Nikolai Astrup: Painting Norway, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Review by William Marshall.
Little known outside his native Norway, Astrup, a contemporary of Edvard Munch, was a talented painter and printmaker, and his skills are amply demonstrated in this atmospheric exhibition. Born In a damp and unhealthy parsonage, he was a sickly child, and the view from his window, and paintings of the parsonage itself, are recurring themes in his early works. He is particularly skillful in his depiction of light, as demonstrated by the mysterious luminosity of the midnight sky, deep mountain shadows and half-bright marsh marigolds in the foreground in ‘A Clear Night in June, ‘A night in August’ and several other paintings in the first room.
Mountains and meadows rampant with marsh marigolds feature frequently in his landscapes, as do the village church and farmstead in Alhus, the village where he was born and first lived after his marriage. Some are executed in exquisite detail while in others, paint has been applied richly with broad, energetic brush strokes. Some of the Alhus paintings include his wife and one or more of his children but they seem subservient to the scenes in which they are set, observers rather than subjects. And there is a hint of mystery in a painting apparently of a family picnic in the garden but with no food on the table.
Astrup made many woodcuts, printing these without special equipment or professional help. He often made small changes to the blocks between printings, so that no two images are quite the same. Some prints were overpainted with multiple layers and he sometimes incorporated blocked images into his paintings. A developing interest in folklore is exemplified by ‘Spring Night and Willow’ in which the new shoots or a pollarded willow look like fingers or a mysterious creature reaching towards the sky.
The publicity painting is one of a series in which folklore becomes a major theme featuring the bonfires that were traditionally lit in rural Norway on June 23, Midsummer’s Eve. The leaping flames suggest dragons, the shadows, trolls, while people dance round the fires like supernatural figures, in and out or the smoke and light.
Nikolai Astrup: Painting Norway, is well worth a trip to South London.
And, between the two sections of the exhibition, do not miss ‘Forest Folk’, an animated presentation of mythical creatures that responds to the movements of the viewer and, on loan from The National Portrait Gallery, their arresting. recently acquired self-portrait of van Dyck.
William Marshall © 2016.