Sunday, 27 March 2016

Nikolai Astrup: Painting Norway. Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (5 February-15 May 2016)

 By the Open Door (1911)

I am neither arrogant nor foolish enough to pretend to have knowledge of every artist whose work and career have been successful enough to gain acclaim during their lifetime and/or warrant inclusion into art history narratives.  In fact, during all the years I have spent looking at and studying art, gradually defining and developing my own areas of interest and personal stylistic preferences, it has been the discovery of artists completely unknown to me and discovered quite by chance, which have proved to be the most exciting and enduring.  Helene Schjerfbeck, Yayoi Kusama and Marie Laurencin are three such discoveries over the years.  Now I can add Nikolai Astrup to the list.  A weekly scan through the art section of Time Out magazine, drew my attention to this exhibition.  As I am going on a cruise along the Norwegian fjords this summer combined with the vividly coloured painting featured in the review, Midsummer Eve Bonfire (1915) - immediately identifiable as early twentieth century (one of my favoured historical eras) - made the long hike down to Dulwich inevitable.

Midsummer Eve Bonfire (1915)

Astrup (1880-1928) was one of Norway’s most renowned landscape painters and printmakers, yet until now remained completely unknown outside his native country.  Art history has favoured his contemporary, Edvard Munch, probably because Munch left Norway to live and work in major art capitals of the time -  Paris, Berlin, Munich - while Astrup, with the exception of a one year residency in Paris (where he studied at the Académie Colarossi and became influenced by the work of Maurice Dennis, Henri Rousseau and Japanese woodcuts) he lived along the same fjord in North West Norway all his life, only moving along the shoreline from one small village to another.  In fact, this exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is the first time his work has been seen in the United Kingdom.  Astrup’s paintings of the surroundings in which he lived transformed the Norwegian landscape into a mythical, living entity.  He was an exquisite painter and driven by the desire to create a ‘national style’, Norwegian in feeling and subject matter, combining elements of realism and a conscious naïveté.  His luminous landscapes appear to be simple, beautiful landscape studies but they are shot through with an uneasy strangeness.  The son of a Lutheran pastor, Astrup’s visual language reference aspects of Norwegian folklore as much as they do the Norwegian landscape and the juxtaposition between Christian and Pagan, which the affected Astrup the man is evident on the canvases of Astrup the artist.

Foxgloves (1920)

Two paintings, A Morning in March (1920) and The Parsonage (1928), demonstrates this duality within Astrup’s oeuvre.  A Morning in March depicts a fjord shoreline under the snow and ice.  A bare tree rises up from the rocks’ edge.  The landscape is bleak, the tree almost troll-like in its appearance.  In contrast, The Parsonage is a masterclass in realism.  A beautifully accurate rendering of the artist’s childhood home.  One of my personal favourites from the exhibition is A Clear Night in June (1905-07), another view of the village of his childhood.  The finesse in the execution of this still and calming landscape, with its balance of cool snowcapped mountain and waterfall against the warm, yellow marigolds is riveting.

A Morning in March (1920)    

The Parsonage (1928)

Unless you are lucky enough to live within a stone’s throw from Dulwich Picture Gallery, the venue can feel almost as remote as a Norwegian fjord to get to (it took me 2½ by road, rail and tube).  However, any and all efforts to visit it will be more than rewarded for.  The exhibition contains over 90 oil paintings and prints, including works from private collections never exhibited before.  The consistency in both his subject matter and colour palette, ensure a vibrant and cohesive collection of paintings which deserve to be seen by as many people as possible.  Nikolai Astrup deserves the attention and it is only a matter of time before his name becomes as known globally as Edvard Munch.

A Clear Night in June (1905-07)

Spring Atmosphere at an Old Cotter's Farm (1907)