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Nikolai Astrup, Spring in Jølster (detail), after 1925, oil on canvas. National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design, Oslo.

Nikolai Astrup’s Visions of Norway

MaryAnne Stevens–

Spring in Jølster presents a view of the Norwegian artist Nikolai Astrup’s farm-garden at Sandalstrand (now Astruptunet) in Western Norway. It epitomizes his life and his art, referencing his personal expression of European modernism, horticultural ambitions, and commitment to conservation and the expression of national identity.

Nikolai Astrup, Spring in Jølster, after 1925, oil on canvas. National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design, Oslo.

Nikolai Astrup (1880–1928) was brought up in the district of Jølster, some four hours north of Bergen, in western Norway; its population was c. 3000 in 1900. His childhood and early adulthood were spent in the white, clapboard parsonage, home to his father, a Lutheran pastor who had been appointed to the parish of Ålhus in 1883. Ålhus lay on the northern side of the long, fjordlike Jølstravatnet, glimpsed in the background of Spring in Jølster, commanding a small area of fertile, agricultural land behind which towered high mountains and rushing waterfalls. Having deliberately turned his back on Norway’s artistic capital, Kristiania (now Oslo), after his return from his European study trip of 1901–02, he settled in Ålhus, committing himself to the celebration of its majestic landscape, changing seasons and distinct qualities of weather and light, notably the magic of the Northern summer nights. These were cast within a framework of memory, childhood recollection, an intense sense of place and a profound appreciation of the myths and folk culture of this part of the Nordic world.

Nikolai Astrup (Norwegian, 1880–1928), The Shady Side of the Jølster Parsonage, before 1908. Oil on canvas, 46 7/16 x 51 15/16 in. (118 x 132 cm). Private collection

In late 1912, Astrup, his wife Engel Sunde, and their firstborn child settled on the farmstead of Sandalstrand on the southern side of Jølstravatnet. Perched high above the lake on a precipitous, north-facing slope, the property was hardly conducive to viable agricultural or horticultural production. Yet, over the succeeding fourteen years, Astrup was to transform it into a farm capable of sustaining his ever-expanding family, which eventually consisted of eight children, a haven of horticultural experimentation and display, a sanctuary for endangered local flora and traditional architecture, and the site for the majority of his more radical artistic output.

Spring in Jølster is a triumphant summary of this transformation wrought by Astrup. The path rising up the slope from the lakeside to the farmyard had to be hewn out of the mountainside by Astrup in 1913. The buildings depicted include an existing 18th-century dwelling, as well as two others further up the path, one transported from another site in the region and the other, larger, one used materials taken from old dwellings in the region and was crowned by a purpose-built studio, the realization of a long-held ambition finally achieved by the end of 1925. To the right, above the path stands the barn, extended by Astrup in 1914, using building materials recycled from his neighbor’s old farmhouse which had been recently replaced by the white house which lies on the lower left of the composition. Recycling of materials and the transportation of traditional buildings to extend the domestic facilities of the property are indicative of Astrup’s deep-seated commitment to conservation and respect for history and folk tradition, an ethos which was complemented by the traditional folk furniture, woven wall hangings and table covers which decorated the interiors of the dwellings.

The respect for local heritage was mirrored in Astrup’s commitment to the traditional agricultural practices of the region and the preservation of its fruit, vegetables and flora. Spring in Jølster communicates these beliefs. To gain cultivatable terrain, Astrup carved out green turf-walled terraces, as seen on the right of the composition, and more extensive plots, as in the foreground, on which fruit bushes, vegetables and ten different types of rhubarb could flourish. The presence of the table sheltering within a stone grotto below the barn and the stream with its small waterfall were the product of the artist’s ambitious landscaping, referencing granite, the rock that determined Norway’s physical geography, and the mighty torrents and cascades which mark its scenery. Taken together with the enthusiasm for local flora and architecture, these underscore Astrup’s engagement with a wider ambition to forge a national cultural language. Emerging during the 19th century as a manifestation of the demand for political independence from Sweden–eventually granted in 1905–this had found expression in the works of writers and composers such as Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Grieg, and in the art of the neo-Romantics, the generation of Norwegian artists who came to the fore in the 1880s.

Spring in Jølster evokes Sandalstrand through the use of multi-perspectival viewpoints that undermine any conventional naturalistic rendering of the scene, the juxtaposition of scales, a heightened palette and an absence of three-dimensional modelling. As such these reflect Astrup’s awareness of the various manifestations of European modernism in the opening decades of the 20th century. Indeed, the painting stands as proof of Astrup’s determination to move beyond the international painterly naturalism of the Neo-Romantics such as Erik Werenskiold and Harriet Backer, with whom he studied in Kristiania (1899–1901). His brief sojourn in Paris from 1901–1902 introduced the artist to the more progressive art of Paul Gauguin, the Nabis, and Henri “le Douanier” Rousseau. Subsequent exposure to, and appreciation of a wide range of contemporary modernisms, from Fauvism and Cubism to the abstraction of Kandinsky, not only gave him license to break with realistic representation but also, through judicious internalization of these movements, to create a highly individual mode of modernism which is so clearly expressed in Spring in Jølster.

That Astrup used the landscaping of Sandalstrand as the subject of Spring in Jølster is testimony to the fact that his sculpted farm-garden with its carefully contrived viewing points out onto the wider landscape beyond, as glimpsed on the left hand side of the composition, was the product of an artist who consciously manipulated its component parts to provide motifs that served as a springboard for visual experimentation and stylistic innovation. In essence, Astrup’s project was comparable to those of such artist-horticulturalists as Claude Monet at Giverny, Emil Nolde at Seebüll and Wassily Kandinsky at Murnau. However, what distinguishes Sandalstrand from these other gardens where nature was subjected to the control of the artist, was its multi-faceted purpose to be a productive farm-garden; a haven for conservation; a repository of motifs for a radical new art; and a declaration of national identity.

MaryAnne Stevens is a scholar and independent curator. Her new book, Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway is distributed for the Clark Art Institute in conjunction with their exhibition of the same title, on view in Williamstown, MA until September 19, 2021.

“The catalogue is up to the Clark’s usual standard, which is superlative. Robert Ferguson’s catalogue essay is revelatory in understanding both Norway’s cultural evolution and Astrup as a figure within it. . . .  Jay Clarke, once the Clark’s print curator, wrote two great essays on the woodcuts. Karl Ove Knausgard wrote an evocative, stage-setting introductory essay. MaryAnn Stevens’s two essays, as always, are art history at its best.”—Brian T. Allen, National Review

“[The] enchanting Astrup exhibition . . . curated by the independent scholar MaryAnne Stevens, insures that, from now on, Astrup must figure in any comprehensive survey of early-twentieth-century European art. . . .  Astrup’s artistry keeps getting stranger—and stronger—as you gaze.”—Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker

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