Clark unveils a Norwegian legend with Astrup’s American premiere

  • “Midsummer Eve Bonfire” by Nickolai Astrup.  Annually, on June 23, the eve of the birth of St. John the Baptist, Norway celebrates with bonfires, food, drink and much cheer. Astrup’s stern father forbade him from attending such frolic, as it was originally based on a pagan ritual. COURTESY CLARK INSTITUTE OF ART

  • ”Foxgloves,” by Nickolai Astrup. His daughters pick berries in this bucolic scene. His rendering of the same image in a woodcut is virtually identical.  COURTESY CLARK INSTITUTE OF ART

  • “Bird on a Stone” by Nickolai Astrup. Here his woodblock replicates the flat perspective of that genre. COURTESY CLARK INSTITUTE OF ART

  • “Crocodile II” by Francois-Xavier Lalanne, who was enamored of the animal kingdom. The museum also exhibits his giant grasshopper dry bar, the twin of which was gifted to Prince Philip by French President Georges Pompidou. COURTESY PHOTO/ TOM CLARK

  • “Les Berces Adossees” by Claude Lalanne. She chose botanical designs for her metal work and this theme resonates even in her jewelry and silverware designs. COURTESY PHOTO/TOM CLARK

For the Recorder
Published: 8/20/2021 3:58:49 PM

The Berkshires are full of mysteries and surprises. There’s the quiet eeriness of Stockbridge’s Ice Glen and the panoramic views from Mount Greylock. There are also some ice cream shops there that offer an economic challenge, asking just how much you’re willing to pay for a vanilla cone.

This season’s grandest cultural surprise is the Clark Art Institute’s unique coup — the first North American exhibit of the works of Nordic painter Nickolai Astrup (1880-1928). The Williamstown galleries will provide you with rare views of a meteoric talent through Sept. 19. The exhibit features a companion catalogue, the hardbound “Nikolai Astrup, Visions of Norway” by Yale University Press.

A great unknown

The introduction of the Norwegian’s art to these shores was serendipitous. In fall 2017, when the institute’s director of exhibits Kathleen Morris went to a conference in London, she attended a lecture by the British art historian MaryAnne Stevens, who had recently curated an exhibit on Astrup.

Morris was intrigued by the images and wondered why she wasn’t aware of his work.

Wheels were then set in motion for more than 95 of Astrup’s artworks, including concisely detailed woodblocks, to cross the Atlantic.

Morris was hardly alone in wonderment. A fundamental reason that Astrup is little known to American scholars is that the majority of his paintings reside in Norway and the bulk of literature about his career is in the virtually impenetrable Norwegian language. For much of his short life, he was also overshadowed by the internationally recognized Edvard Munch (1863-1944). That artist, whose work often appeared to have been created with finger paints, is best known for “The Scream.” The iconic figure on a bridge, hands clasped to its face, has been spoofed by characters ranging from Homer Simpson to The Muppets.

A self-actualized man

Alexis Goodin, the institute’s curatorial research assistant, guided us through the galleries, noting that the Norwegian, despite poor health, created some 250 paintings and another 50 woodcuts in his lifetime.

As Stevens describes the artist in the online lecture “Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway” — he was “a painter, printmaker, horticulturist, farmer, conservationist and an advocate of national Norwegian identity.”

“I don’t know how he did it all,” Goodin said. “He’s experimenting with horticulture, the way things are growing and he’s painting, mostly during the summer, because most of the scenes reflect that season.”

Indeed. Winter in Norway is an empire of frost, ice and snow. In that time, snows could begin in September and not vanish until May, while July rises, on average, to a tropical 65 degrees.

In that season, Astrup grafted fruit trees, cross-pollinated plants and raised at least 10 varieties of rhubarb. Throughout the year he maintained correspondence with other artists and writers and his extant letters number to over 1,000. All this while raising eight children with his child bride Engel, whom he married when she was just 15.

“I marvel at all that he did in his short life,” Goodin said. “He had a deep bond, not only with the landscape, but with his family.”

The artist’s albatross was that he was born with weak lungs and chronic asthma. As an adult he sparred with tuberculosis for three years.

