Clark Art Institute introduces Nikolai Astrup to audiences in first-ever U.S. museum exhibition

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Clark Art Institute introduces Nikolai Astrup to audiences in first-ever U.S. museum exhibition
Installation view.

WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS.- As part of its summer 2021 exhibition season, the Clark Art Institute presents the first North American museum exhibition focused on the Norwegian painter Nikolai Astrup (1880–1928), who deftly wove tradition and innovation into his artistic production. Astrup is considered one of Norway’s most important artists, yet he is largely unknown outside of his homeland. Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway, on view June 19 through September 19, 2021, features more than eighty-five works and celebrates this brilliant painter, printmaker, and horticulturalist.

“We are so eager to present the works of Nikolai Astrup here this summer— his paintings and woodcuts are a revelation and we look forward to introducing them to our visitors,” said Olivier Meslay, Hardymon Director of the Clark. “Few artists have created such a singular style, so heavily influenced by a very specific sense of place, as did Astrup. His love of nature, of his Norwegian homeland, and of Nordic folklore and traditions are palpable components of his work. They beckon us to find joy and inspiration in the pastoral world of Nikolai Astrup.”

Astrup’s oeuvre is notable for its intense, colorful palette, and the magical realism of his remarkable landscapes. Paintings and woodcuts from all periods of his career are presented in the exhibition, including multiple impressions of print compositions that reveal how Astrup modified the mood and meaning of these works through changes in color and the addition or deletion of motifs, often using multiple blocks to create his complex prints.

“Nikolai Astrup’s landscapes of towering mountains, a fjordlike lake, small settlements of traditional buildings and gardens, seen in sharply differentiated seasons and under changing weather conditions invite those who see his work to journey into his visionary world,” said MaryAnne Stevens, guest curator of the exhibition. “Astrup chose deliberately to return to the relatively isolated region of his childhood home, finding there the subjects through which he could both explore a personal form of Modernism and celebrate a sense of Norwegian national identity, a sentiment which he shared with his great fellow Norwegians, composer Edvard Grieg and playwright Henrik Ibsen.”

Raised in the remote region of western Norway overlooking Lake Jølster, Astrup pursued his artistic training in Kristiania (Oslo) and Paris, but soon returned to his childhood home and pursued his career from his rural, mountainous homeland, living first on his family’s homestead and then eventually settling on a property called Sandalstrand, situated across the lake from where he was raised. There he created a farmstead that served as a source of inspiration for his artistic purposes, and whose gardens, created out of the rugged landscape, sustained his family and proved an early manifestation of ecological conservation.

The area’s sublime landscape, distinctive atmosphere, and ethereal summer light captivated Astrup, while his childhood memories—marked by local traditions and Norwegian folklore—deeply shaped his perception of place. Astrup’s work responded to, and helped shape, Norway’s emerging national identity.

Guest curator MaryAnne Stevens is an independent scholar and the former Director of Academic Affairs at the Royal Academy, London. Stevens organized an earlier exhibition on Astrup that was presented at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London in 2016. The Clark’s curatorial team, including Lipp Chief Curator Esther Bell, Curatorial Research Associate Alexis Goodin, and Marx Director of Exhibitions Kathleen Morris, worked closely with Stevens to develop the project for presentation at the Institute.

Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway is presented in the Clark’s special exhibition galleries in the Clark Center. The exhibition travels to the KODE Art Museums, Bergen, Norway, from October 15, 2021–January 23, 2022 and to Prins Eugen’s Waldemarsudde, Stockholm, from February 19–May 29, 2022. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue of the same name published by the Clark and distributed by Yale University Press.

Home and Homeland

When he was only three years old, Nikolai Astrup’s family moved to the small village of Ålhus on the north side of Lake Jølster in western Norway, where his father was the Lutheran pastor. Together with his many siblings, Astrup grew up in the church’s white clap-board parsonage. This house, as well as its garden, the lake, and the surrounding mountains, would go on to become features in many of his paintings—each work informed, in part, by Astrup’s childhood memories.

