Nordic Violet

An exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery sheds light on the work of the Norwegian artist Nikolai Astrup

Laura Freeman

The artist Nikolai Astrup filled his notebooks with the most curious commands. “Remember to photograph the door lock in the sitting room.” “Find a swamp and study the animals.” “Be really hot when you paint.” “Try also to study a naked woman in the moonlight and one next to firelight.” From his father’s vicarage on the shore of Lake Jølster lake in western Norway (Vestlandet), Astrup kept lists in his books of the “miscellaneous motifs” he wished to paint.

Some are lacking in any obvious beauty: the smokehouse, the woodpile, the smithy, the cowshed, the hayloft, the dung heap, the sod hole, the pig sty, the water well and the toad pond. Others were more obviously the stuff of painters’ and poets’ imaginations: rowans against the sky, a shepherd girl, marsh marigolds, bluebells, buttercups, alder woods, foxgloves, apple trees and hay stooks.

Then there is the third set of motifs Astrup resolved to paint, more unfamiliar and less rooted in the farms and fields around Jølster: “Ragged trolls yelling to each other”; “The fairy tale tree”; “Hansel and Gretel”. One note simply states: “Remember the dragon as well.”

To Astrup’s eyes the landscape of Vestlandet at the turn of the 20th century, was peopled not only by its peasant farmers, shepherds and dairy maids, but by fearsome trolls clomping up hillsides like bears; bark-bound willow goblins, raising their branches to the sky and howling; sleeping ice queens tucked into blankets of snow in mountain gullies; and the dragons and flaming devils which rose from wood fires.

He painted Vestlandet with the exacting eye of a botanist, geologist or meteorologist — “find some willows with catkins standing against the water in the spring thaw when the lake is gushing with melted snow water” — and the impressionable imagination of a mystic. He called such landscapes “fantasies” or “fairy tales” and worried in his notebooks about whether his scenes had come from real childhood memories or dreams.

A word which appears often in his motif books is “violetagtig” — violetish. Many of his landscapes are lit by this numinous violet half-light. When you see the paintings reproduced in books or on the walls of the Kode Gallery in Bergen you don’t quite believe it is real. But in Jølster, in the early evening, looking across the lake from outside Astrup’s father’s church, there are the painter’s violetagtig skies and mountain snows.

“Marsh Marigold Night” (c.1915), courtesy The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE, Bergen Art Museum, Norway; photo © Dag Fosse / KODE

Astrup had studied the skies of the Italian painters, their “aerial perspectives” of gradually fading blues, and found them wanting. Such tones, he insisted, were not to be found in western Norway. He rejected the “occultists” who painted according to colour theories. He would “wash” his art in the raw colours of his own country “be they as dirty and heavy as they may or as pure and shrill”.

In Norway, Astrup is as admired as Johan Christian Dahl, the great landscape painter of the 19th century, and mad Edvard Munch, but outside Bergen and Oslo he is almost unknown. The exhibition of his landscape paintings and woodcuts that opens at the Dulwich Picture Gallery on February 5 is the first in this country.

There’s a game that art historians like to play with the Suffolk landscapes of our own John Constable. Can you match the painting to the landscape as it is today? Are Dedham Vale, Flatford Mill, and the Salisbury meadows as they were? Does each mighty oak still stand? More often than not the shape of the land is the same, but the cottages and canal locks and trees are gone.

It is quite different in Astrup’s Jølster. Stand on the grass ridge above the painter’s farmhouse, Astruptunet, looking over the lake, and there are the paintings writ large — the same camel-hump crags, rock crevices, snow-melt waterfalls and sloping meadows. There, too, are the yellow clusters of marsh marigolds Astrup painted in such profusion.

In the unnerving light of nightless June you might believe each stone harbours one of Astrup’s lumbering trolls and each tree a willow goblin. Astrup was not averse to manipulating the effects of nature, pollarding his trees so they grew bark heads, branch arms and twig fingers. A man who had spent nights sketching naked models by firelight and moonlight could be forgiven for seeing reclining ice queens in the unmelted mountain snow.

These figures of myth and folklore had kept Astrup company since his childhood. In his scrapbook of early drawings — alongside thumbnail sketches of door knockers, drawer handles, cats, dogs, cowslips and an egg-warmer in the shape of a chicken — are trolls in attitudes of fury and menace. And one poor, pathetic, doubled-up creature captioned “the troll who had a stomach ache”.

“Funeral Day in Jølster”,  (before 1908) courtesy The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE, Bergen Art Museum, Norway; photos © Dag Fosse/KODE

Christian Astrup, who had wanted Nikolai to follow him into the Church, was dismayed by his oldest son’s incorrigible sketching. Nikolai would draw on the backs of school test papers and skipped his lessons to be outdoors. “Up along a river, geese in the river . . .  spring-like sun . . . I played truant. Up above the small mountain,” Astrup later recalled. His father’s house at Jølster was a damp, draughty building, where the boards were rotten with mildew and mushrooms. Nikolai developed asthma, and a bad chest would trouble him for the rest of his life.

