The Clark Art Institute gives Norwegian painter Nikolai Astrup his US debut

Everyone knows the great Edvard Munch. The painter is so famous today that an imposing new waterfront museum named after him and dedicated to him will open in Oslo this fall. But, surprisingly, Norwegians revere many other great Indigenous artists emerging from Munch’s shadow as the world finally catches up with them. Almost a century after his untimely death, painter and horticulturist Nikolai Astrup now receives his due at the Clark Art Institute.

One of America’s great little fine arts museums, the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown in the Berkshires of Massachusetts has just opened Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway, exhibiting more than eighty-five works that represent Astrup’s first exhibition in the United States (until September 19, 2021).

The eldest of fourteen children born into the family of a Lutheran pastor, Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928) grew up in the village of Ålhus, in western Norway, just north of Bergen on Lake Jølster. Astrup and his wife Engel had seven children and constantly lived on limited means, while his chronic poor health ultimately led to his death from pneumonia a few years before reaching his fifties.

Almost a generation younger than Munch, Astrup was twenty-five when Norway gained independence from Sweden in 1905. Thanks to his tours and his studies on the continent, in particular in London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and even crossing the Mediterranean to Algeria, the artist was able to tap into the air of political time and cultural, as well as staying versed in the explosive modernist art movements of his time.

Yet just as an artist like Cézanne had Provence or O’Keeffe New Mexico, Astrup has continued to produce landscapes that forever tie him firmly to his beloved lakeside surroundings and to his hard farm named Sandalstrand that it has built over decades.

The rectory in which Astrup grew up featured prominently in his works throughout his career. An oil on canvas on which he worked for years but left unfinished, Birthday party in the presbytery garden shows children and adults — this is his wife Engel in the white and blue dress — relaxing and socializing by the lake in a composition with a hint of The large bowl to that.

Known for his use of bright colors as he moved between paintings and woodcuts, Astrup applied shades of green and thick foliage as vividly as if he were a Rousseau du Nord Douanier, as in his Digital oil on canvas forest scene.

One of Alstrup’s most popular motifs was that of marigolds, with A clear night in June (1905-07) teeming with yellow flower heads in a verdant landscape, much like a complementary color woodcut on paper called Marigold Marshes Night (around 1915).

Perhaps his use of green was no accident as Astrup was “green” long before the term was in fashion. He was not only a farmer, but a learned horticulturalist who worked to save plants threatened by agricultural development. He dedicated his steep terraced lands to all manner of floral and herbaceous plants, as well as garden items, especially rhubarb appearing frequently in his homages to nature.

In his penchant for hallucinatory, pagan folk themes that were problematic in a time and place of intense formal religiosity, Astrup often turned trees into trolls whose branches formed distinct fingers, and, as he did in his famous work Saint-Jean bonfire, depicts swirling flames like dragons.

Inspired as many others like Edvard Munch were by Japanese woodcuts, Astrup made a living from his printed works. In a 1917 letter cited in the Comprehensive Astrup Database produced by the KODE Art Museums in Bergen, Astrup wrote that “Munch is very excited about my woodcuts and has already purchased 3 of my things. Astrup went further by adding brush and sometimes painting over his prints themselves, as in the woodcut. Bird on a stone (c. 1905-114) which abounds with a deep blue in the water and brilliant snow-capped peaks.

After his death, Astrup’s wife, Engel, who featured in several of his works and was a textile maker herself, handed over the Sandalstrand farm and her workshop to visitors. Today, the site continues to be a seasonal museum called Astruptunet (thin drone footage of the site and its thatched roofs show everything still looks like it was in Astrup’s day).

Even if you’re not a Norwegian-born Clark Exhibition spectator, the richly portrayed bucolic world of Nikolai Astrup might leave you dreaming of a homeland you’ve never known.

The Clark, officially The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, is known for its permanent European and American collections, from Botticelli, Fragonard, Manet and Renoir to Sargent and Homer. Recent additions to the buildings were designed by Tadao Ando.

The Clark exhibition was curated by MaryAnne Stevens who in 2016 presented Astrup in London at the Dulwich Photo Gallery. She also edited the accompanying catalog, which includes an essay by My Struggle (Min Kamp) author Karl Ove Knausgård.

Later this year, Astrup’s works currently at the Clark will return to Bergen and the KODE Art Museums many of which are in the permanent collection (October 15, 2021 – January 23, 2022), followed show early 2022 in Stockholm at Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde museum, housed in a former mansion on the town’s island of Djurgården.

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About Bernice D. Brewer

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