It is likely that you have heard of Edvard Munch. If you have not heard of him, you are likely to have heard of his most famous artwork, The Scream; and if that doesn’t jog your memory, the image would certainly be familiar
Whilst Munch was painting the finishes touches on an artwork that would later be recognised by people all over the world, Nikolai Astrup, a boy of 13 was observing the world around him mostly through a window from his bed. A sickly child of a priest at the head of a tight knit Norwegian community, Astrup would remain captivated by the surroundings of his childhood way into his adulthood. After studying in the art capitals of the world (his education carried him from Oslo to Paris, Germany and back), the artist returned to Ålhus, continuing to explore his fascination with nature and the rural culture and customs through painting.
Whether it is an advantage that one walks into this exhibition immediately comparing Astrup’s work with that of Munch is one I will leave to the discretion of the viewer. However, the soft flow of the brush strokes that are associated with his more publicised contemporary are unmistakably visible. What Astrup brings to the table however is a more sophisticated softness undoubtedly picked up from Paris and influenced by the Fauvist artists of the time. Simultaneously, bold contrasts are quite unique to this artist, and in some cases very much reminiscent of the visual language of some of today’s contemporary painters. The result is something new, and something different, which is now thankfully being marketed beyond its native country. Such an example is A Clear Night in June – a painting that displays such beautiful contrast between the land and sky that it is difficult not to be bewitched by it. Placed in the first room of the exhibition, it makes a strong case for the artist’s prowess as soon as visitors walk into the space. The scene is thus set for Astrup’s fairytale like paintings; the green pastures, flowers, trees and locals pictured conjure up memories of old tales and folklore, whilst his daring palette gives a refreshing darker twist to the work.
Some of the work on display in the middle rooms may have been curated in a more interesting fashion – there is a clear want to display as much work as possible, which does not necessarily make for a more effective display in the relatively small rooms. The visual queues become slightly monotonous at some points, something I hope will not deter a less invested visitor. There is however an undoubted amount of richness in subject area. Portrayals of daily life is beautiful achieved and truly comprehensive.
The last room, Magical Landscape, truly delivers. Collections of artworks depicting bonfire nights in his native country and childhood town, the scenes depict an aspect of life that Astrup did not have access to due to his strict upbringing. Voluptuous flames are the focal point of each of this painting, with dancing people framing the bright reds, yellow and blues. Couples are shown dancing, and children playing. A single figure is almost always present in these paintings looking onto the celebrations, perhaps alluding to the artist’s own sense of seclusion due to his strict upbringing. The atmosphere given off by these paintings does not however give any indication as to the artist’s exclusion from these events. It strengthens it, making the celebration depicted all the more expressive. And that is indeed magical.
By Alexandra Constantine.
Painting Norway: Nikolai Astrup at the Dulwich Picture Galery 5 Feb -15 May 2016.