The summer of Astrup
Nikolai Astrup on exhibit in North America for the first time
Kudos to the Clark Art Institute (known simply as “The Clark”) in Williamstown, Mass., for their current exhibition, “Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway.” It is not often that one gets to encounter a “new” artist. Although Astrup (1880 – 1928) died nearly 100 years ago, this is the first exhibit of his work in North America.
If it hadn’t been for a perfect confluence that occurred in London at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2016, most of us would still be in the dark about this prolific and beloved Norwegian artist. It was here that MaryAnne Stevens, director of academic affairs at the Royal Academy of London, curated an Astrup exhibit and accompanying programs, which The Clark’s curatorial team attended.
They were surprised to have never before heard of Astrup and began doing research about him, realizing it would be great to introduce him to a new audience at their museum back home. This endeavor was brought to fruition by Stevens, the guest curator who worked closely with Kathleen Morris, Marx Director of Exhibitions at The Clark.
Upon arrival at the new U.S. exhibit, the viewer is immediately enveloped in a majestic and powerful Norwegian landscape. On one side a photo of Astrup’s print, “A Night in June in the Garden” (circa 1909) stretches from the ceiling to the floor. It is echoed on the opposite wall, in location and enormity, by a photograph from the same Norwegian location, transforming you from the museum space to Astrup’s home and view.
This exhibit is not chronologically organized, but instead, rooms are divided by elements pertaining to Astrup’s work: The Making of the Artist Jølster and Ålhus; Distinctive Impression I: Astrup as a Printmaker; Distinctive Impressions II: Blending Painting and Print; Artistic Crisis and Resolution: Sandalstrand; and Nature and Myth.
The visual transitions that link most of the rooms mimic the transformational images that first greeted and become an introduction to the next space. The most engaging one is a visual prelude to Sandalstrand section and depicts Astrup’s farm, home and gardens, today a museum, Astruptunet. You can walk upon its stones, feel the rough wooden slats of the cottages, and let the golden flowers tickle your ankles, as you slip further into Astrup’s world. The children who were visiting when I was there were transfixed by this space.
Vicki Saltzman, director of communications, shared her thoughts about why this exhibit is a perfect fit for The Clark, nestled in the Berkshire Mountains on 140 bucolic acres.
That setting noted by Saltzman is the western part of Norway, the Jølster region, where the artist was raised, along with his 13 siblings. His father was a poor and pious Lutheran pastor. They lived in what appeared to be a lovely white clapboard home, which served as the parsonage.
Yet their existence there was far from idyllic. My tour guide, Alexis Goodin, curatorial research associate at The Clark, told me that Astrup remembered being able to push pencils through the clapboards, as they did not overlap, and insulation was non-existent. Eventually, most of his home had to be demolished, which distressed the artist gravely.
Nonetheless, these little inconveniences did not prevent Astrup from loving and reliving his life here. He even came back to live in the intact part of his childhood home when he first married, and throughout his life this place remained a subject of his artwork.
The stunning image “Barren Mountain (Kollen)” (1905 – 1906), with its ancient giant of a craggy mountain juxtaposed against the calm teal river and dotted with the colorful farm homes is truly allegorical. This beautiful but oppressive mountain dwarfs the farm, encapsulating the relationship between humans and nature one confronts in the Norwegian landscape.
Greens: Capturing the Landscape of Western Norway
The exhibit text tells us that Munch “reportedly commented Astrup has discovered the west Norway colors, the green in particular,” which for Astrup was high praise. Ironically, Astrup called them “poisonous greens.”
“By the Open Door” (before 1911) portrays two women wistfully gazing out of their home, trapped by the rain. It is a study of greens: from granny smith, to pine, from emerald to peacock, finally ending in another spectrum with his inclusion of marine blue, thus extending the interior to the beckoning, yet soggy exterior.
On my tour with Goodin, I was grateful that she stopped by a piece I had glossed over, “The Shady Side of Jølster Parsonage” (before 1908). Photos of this piece do not give it justice. One needs to experience it up close to realize Astrup’s technical mastery in his use of this one color and attention to details that subtly differentiate each type of foliage. You can feel the moisture in this painting, as the Northern clime becomes a lush tropical forest.
The art of the print
Influenced by Japanese technique ukiyo-e, the artist’s marvelous prints are described as “complex and idiosyncratic.” He would use a variety of woodblocks for a single image, and these could be integrated into other compositions.