After attending the Cathedral School at Trondheim, Nikolai returned to Jølster, where he was expected to teach Latin — at which he had not excelled — to those of his 13 younger siblings old enough to learn. It was not a jolly childhood. “Everything was sinful,” mourned Astrup, “even sledding.” What was forbidden became tantalising. One Midsummer Eve Astrup went with a little girl friend to watch the pagan ceremony of the lighting of the midsummer bonfire and the villagers dancing around the pyre whooping for joy. Nikolai was mesmerised by this “evil yellow fire that, rather than lighting up the summer night, tempted me and drew me in, precisely because it was steeped in mystery, wickedness and raw paganism. Finally I dared to join the ungodly lot.”

Having once danced with the midsummer pagans, Astrup longed for the solstice every year after. At the bottom of a page in one of his motif books is a tiny, yearning note: “It is almost midsummer.” This childhood memory later inspired his great carnival landscape Midsummer Eve Bonfire. Astrup painted fire spits and flares like a dragon against violetagtig crags. It is not evil, but ecstatic.

In 1899, aged 19, Nikolai convinced his father that while he would never be a preacher he might make a painter. He was sent to the Royal College of Art in Kristiania, now Oslo, and studied as a private pupil to the romantic landscape painter Harriet Backer. He travelled to Germany on a scholarship and to Paris, where he admired the jungles of Henri Rousseau, the islands of Paul Gauguin and the prints of the Japanese Katsushika Hokusai, who, he wrote, “has turned my head”.

But the ice queens of Jølster were sirens and Astrup felt himself called back to his fairytale marshes. Where there are dragons and trolls, there are also fair maidens. At nearby Sunde, Astrup met Engel, the daughter of a peasant farmer. Neither father approved. Far Astrup would have preferred his son to marry the daughter of a civil servant. Far Sunde thought Astrup had as good as “abducted” his daughter.

“The Parsonage”, courtesy The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE, Bergen Art Museum, Norway; photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

He didn’t abduct her very far, only a little way down the fjord to the vicarage, and then in 1914, when he could longer bear his father’s piousness, to their own homestead at Sandalstrand on the other side of Lake Jølster, where they established Astruptunet.

Astrup’s domestic paintings show Jølster as an idyll. His interior scenes recreate a prettily painted cradle (eight babies would be rocked to sleep in it) and amaryllises and cacti growing in pots by the window. In the garden, Triffid cabbages flourish in the vegetable patch. His daughter Kari makes a chain of buttercups. Engel, wearing a blue-and-white, rose-printed dress, harvests a rich rhubarb crop. Astrup became famous for his rhubarb wine, so much so that he complained in one letter that he had done nothing for the last week but “pick stalks”.

One woodcut, Christmas Eve at Sandalstrand, shows the family tree festooned in cut-out farmyard figures, stars and baubles. Astrup disliked cheap, German-made “jewellery” decorations and so the family made their own from paper and almond paste.

In such sketches, Astrup makes his farmhouse as warmly inviting as Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread cottage. In high summer, it may well have been. But in winter, when there were icicles on the winnowing wheels and when Astrup’s “wretched lungs” protested, an omen of the pneumonia and tuberculosis which would kill him at 47, it was not an easy life.

Though Astrup did sell paintings when he exhibited in Kristiania and Bergen, the family were always short of money. Engel rationed their earnings and worried about their “infernal debts”. Astrup confessed to one friend his fantasy of “insuring” Astruptunet and then lighting a match. “God pray that it will burn well.”

“March Atmosphere at Jølstravatnet” (c.1908), private collection, Oslo; photo © Anders Bergersen.

The grass escarpment up to Astruptunet is almost sheer. The first winter they arrived, Engel scrabbled up the slope on hands and knees in the snow with their infant children.

Astrup admitted that the “separate, cold world” he had chosen was “terrifying yet nevertheless seductive . . . Something there must touch a cord with anyone who has a great sorrow and who seeks loneliness and the hardening life in the mountains.”

For all its freezing foreboding, there was magic, too, in the Vestlandet cold. Astrup described the cold as having a colour of its own. Finding a hole filled with glacial water, he recorded in his motif book, its “jingling cold colour”. In the air around Jølster he found colour so cold and pure he wanted to feel it “with the tip of my tongue”.

He painted the Jølster landscape he had known since childhood again and again, on Midsummer Night and Christmas Eve; the benign buttercup meadows of vicarage tea parties with Engel and the cold, sinister nocturnes of willow goblins and raging trolls.

Neither his childhood delight in the marshes and meadows nor childish fear of trolls under the smokehouse left him. One of the many commands in the motif books was: “See as a child. Naively.”

He harked back every year to his first Midsummer bonfire and his boy’s thrill in the dance. Each summer he could still feels its glow and its “steamy consuming smouldering eroticism”. This pagan magic, this exultation in the landscape and the seasons never left his mind or body. Even as a married man, he wrote, “one can still feel it in the blood”

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