Study visit – Nikolai Astrup

On Saturday 2nd April I attended. My second OCA study visit to the Dulwich picture gallery in London. The OCA tutor for the visit was Gerald Deslandes.

The visit started with a quick tour of the permanent collection of old master paintings. We were a fairly small group so managed to look at several of the paintings and to discuss common themes and motifs in portrait painting and the composition of landscape painting – which was very interesting.

After our tour of the collection we visited the Nikolai Astrup exhibition. Astrup is a contemporary of Edvard Munch but unlike Munch is not really known outside of Norway.

Astrup as well as a painter was a printmaker – he was a innovative printmaker with his own unusual techniques.

The exhibition occupied several rooms – using my note book I jotted down several notes  and observations  – these are my notes :

ROOM ONE

In this room were a group of paintings largely concerned with capturing the landscape of western Norway. I really liked how Astrup depicts  ordinary lives –  yet in an uniquely Nordic manner with the juxtaposition of country folk going around their ordinary rural lives but in an extraordinary way such as planting crops at midnight  in the light of a  full moon. Astrup seems to have captured the intensity of the light in a very expressionist style with loose fluid  brush marks.

ROOM 2

In ‘Spring night 1903’ Astrup uses blocks of colour to suggest the shape and structure of the bright green hues of the trees which add atmosphere to the scene – the full moon also seems to add a mysterious dimension to the painting. In ‘the open door’ an oil painting dated before 1911 he depicts the tranquil scene of a summer garden glimpsed from an interior view. There are two contemplative women one standing and one seated looking out on to the view. Looking at the seated woman  I was instantly reminded of a painting I saw in London several years ago by Edvard Munch of his sister  Inga seated on some rocks.  Another  interesting oil painting ‘the shady side of the Jolster parsonage’ painted around 1908 depicts a small girl with her back to the viewer peering in to the window of the white parsonage. The windows are dark yet there is a suggestion of something happening behind them , with tiny brush strokes that add very small patches of colour onto the Matt flat darkness of the glass window panes.  I really liked the serene harmony of the  muted pale  colours – the pale blue of the child’s simple dress and the brightness of the blue sky and the pure white of the calm clouds all suggesting an idyllic scene of childhood innocence.  another dreamy serene domestic scene captured in oil is the highly decorative ‘birthday in the parsonage garden ‘ 1911-1927. Again a very happy  family scene – there is a young mother dressed in a striking patterned dress looking on at some children enjoying a tea party – even the very youngest child is holding and drinking from a China cup. The cosy domestic scene reminded me of  the work of the Swedish artist and illustrator Carl Larsson. However the way Astrup has painted the pattern on the woman’s dress seems  very reminiscent of the work of the French artists Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. I also really like the way Astrup has painted the landscape of the garden with rich colours – the way he has suggested the texture of the bark of the silver birch tree with sparse use of paint and his expressionist  brush marks. Next to this painting is another painting of the same  young woman wearing the blue and white  patterned dress called ‘ rhubarb ‘ the woman is bending to pick very vividly painted red rhubarbs observed by a young child . Around her the trees are covered in blossom. The structure of the trees suggest that Astrup was influenced by Japanese printmaking which was very fashionable in France and was also a major influence on several artists including Vincent Van Gogt. The posture of the mother figure also reminded me of works by the English artist Stanley Spencer.

In ‘grey spring evening ‘ painted before 1908 Astrup conveys the end of the winter by depicting trees sporting the promise of new growth. In the distance there is a snow topped mountain. In the middle ground you can just made out a tiny silhouetted figure in a rowing boat. Another painting ‘March atmosphere at Jolstrauatnd ‘ again is concerned with the end of winter and the advent of Spring. Like many of Astrup work the composition is heavily influenced by Japanese prints.

‘barren mountain ( Kollen) 1905 – 1906 seems to  have an air of forbearing to it as it seems much darker in tone. The massive structure of the mountain dominates the centre plane of the painting. There is also an almost symbolic blossoming tree in the foreground and some Norwegian style buildings.  What I found particularly interesting about this oil painting is the way he suggests the immensity and darkness of the mountain which almost looks like a huge mythical creature  or a large bird of prey with folded wings. Another interesting aspect of this work is that Astrup disregards the technique of aerial perspective with the darkness of the background yet the painting  still seems to work.

THIRD ROOM – printmaker 1

As well as being a painter Astrup produced a large volume of prints. He had admired Japanese woodcuts during a visit to Paris in 1902 and also when visiting London in 1905. Astrup had a very different method he worked without any printing equipment and used oil based paints. He would lay the paper on to his block then rub by hand with a cotton reel or a piece of wood covered by rags to imprint the image on to the paper. Astrup mainly used 4 different blocks sometimes carving on both sides of the block. Often he would re-touch the final image adding extra details to the design. He worked several versions of the same themes. He would come back to a print revisiting them over an extended period of time, later he would add paint onto the image.

There were 2 versions side by side of a print entitled ‘ Bird on stone’ before 1908 the colours of the blue really shone out with a very Japanese influenced composition. Many of the woodcuts  on show explore the changing seasons with melting snow on the mountains and the moon reflecting on the lake very similar to several of  the paintings  on display in the first room.

