The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown (Berkshire County), Massachusetts is on a rural campus of 140 acres of rolling hills, meadows, streams and forest. It is the perfect venue for an exhibition of paintings, woodblocks and prints of the Norwegian artist Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928). The exhibit, Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway (through September 19, 2021) is the first major exhibition in the United States of an artist whose profound respect for the natural world is captured in his intensely colored and dreamlike paintings of the western Norwegian rural landscape.
Almost all of Nikolai Astrup’s work is housed in public and private collections in Norway. But in 2016, Nikolai Astrup’s artwork gained international attention in an exhibition, Painting Norway: Nikolai Astrup 1880-1928 which opened at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery and then traveled to Oslo, Norway and Emden, Germany. This summer exhibition at The Clark will also be shown in Bergen, Norway at the KODE Art Museums and Composers Homes and in Stockholm, Sweden at Prince Eugen’s Waldemarsudde.
Nikolai Astrup’s father was a Lutheran pastor, and the artist grew up in the parsonage of a rural church in Ålhus, a small village on the northern side of the Lake Jolstravatnet in a largely agricultural area of western Norway. The parsonage, as well as its garden, the lake, and the surrounding mountains, deeply influenced Astrup. Rich with childhood memories, they would become the subjects of his paintings and prints.
A color woodcut with hand coloring on paper called Night Plowing (1926/27) conjures a striking memory from the artist’s youth. A new teacher had been appointed by his father and Nikolai became responsible for plowing and sowing a field in order to have sufficient food during the following winter for the teacher. The appointment of the new teacher was opposed by the villagers, and the young Nikolai worked the field at night to avoid criticism. This colored woodcut has a dreamlike and magical quality shared by much of the artwork on display.
In a Preface by Olivier Meslay, The Clark’s Director, and Alexis Goodin, a Curatorial Research Associate (included in the exhibition’s beautiful catalog, Nikolai Astrup, Visions of Norway edited by MaryAnne Stevens and distributed by Yale University Press), it’s noted that Nikolai Astrup began his career following a conventional path, studying painting in Kristiania (now Oslo), Germany, and Paris. But what was unconventional, he made the decision to return in 1912 at 32 years of age to rural western Norway where he had spent his youth.
On the steep, north facing shore of Lake Jolstravatnet, Nikolai Astrup established a terraced farmstead at Sandalstrand (today known as Astruptunet), a location not well suited for farming but which would be his family home until his death sixteen years later in 1928. The Preface in the catalogue notes that the farmstead provided enough food to sustain the artist, his wife Engel Sunde Astrup and their eight children. Engel Sunde Astrup, 12 years younger than her husband, would become well-known in Norway as a printer of traditional textiles for tablecloths, curtains, and aprons.
An essay by the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgard, included in the exhibition’s catalogue, is especially insightful in describing Nikolai Astrup’s paintings as having a powerful radiance. He writes further that aglow with color and simplified planes, there is no other art or literature that has ever come close to rivaling Astrup’s painting of a parallel universe in rural western Norway. Others have described Astrup’s art as landscapes of magical realism. The artwork on display this summer in the Berkshires is evidence of these views.
The Clark Art Institute’s Olivier Meslay notes that Nikolai Astrup’s work resonates with much of the Institute’s permanent collection, particularly Britain’s landscape artists, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. This museum-goer agrees. Our review a couple years ago of the Clark’s exhibition, The Inhabited Landscape, of more than 50 paintings, drawings and watercolors of Turner (1775-1851) and Constable (1776-1837), was entitled An Artful Escape From 21st Century Industrial Agriculture. Nikolai Astrup’s art on display in the Berkshires this summer provides a similar escape.
Robert Ferguson, a leading scholar in Scandinavian studies, also contributed an essay to the exhibition’s catalog, Nikolai Astrup and the Creation of Norwegian National Identity. It’s somewhat surprising for an American to learn that full independence of Norway was not achieved until 1905 and that for centuries Norway was just another Danish administrative district, no different from Jutland, Funen or Zealand.
It’s also worth noting Ferguson’s well-stated appreciation of Astrup’s art:
Documenting a life lived in the shadow of a mountain, he managed somehow to convey a sense that the shadow was warm.
It’s pleasing for this long ago English major in college to counter Shakespeare’s Macbeth with Ferguson’s words. This ancient Scottish king, in Shakespeare’s dramatic telling of his life, viewed life as brief and meaningless: a walking shadow . . . full of sound and fury signifying nothing. The shadows in Astrup’s life, albeit too brief, were warm, meaningful and close to the richness of nature.
Nikolai Astrup’s art will be much appreciated by many this summer in the Berkshires thanks to The Clark.
(Frank W. Barrie, 7/5/21)