The lush, wild landscapes of Norwegian painter Nikolai Astrup head to leafy Dulwich

By Richard Moss | 12 December 2015

Dulwich Picture Gallery lines up the first UK showing of paintings and prints by Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928)

a colourful woodcut of two figures picking flowers among trees
Nikolai Astrup, Foxgloves, 1927, Colour woodcut on paper© The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Anders Bergersen
From the distinctive Northern light and bitter lakes to the snow-capped peaks and vibrant meadows there is something sublime yet intensely vigorous about the beautiful landscape paintings and prints of Norwegian painter Nikolai Astrup.

Astrup seems to embody the myths and folklore of Norway and, along with Edvard Munch, he is today credited with expanding the artistic possibilities of woodcuts in the early twentieth century to capture the lush, wild landscapes and traditional way of life of his homelands in the west of the country.

Printmaking was integral to Astrup’s artistic practice, to which he took a painterly approach, consciously blurring the boundaries between prints and paintings by adding texture and colour with a brush, sometimes all but overpainting his prints.

a painting of a small cluster of houses on a hillside with meadow flowers in the foreground and pink sky behind
Nikolai Astrup, A Clear Night in June, 1905-1907, Oil on canvas,© The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE
Rather like Stanley Spencer’s, Cookham, it was Astrup’s home at Sandalstrand (now known as ‘Astruptunet’) in the district of Jølster that became his muse and inspiration.

A magical place of potential transformation, today the series of artworks he painted there seem to fulfil his stated desire to create a ‘national style’ that was quintessentially Norwegian both in feeling and subject-matter. 

Astrup was trained in the painterly naturalist tradition by fellow Norwegians Harriet Backer (1845-1932) and Christian Krohg (1852-1925) in Oslo and Paris but it was during study tours in Europe that he identified the importance of the innocent, untutored eye in recording truth in nature.

Exposure to the naïve style of Henri ‘le Douanier’ Rousseau (1844–1910) and Maurice Denis (1870–1943) reinforced this conviction and encouraged him to return to his childhood home where he would create his own individual response to the landscape, shaped by the impressions and images remembered from his childhood years.

a painting of a group of people dancing on a hillside as a bonfire billows smoke
Nikolai Astrup, Midsummer Eve Bonfire, Before 1915, Oil on canvas© The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE
According to Dulwich Picture Gallery Director and co-curator Ian A. C. Dejardin, Astrup was hailed - even as an art student - as "the great new hope of Norwegian art at the turn of the twentieth century".

"Astrup deserves to be celebrated outside his native Norway,” he adds. "In painting he rejected the stylistic trickery of aerial perspective, resulting in canvasses of intense immediacy and brightness of colour.

"In prints he followed his own innovative path, laboriously reworking his woodcuts so that every print is a unique work of art, and – as a final work of art in its own right – he built himself a home, Sandalstrand, on the precipitous shore of the lake that must be one of the most beautiful artists’ homes in the world.”

The exhibition will begin by welcoming visitors to a beautiful slice of Norway with landscapes providing “an almost 360 degree view” of the area surrounding Astrup's father’s parsonage at Ålhus.

A painting of a lake with the sky reflected blue in its surface and snowy hills hugging the distant shore
Nikolai Astrup, March Atmosphere at Jølstravatnet, Before 1908, Oil on canvas© Private Collection, Oslo. Photo © Anders Bergersen
It will then explore the radical innovations in printmaking and painting that came to define Astrup’s career including the atmospheric depictions of the famous Midsummer Eve festival which informed his series of striking bonfire paintings.

Astrup constantly strove to recapture his intensely-felt experiences of specific combinations of light, shadow and colour at given moments in the ever-changing climate of Jølster as seen in the many-coloured masterpiece A Night in June in the Garden (1909), a print which exists in a variety of impressions, two of which will be on display.

The exhibition will also look closely at Astrup’s largest and most ambitious print, Foxgloves, which is displayed alongside the original oil painting of 1909 to reveal his creative process.

Sandalstrand, the remarkable farm-garden and family home created by Astrup and his wife, Engel looked across the lake to the village of Ålhus and together they transformed a barely habitable place into a richly planted oasis. It was also home to their sprawling family of eight children.

a painting of a woman and child collecting rhubarb from a garden with small trees in blossom and a lake and snow streaked mountains in the distance
Nikolai Astrup, Rhubarb, 1911, Oil on canvas© The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE
The farm came to embody Astrup’s personal vision of what a farm garden in Jølster could be and proved to be not only the most distinctive and important artist’s garden in Norway, but also a significant example of a garden used as an integral part of its artist-maker’s creative practice.

It also provided him with many artistic motifs which became the subjects of his paintings and prints, such as Rhubarb (1911) and Spring in Jølster (1925). Fruits and flowers from the garden were also used to decorate the interior of the farm and to create his ‘interior still lifes’; examples on display include Interior Still Life: Living Room at Sandalstrand (c.1921).

Despite creating a rural idyll that fueled some of the finest landscapes of the early twentieth century, Astrup was plagued by ill health. He died of pneumonia on January 21 1928, at the age of 47, after complications with his lungs from a lifetime battle with asthma and tuberculosis.

“A remarkable man, and a great artist,” adds  Dejardin, “yet this is the first ever show in this country devoted to him. It will be, as we intend all exhibitions at Dulwich Picture Gallery to be, a revelation.”

Nikolai Astrup: Painting Norway is at Dulwich Picture Gallery from February 5 2016 - May 15 2016

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

a painting of a strangely shaped willow tree resembling a figure with outstretched arms on the edge of a lake
Nikolai Astrup, Spring Night and Willow© Photograph Dag Fosse
a painting of a white wood slatted house built on a foundation of drystone with a poplar tree in front and mountains in the distance
Nikolai Astrup, The Parsonage,Oil on canvas© The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE
a painting of a tree that resembles a writhing figure on the snow covered bank of a lake
Nikolai Astrup, A Morning in March, c.1920, Oil on canvas© The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE
a painting of a small procession of people with a coffin in a green valley with snow capped peaks in the distance
Nikolai Astrup, Funeral Day in Jølster, Before 1908, Oil on canvas© The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE
a painting of a valley with houses, meadows, trees in the distance and snow covered mountains
Nikolai Astrup, Marsh Marigold Night, c.1915, Colour woodcut on paper© The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE
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