“There are letters where he writes that he can’t breathe,” Goodin said. “That he has a cast-iron skillet in his chest and that he’s really struggling.”

His other struggle was with inner demons. He would have periods of elation and then times of intense despair.

“I loathe myself and my art more than you know,” he wrote a friend during one blue period. “I no longer know what art is when it comes to my own paintings.”

“He was kind of a moody person and plagued with self-doubt,” Goodin said. “He always sort of doubted his abilities and what was good about his art.”

The messenger

Astrup, the son of a strict Lutheran pastor, was raised in western Norway in the former municipality of Jolster (pronounced “Yolster”). The first of 14 children, his father pressured him to join the civil service; however, the boy showed an obsessive artistic talent. In his late teens he moved to the capital Christiania, renamed Oslo, to begin art studies. In 1901 he received a scholarship to continue schooling in Germany and in December of that year he took in all that was to be seen and learned in Paris.

When still a student, his work was being lauded in Christiania and in his mid-20s a painting, “Storehouse in Joster,” on display here, was bought by Norway’s National Gallery.

Astrup traveled widely, yet chose to return to the Jolster area and his paintings would center upon its rural life of sheep herding and subsistence farming. His wife, Engel, became well known for her talents in the textile arts.

The closest city, Bergen, was more than 100 miles to the east, accessible by steamer or horse cart. Mechanization would soon transform wheat harvests and farming. The artist often depicted scenes of a life that would, over time, be relegated to memory and photograph albums.

Writers have often mistakenly thought of Astrup as hermetically sealed off from the mainstream.

“My view of him as an artist is not as an isolated individual,” curator Stevens said, “but as somebody who very much picked up on current concerns in Norwegian art at the end … of the 19th century, and more generally, European art.” Her lecture can be found online in the video “Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway.”

Early in his career he became known as “the messenger of the Norwegian spring.” The importance of his work was profound. For more than four centuries Norway had been under the sovereignty of Denmark. For almost another 100 years it was in a union with Sweden, which it peacefully broke from in the early 1900s.

Now fully independent, Norway was reborn with an inspired sense of national pride and Astrup was in the vanguard of artists who captured the culture of its people on canvas.

The artist died of pneumonia, while his wife Engel passed away in 1966. His lakeside home, known as Astruptunet, is now a museum.

The playful surrealists

As you enter the institute you’ll find an entire gallery devoted to the sculptural works of Francois-Xavier Lalanne (1927-2008) and his wife Claude (1924-2019).

There’s a giant grasshopper that serves as a dry bar, a flock of sheep providing comfortable seating and a rhinoceros whose mid-section folds out as a writing table. The works of the Parisian couple, known as “Les Lalanne,” were at first shunned by the intelligentsia.

“The critics ignored us,” Francois-Xavier once said. “For them making sculptures which had a use was complete nonsense.”

He had first begun as a painter and, as a guard at the Louvre, he became intrigued by the Egyptian artworks of cats, baboons and hippopotamus. His sculptures pursue this love of zoology, while his wife’s metal works are based upon botanical references. Claude also collaborated with designer Yves Saint Laurent and others in dress and jewelry designs

In time the critics undertook a sea change and the Lalannes’ pricey sculptures could be found in celebrity homes and public installations.

When Claude died, President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte issued a statement, which read:

“(They created) so many works that re-enchant the familiar and the functional, while injecting into the substance of contemporary life a bit of fairy tales’ dreamlike madness and nature’s sublime disorder.”

As dreamlike are the many outdoor installations by six internationally known artists that dot the meadows above the institute. It’s a worthwhile hike and for the less adventurous there is motorized transport.

Also to be found in the galleries are works by the Canadian Erin Shireff and prints by Albrecht Durer.

Clark exhibits

“Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway” continues through Sept. 19; “Claude & Francois-Xavier Lalanne: Nature Transformed” ends Oct. 31; “Ground Work” outdoor installations will vanish after Oct. 11; “Erin Shireff: Remainders” ends Jan. 21 and “Durer and After” ends Oct. 3.

During August, the institute is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. From September to June, open Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: $20; under age 18 and students with IDs, free.


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