Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: Nikolai Astrup - Norway's Other Great Painter

Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: Nikolai Astrup - Norway's Other Great Painter

Article excerpt

The Norwegian artist Nikolai Astrup has been unjustly overshadowed by Edvard Munch. But that is about to change, says Claudia Massie

'Edvard Munch, I cannot abide,' wrote Nikolai Astrup in a letter to his friend Arne Giverholt. 'Everything that he does is supposed to be so brilliant that it doesn't have to be more than merely sketched.'

Near contemporaries, Munch and Astrup were both innovative and admired painters but while Munch is today one of the few household-name artists, thanks to one misunderstood and overrated painting, Astrup has been neglected by everyone outside Norway. Happily, this is a travesty soon to be rectified by Dulwich Picture Gallery, which next month stages the first major exhibition of Astrup's work to be held in Britain.

Unlike many other Norwegian painters, Munch included, Astrup did not abandon his native land to make a career further south. A pastor's son from Ålhus in the Jølster district of western Norway, Astrup left his region only briefly to study and travel. He saw Oslo (then known as Kristiania), Paris and London but found all the motifs that would define his work in Jølster. The paintings and woodcuts he produced there form one of the most comprehensive portraits of any landscape ever made. They are also among the strangest.

Astrup's work was about more than the mere shape of hills, arrangement of farm buildings or play of light on the surface of the lake. These things he painted with a singular intensity of colour and an absolute mastery of the limpid northern light, but he also succeeded in representing the complex and ancient human relationship with the land. The layers of folklore and paganism that seeped through the cracks in the nominally Christian community preached to by his father were never far away in Astrup's world.

Foxgloves by Nikolai Astrup

Astrup senior was fiercely opposed to his son's artistic ambitions and when the boy went to study art in Kristiania in 1899, at the age of 19, it was without parental support. Impoverished and sometimes sustaining himself on nothing more than a pocketful of raw oats, his lifestyle recalls Knut Hamsun's novel Hunger , which had been published a few years earlier. Unlike Hamsun's protagonist, however, Astrup's talents were recognised and after a period of study he was awarded a travel stipend that allowed him to make a brief tour of Europe. He studied further in Paris and admired the work of Gauguin, Hokusai and Henri Rousseau before returning to Jølster and his father's damp, oppressive parsonage. He remained there until after he married and rarely left the region again.

The marriage was not without controversy. Astrup's bride, Engel, was just 15 and this caused some scandal. According to a letter he wrote to his friend Henrik Lund, the union may also have caused him to lose a valuable grant. 'It is true that I married a rather young girl but I do not think that it is immoral to a degree that I should be deprived of my stipend for that reason.'

Astrup's family seldom feature in his work but the local people of Jølster are a recurring motif. His paintings of the country folk at work in the fields, holding a funeral or dancing at the Midsummer bonfire are closer in spirit to Bruegel than to Astrup's romantic or realist contemporaries. Astrup's people are part of the landscape and unaware of his glance. While another artist might add melodrama to the funeral or unleash a bosom before the bonfire, Astrup hides far away and studies with an awed detachment. …

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