Astrup memorialized his childhood home in paintings and photographs, including The Parsonage (undated), Rainy Atmosphere beneath the Trees at Jølster Parsonage (before 1908), and Birthday in the Parsonage Garden (1911–1927). A haunting composition, The Shady Side of the Jølster Parsonage (before 1909) features the empty parsonage, which was condemned as unsanitary by Jølster officials in 1900. The impending loss of his childhood home, one of Astrup’s most important subjects, created a sense of disorientation. The child looking into the abandoned building may symbolize Astrup’s yearning for his childhood.

After pursuing artistic instruction in Kristina (Oslo) and Paris from age nineteen to twenty-one, Astrup returned to Jølster in 1902, and focused his work on the familiar surroundings of his homeland. Astrup determined to capture both the untamed majesty of the mountains and the cultivated world of his father’s home and garden in his paintings. In Spring Night in The Garden (1903), women kneel in a freshly worked patch of earth, sowing seeds by the light of the moon. The painting records the beginning of the all-too-short growing season. Astrup would explore this motif in other paintings and prints, including The Moon in May, four versions of which are on view in the exhibition.

A Clear Night in June (1905-7) features a farmstead with mountains looming in the distance and a field rich with marsh marigolds in the foreground. The marsh marigolds were eventually destroyed by drainage and cultivation, a fact that Astrup, who was committed to the preservation of local plant species, deeply lamented. In A June Night and Old Jølster Farm (before 1911), the farm, with its barns, storage buildings, and residence, is nestled in the shadow of a mountain that rises majestically behind it. A verdant field, rich with marsh marigolds, fills the foreground. This composition would inspire the print Marsh Marigold Night (before 1915), one of the most luminous and textured woodcuts of Astrup’s production.

Astrup eventually purchased his own farmstead, named Sandalstrand, across the lake from his childhood home. Here, he and his wife Engel raised their children and set about creating an extensive farm-garden. Over fifteen years, Astrup increased the number of dwellings from two to five and improved the barn for livestock and storage. To increase the farm-garden’s productivity, he embarked on ambitious horticultural projects, making physical modifications to the terrain by constructing a sequence of terraces supported by green turf walls. He also landscaped the terrain by building a grotto, sculpting trees, and laying out mini-waterfalls.

The arrival of spring to Sandalstrand after each long, harsh Norwegian winter was a source of profound joy for Astrup. Growing Season Weather (1918–21) celebrates spring, showing one of the terraces above Sandalstrand. The return of spring also brought the rapid growth of turnips, shallots, radishes, and potatoes to feed his family. In the painting, his wife Engel and two of their children examine seedlings growing in a sloped garden bed. Astrup took pleasure in transforming the landscape at Sandalstrand, turning its steep slopes into productive fruit and vegetable patches, which can be seen in works including Apple Tree in Bloom (after 1925), in which an apple tree in full blossom takes center stage in the painting, symbolic of Astrup’s commitment to grafting and planting apple trees on his property, and Rhubarb at Sandalstrand (after 1925), which also reveals Astrup’s determination to create a productive farm-garden by constructing living accommodations for his ever-growing family through the assembly of older buildings.

Creative Practice: Paintings and Prints

Astrup often depicted the same motif across different media. He would create a composition as an oil painting and then translate the subject into a print. Equally, a print could form the basis for a subsequent painting. A number of works, titled Foxgloves, demonstrate the interplay between media that characterizes Astrup’s production: an oil painting from 1909 preceded the carving of wood blocks for a large-scale print of a slightly different composition, which were made between 1915 and 1920. The print then provided the motif for a subsequent painting. Astrup employed the Japanese ukiyo-e method of color woodcut production, laying a sheet of paper over an inked or painted woodblock and using a tool to rub the back side of the paper by hand, transferring the pigment to the paper. The Foxgloves prints are among the most complex technical and visual achievements of Astrup’s printmaking career.

Astrup became interested in Japanese prints while studying in Paris, at a moment when the passion for ukiyo-e prints was at its height there. Both the technique and aesthetic of ukiyo-e prints influenced his own distinctive production. Bird on a Stone (c. 1905 – 14) is the most Japanese-inspired of Astrup’s prints. The vertical composition and signature echo conventions used by nineteenth-century ukiyo-e printmakers such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), artists Astrup admired. The tree in the foreground, acting as a screen through which Lake Jølster and the mountain are seen, is a formal device also often used in Japanese prints. In the print A Night in June in the Garden (1909), the mountain Klauva, seen across the lake from the Astrup family’s parsonage at Ålhus, radiates red. While the red glow records a local natural phenomenon, Astrup’s Norwegian mountain shares an aesthetic affinity with Japanese ukiyo-e prints of Mount Fuji.

