Beloved Norwegian painter Nikolai Astrup emerges from obscurity

An artist collected so completely by his countrymen that few works ever made their way beyond Norway’s borders, Astrup is getting an exhibition in London that may bring him the international renown he deserves

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 January, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 January, 2016, 8:00am

It says something of the deep obscurity into which the Norwegian painter Nikolai Astrup fell – after his death in 1928 aged 47 – that neither the Dulwich Picture Gallery director, Ian Dejardin, nor the British art historian MaryAnne Stevens had heard of him until a few years ago. Their exhibition devoted to Astrup at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London will be one of the first major showcases of his work outside his own country.

Yet as Dejardin and Stevens travelled to Jølstravatnet, the remote lake in northwest Norway where the artist spent most of his life, a fellow passenger’s face lit up in instant recognition of their blurry photocopies of his work. “Astrup!” she said. “You know he is our hero in Norway.”

The images, the passenger said, were so ubiquitous – hanging in schools, public buildings, in her mother’s, aunts’ and grandmother’s homes – that as a teenager she grew bored of them. But after living abroad, she came to love his contorted rocks and trees, shimmering lakes, flowers spilling like lava down mountainsides, dark threatening forests and bonfires blazing in the eerie light of a midsummer night.

Stevens was astonished when she first encountered Astrup’s work on a visit to Norway while researching another artist.

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“I feel a kind of missionary zeal about Astrup,” she says. “He is so very good, so distinctive, so sure of himself and the experience he wants you to share in his work. He is not just a naturalistic landscape painter. He was fully aware of what was happening in contemporary art, the work of the neo-Impressionists, the expressionists and the cubists, but he decides to turn his back on it and devote his life to painting Norway.”

Astrup studied in Copenhagen and Paris, but in 1902 abandoned his studies and returned to Norway. He spent the rest of his short life painting not just his home country, but the landscape of that one lake.

He continued to travel to study, making long detailed notes – he dismissed the works of the Pre-Raphaelites at the Tate in London and was enchanted by the Constable sketches of landscapes and clouds in the Victoria and Albert – but always returned to his lake.

His talent was recognised as a student and he had avid collectors, including his world-famous countryman Edvard Munch, who owned three of his prints. (Astrup did not repay the compliment: “Everything he does is supposed to be so brilliant that it doesn’t have to be more than merely sketched,” he wrote to a friend.) But Astrup was hopeless with money, usually in debt and his health was wretched.

“He spent years in his father’s deathly parsonage, which was ill health in building form,” Dejardin says.

Part of the cold damp house, instantly recognisable from Astrup’s paintings, still stands. Astrup suffered all his life from asthma and later contracted tuberculosis: the window of the room where he was often confined to bed overlooked the graveyard where three of his siblings were buried in one week.

Some of his best-loved works depict bonfires flaring on the hillside on midsummer’s eve, often with an onlooker in the foreground gazing yearningly towards the music and dancing. Astrup was forbidden as a boy to join what his father regarded as pagan celebrations.

His landscapes are often haunted: a tree becomes a troll, claws reaching towards a snowy slope; the ridge of a mountain is the profile of a dead friend.

He married the 15-year-old daughter of a local farmer – “even in those days eyebrows were raised,” says Dejardin – and they had eight children.

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The home they made is preserved as a museum and stands on a plot so steep they had to scramble up from the lake shore on their hands and knees, his redoubtable wife, Engel, usually carrying a baby, until Astrup built a track and terraces for planting and the village-like collection of small wooden houses.

Norway’s devotion to his art is part of the reason for his obscurity: there is only one print and no painting in any British collection and a handful in the US.

Although loans have come from the major collection of his work in Bergen, most of the pictures have been prised from private collections, many from walls where they have hung since they were bought from the artist.

“It was extraordinarily difficult to persuade many owners to loan,” says Stevens. “These paintings are really loved.”

“Nikolai Astrup: Painting Norway” is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, from 5 February to 15 May