EXHIBITION REVIEW: Painting Norway: Nikolai Astrup

By: Hazel Rowland | Date 20.02.2016
The Dulwich Picture Gallery present the UK’s first ever exhibition on landscape painter Nikolai Astrup, the under appreciated Norwegian contemporary of Edvard Munch.
There cannot be many artists who can depict the same setting over and over again with little change in style and still remain captivating. But Nikolai Astrup is one such artist. Born the eldest son to a strict pastor father in 1880, Astrup moved with his family to the village of Ålhus, Jølster at the age of three. Although he had stints of studying in Oslo in Paris between 1899 and 1902, it was to the quiet village of Ålhus that Astrup eventually returned to for good, living there permanently from 1902 to 1913.

It was Ålhus, then – Astrup’s childhood village – that was to have a lasting influence on the artist. He depicted its houses, mountains, lakes and trees almost obsessively, so it is this same scenery which dominates his work. But the gallery’s curators have not given undue attention to some Scandinavian one-trick pony, who repeatedly painted the same setting for lack of imagination. Rather, Astrup’s familiarity with his landscape meant that he could capture all its different facets by portraying similar subjects (sometimes even exactly the same subject when it comes to his prints) in astonishingly varied ways.

The curators have arranged Painting Norway: Nikolai Astrup thematically. Each room explores Astrup’s different interests, opening with the father’s parsonage in which he grew up, and ending with his depictions of midsummer bonfire festivities celebrated by the villagers every year. This arrangement is more logical than a chronological one, partly because once Astrup reached maturity it is difficult to detect much development in the artist’s style. But more importantly, in being arranged thematically, viewers can directly compare Astrup’s different approaches to the same subject at various points in his lifetime.

His prints provide a good example of this, as Astrup would reuse the same woodcuts, allowing him to return to the same subject again over an extended period of time. Yet it was important for Astrup that each print should be unique. When he reused a print, he applied different colours and retouched the final piece with paint, resulting in prints with vastly different moods. The contrast between the two different print versions of Marsh Marigold Night (1915) is particularly striking. One is black and white. It is stark, and, in being stripped back to its basic shapes, it appears dramatically primitive. Its coloured version on the other hand, is utterly charming. The sunlight peeps gently through the clouds creating a tranquil scene. In this instance, the contrast between the two prints is especially noticeable, but even in other prints, where the changes in colour and detail are subtler, they still significantly alter the work’s impact.

The two prints of Foxgloves (1923) further emphasise Astrup’s achievements as a printer. The print has multiple layers, constituting a foreground scene of two girls gathering berries in a wood, cows in the middleground, and either a mountain or trees in the background depending on which print you are looking at. The print is incredibly detailed: leaves delicately tumble down from the top of the print, while the pattern of the bark of the trees is minutely depicted.

This level of detail is also found in Astrup’s paintings. Astrup refused to use aerial perspective in his landscapes – the idea that objects further away should be painted less clearly. The result is paintings that are utterly exuberant in their detail, filled to the brim with expression, and with little room for subtlety in their heavy layers of paint. In View of the Parsonage the greenery is lusciously alive, while Rhubarb (1911) is unapologetically intense with its contrast between the white of the woman’s dress and flowers against the greens and blues of the trees, sky and mountains.

Following their autumn exhibition on M.C. Escher, Dulwich Picture Gallery are developing a reputation for putting the spotlight on unfamiliar artists. Indeed, Painting Norway: Nikolai Astrup is the first UK show ever to be dedicated to this lesser-known Norwegian contemporary of Edvard Munch. Yet given the incredible mastery and expressive power that Astrup is capable of, one can only hope this is only the start of greater British attention to Norway’s great but underappreciated artist.


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