FOURTH ROOM – printmaker 11

In this room Astrup has developed his print making further – in these prints he has reworked the colour by applying layer on layer of bright colours onto each of the impressions – the effort is extraordinary the richness of the vivid colours product almost a luminous glow that give this  set of print a visionary and dreamy feel. When I first entered the room standing back the images looked almost like rich bright tapestries as they had a raised like surface to them   – an amazing effect. Again Astrup has produced several versions repeating themes and motifs. I was particularly drawn to a large woodcut ‘foxgloves ‘ in which two young girls dressed head to toe in bright vivid red with baskets are gathering berries in a woodland landscape densely covered by trees , wild flowers and foliage. This  print has a strange naive quality – the foxgloves at the left of the foreground look almost too large? And the posture of the two bending girls looks almost unnatural and awkward. Yet it is a magical scene an almost Mesmerising snapshot of  a timeless rural wood.

Another hi light is an oil painting ‘marsh marigold and double rainbow’ 1918 again the rich bright intensity of the colours literally sing and glow.

FIFTH ROOM – SANDALSTRAND

After marrying a local pleasant girl called  Engel Sunde in 1902 the young couple moved first to Mylcreburst before settling in 1912 to a small holding on a north facing slope above the lake in Sandalstrand. Over the next fifteen  years Astrup transformed the property into a family home to accommodate his large family adding on the land additional traditional Nordic  buildings. The gardens provided him with  inspiration and  he also produced work celebrating family life. In Christmas Eve at Sandalstrand ‘ Astrup captures family life in two woodcuts ( one in monochrome). These seem very intimate showing a simple scene complete with a traditionally decorated Christmas tree. This motif is explored in ‘interior still life/ Christmas morning ‘ a large oil painting that shows a laden table filled with lavish fruit such as Apples, bananas and peppers. I was intrigued to see that they had bananas in December in western Norway? The scene is lit by candlelight that emphasises the cold but bright December light just glimpsed outside the window. There is a figure of a naked child seated to the right of the table Contemplating the table and its contents. The figure of the child is under painted suggesting that the work may be  unfinished?

‘interior still life ( living room at Sandalstrand) c.1921 again depicts  a similar scene with a table with dressed with  a traditional Norwegian hand made  table cloth , on the table is a vase of flowers, a potted plant , China cups and jug and apples. Leaning against the jug is a child’s abandoned toy.

THE LAST ROOM

The last part of the exhibition is filled with large paintings that explore outside life. The room seemed to glow from the effect of the bright colours. These large works seem to capture more than a sense of place and culture as they suggest magic and folklore – creating a sense of a childish lost life , looking back on past traditions.  I really felt the intensity of the bonfires radiating out of the pictures – Astrup used glowing colours including a fierce orange. In ‘Midsummer eve bonfire’ 1912 retouched in 1927 ( right at the end of his life) Astrup is recalling the midsummer celebrations where the entire community would rejoice together. The imagery is extraordinary and very powerful- I could sense the excitement, and the noise of the celebration. In the foreground there is a small poignant  silhouette of a small figure ( a young boy? ) , lonely and separate set apart from the main celebrations . The figure is painted from behind and is looking into the heart of the flames. Another large  canvas ‘ midsummer eve bonfire’ again is of a large symbolic blazing fire with bright orange light leaping into the sky – couples dressed in traditional costume are seen dancing together    Watched closely by a young woman with a swollen pregnant belly ( perhaps a symbol of fertility?)

As a young child Astrup was forbidden by his pastor father to attend the midsummer celebrations – this sense of exclusion clearly seemed to have lasting effect on him , which seems to have led him to recall and evoke the midsummer rituals. Could the young boy in the silhouette symbalise the young Astrup?

MY PERSONAL RESPONSE TO NIKOLAI ASTRUP PAINTING NORWAY

I have always been interested in Nordic art as I really like Edvard Munch.Several years ago I went to an exhibition at the Hayward gallery in London called  ‘dreams of a summer night ‘ where a collection of works by Scandinavian artists including Munch were collected together. The exhibition sought to explore how the midnight sun  and the intensity of the northern light influenced the way the painters worked. It was an interesting and insightful show  it introduced me to artists such as Elif Petersson, Harold Sohlberg and Vilhelm Hammershoi. I still have the exhibition catalogue. Nikolai Astrup did not feature at all in this show so I come new to his work at Dulwich.

I really loved the show it was magical, strange exciting and exhilarating.  The way he worked with printmaking was very interesting. I loved the way he evoked mood though the landscape. I also liked the way the exhibition was curated allowing the viewer insight into his working methods – there were some of his photographs and wood blocks displayed  in a cabinet. I really lost myself in his almost visionary landscape. I have just completed the third part of drawing one – working outside including looking at clouds , trees , landscape and townscapes so this study visit really fitted in well with my personal development and progress on my course. I have recently spent some time researching how the landscape of an environment impacts on the artist’s vision and work – which I definitely sensed looking at Astrup’s work. Unlike’s Munch gloomy subjects Astrup seem to celebrate his Norwegian culture and capture the joy of his environment.

many thanks to the Open college of the Arts for organising the trip and to Gerald our tutor for the visit.

also thanks to the Dulwich picture gallery for introducing me to the work of Nikolai Astrup

 

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