over through the changing seasons, from wild bursts of color in springtime and summer to the cool, austere greys and blues of the fall and winter. At times there is a personification of nature, a tree may spring to life with its arms reaching out to embrace the light.
At times there is an unmistakable feeling of melancholia to be found in Astrup, notably in the winter scenes and night landscapes. The darkness and cold took its toll on the artist with his weak lungs, and at one point, he and Engel even considered emigrating to America. His longing manifests in the recurring motif of moon over mountains and lake throughout all the seasons of the year. But happiness had to be found at home in Norway. Astrup showed his works in Scandinavia, with major exhibits of his paintings with other western Norwegian artists at the Bergen Art Association in 1922 and 1926.
To improve Nikolai’s health, the Astrups traveled through Europe to Tunis and Algiers in 1922, where their sixth child was born. But his condition continued to decline until his death from tuberculosis and pneumonia in 1928. The same year, a grand memorial exhibition was held in Bergen.
Today, Galley 4 at KODE is a permanent memorial to Astrup’s life and work. The special exhibit “Nikolai Astrup—Out of the Shadows” will run to December 2019, exploring the influences on his work, beginning with the early days of his childhood in Jølster. Next door at KODE 3, major works by his contemporary, Munch, are also on display. And if that is not enough, the artist’s home at a Sandalstrand, Astruptunet, about four hours north of Bergen by car, is a museum open to the public. It’s on my bucket list.
To learn more about the KODE Museums in Bergen and the work of Nikolai Astrup, visit www.kodebergen.no/en. More information about the artist and the Astrup Research Center is available at www.nikolai-astrup.no/en, and there is even a page devoted to Astrup on Facebook at www.facebook.com/nikolaiastrup.
Lori Ann Reinhall is a multilingual journalist and community activist based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association and state representative for Sister Cities International, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.
This article originally appeared in the February 22, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.