He often used both sides of the block and also worked with oil-based inks, resulting in brilliant color, but they are very slow to dry. Using this time-consuming process, it could take several months to complete one piece, but it guaranteed that each of Astrup’s prints would be unique.
The artist was also fluid when depicting site-specific locations and compositions, for example, by adding or subtracting a figure or changing the light.
I appreciate the way this installation at The Clark offers several chances to view multiple pieces of the same subject defined by location. It provides us with a way to examine his perspective and process. For instance, in “The Moon in May” studies from around 1908, there are four versions on display: two with a person planting, two without people, and one is even placed in a different season—winter. The last rendition is especially lovely, an almost monochromatic silvery blue delight.
My favorite pieces are the prints entitled “Foxgloves.” They are so intricate and painstakingly rendered. You can somehow feel the texture of the birch bark, the silkiness of the moss. They make you want to enter this realm, with its perfect melding of reality and fantasy, which so often inspires Norwegian writers, musicians, and visual artists.
Crisis and reinvention
After Astrup’s third solo show in Kristiania in 1911, he began to question his place in the art world, as his critics became increasing less enamored with his newer works. He set off for Berlin to reinvent himself. Once in Germany, he took printing classes, hung out with a group of Norwegian writers and artists, and became drawn to the avantgarde. These experiences revitalized him and transformed his technique, expression, and use of color.
Upon his return to Norway, he moved to Sandalstrand, not far from his childhood home in Jølster. There, he and his wife, Engel Sunde Astrup, an accomplished textile artist and stalwart partner, created a home and farm, with terraced gardens, recycled structures, and a studio.
Nature and Myth
The deep purple walls in the last room, the color of magic, mystery and mayhem are delightful. Entitled “Nature and Myth,” it is probably the most Norwegian room in the entire installation.
Almost all of Astrup’s pieces are, of course, very specific to Norway, but here, we see how this landscape is more than a concrete reality, more than an obstacle to cultivate, more than something to inspire. Here we see how the land has seeped into the sinew and bones of its people. Here we see how the landscape is core to the Norwegian culture and is the framework of their mythology. Perhaps this is why Astrup resonates so deeply with Norwegians because what he is truly painting are their practical and spiritual rituals.
It also includes elements of the holiday that led to his father’s objection to his participation. First, it is derived from a pagan fertility ritual, referenced by the pregnant woman watching from the right-hand side. The Hardanger fiddle is being played, considered the devil’s music to pietists and sacré bleu, there is sinful dancing, all revealed by a fire breathing dragon emerging from the bonfire. I imagine the artist as a voyeur watching from above, crouched behind a rock, too scared to participate but too tempted to withdraw.
On the evening I visited, June 23, The Clark had a special Midsummer program. It began with an introduction by Harriet Berg, outgoing Norwegian Consul General for New York, who spoke about how she was so touched to see Astrup’s work finally in the United States. She underlined how his simple manner of depicting Norwegian nature and sensibilities resonates with Norwegians.
On this evening of St. Hans or St. John’s Day (a Christianization of the pagan holiday), The Clark could not have chosen a better way to allow the audience to experience what Astrup had so longed for as a child, as a Midsummer bonfire accompanied by Norwegian folk dancing and music. The latter included several traditional instruments: the Hardanger fiddle, as well as the lure, a cow horn and a type of temporal flute that Norwegians rake in spring from young birch branches.
After the last note drifted into the night, I walked closer to the dancing bonfire, a nearly full moon lighting my path. The sun was descending slowly and eventually devoured by the Berkshire mountains. Astrup would have reveled in these moments!
And you, too, can revel in Astrup’s world. Why not spend your summer with Astrup, either in person or virtually? The installation will be at The Clark through Sept. 19, 2021.
While at The Clark, check out the museum shop, where you can purchase the extensive Astrup catalog as well as other Norwegian books. There is quite a variety. Some focus on Norwegian cooking and nature, and others on Nordic literary greats: Knut Hamsun, Sigrid Undset, and Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aualire with their iconic Norwegian Folk Tales. Perhaps the one most unexpected title was Socks from Around Norway by Nina Granlund Saether. These books can also be purchased online.
The Clark is also offering several virtual programs, including Astrup’s Prints and Process, now online. On July 15, a talk, “Nikolai and Engel Astrup: An Artistic Partnership,” is scheduled. Children can also enjoy participating in making fairy homes that can be photographed and posted online.
Learn more at the Clark Art Institute website: www.clarkart.edu.
This article originally appeared in the July 23, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.