Myth and Magic: Folktales and Traditions

Astrup’s imagination was shaped by Norwegian folktales. As a child, he read the stories and legends collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, introducing Astrup to trolls, talking animals, and other characters inextricably bound up with the mountains and fjords of Norway. Astrup would imbue many of his landscapes with magic and myth, demonstrating how crucial these elements were to the formation of a specifically Norwegian culture and identity. Midsummer Eve celebrations captivated him as a child but given their pagan origin, Astrup’s father, the Lutheran pastor at Ålhus, forbade his family from partaking in these popular celebrations. The young Astrup watched the festivities from afar, and their bright fires, billowing smoke, and swirling dancers made a deep impression on him, inspiring dramatic paintings and a woodcut print of this subject.

At the center of Preparations for the Midsummer Eve Bonfire (before 1908), a man, helped by a young boy, secures pine boughs onto a towering pyre that will be consumed in flame. Behind them, another such tower dances with flames, the unlit dark green boughs forming a dragon-like creature that emerges from the fire and billowing smoke. Astrup often merged the mythic or fantastic in his depictions of the landscape of western Norway, richly animating the landscape. In Midsummer Eve Bonfire (before 1911), Astrup includes a pregnant woman to underscore its origins as a celebration of fertility dating back to Pagan times. Music was also an important part of these celebrations, provided in Jølster by a local Hardanger fiddler, Johannes B. Nedrebø (1854–1934). In Midsummer Eve Bonfire (after 1917), Nedrebø sits on a boulder to the left of center, playing the instrument tucked into his lower chest, as dancers whirl about and bonfires blaze. Until the 1920s the Hardanger fiddle, most often used to play folk music, was banned from use in churches as it was considered by many, including Astrup’s father, to be the “devil’s instrument”.

In perhaps his most iconic print, Spring Night and Willow (1917), Astrup transformed objects in nature into mythic beings. The pollarded willow tree has become a goblin or troll, and the snow-covered mountain beyond Lake Jølster is anthropomorphized into a reclining female nude. Astrup’s simplified palette of gray, white, and rust conveys the stark quality of this unworldly landscape just emerging from winter.

Early Environmentalism

Astrup’s botanical interests led him to exchange specimens with neighbors, engage in grafting and cross-fertilization, and preserve plants threatened by new agricultural practices. He grew vegetables, fruit bushes, fruit trees, and many varieties of rhubarb, as well as encouraging the growth of both wild and cultivated flowers. By 1928, Sandalstrand presented an extraordinary sculpted and worked landscape.

Sandalstrand’s garden provided Astrup with motifs for paintings and prints, including Growing Season Weather (1918-21). The abundance of growth takes center stage in works such as Apple Tree in Bloom (after 1925), and Night Light, Rhubarb, Goose and Bird Cherry Tree (c. 1927), while the accommodation of wildflowers in the farm-garden is noted in the foreground of Rhubarb at Sandalstrand (after 1925). As early as 1919, Sandalstrand had become, much to Astrup’s apparent discomfort—although possibly also secret pride—a celebrated tourist attraction. Known today as Astruptunet, the artist’s home opened as a museum in 1986. The gallery there contains permanent exhibitions of Astrup's work.

“Nikolai Astrup’s commitment—well before his time—to conservation of the environment, both natural and built, and to the protection of threatened flora and a prescient awareness of climate change is another fascinating part of learning about this artist,” said Stevens. “In his remarkable farm-garden, Astrup worked his land as a source of food for his family and its sculpted landscape and rich planting served as the motifs for his uniquely modernist paintings. When considering artists who made gardens in order to control the subjects of their art and to experiment with new visual languages, we are reminded of Claude Monet with his garden at Giverny, but now, I hope Astrup and his garden might receive equal attention.”

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