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VM inspiration: Nikolai Astrup at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

While Edvard Munch (1863 - 1944) might be the only internationally known Norwegian artist, the much loved Norwegian Nikolai Astrup (1880 - 1928) provides VM inspiration in spades, as a new exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery demonstrates.

Astrup described himself as a naïve naturalist painter. Although a remote part of rural Norway might not seem the best place in which to be a professional artist he made the lush, mountainous region his own in his endlessly green images of Alhus.

Astrup, an exceptional art student, trained both in Oslo and Paris and kept himself well-informed on the Post-Impressionists (approx. 1886 – 1905) who were his contemporaries. But he saw his own work in the naïve tradition of Henri ‘Le Douanier ‘Rousseau (1844 - 1910), the ‘customs officer’ whose jungle paintings were based on children’s books, the botanical gardens of Paris, and display cabinets of taxidermy wild animals.

Astrup took as his topic the environment of Alhus, and his house, Sandalstrand, on the far side of the adjacent Lake Jolster, working in a naturalist or neo-romantic tradition.

‘A clear night in June’ depicts Alhus in the half twilight of a Norwegian summer night. The perfect clarity of its lush, idyllic, green wetness, in a region with a high rain, rather than snowfall, and no pollution, would be the perfect foil for home merchandise display, perhaps paired with a glass vase of simple yellow flowers on a table, echoing the golden marsh-marigolds in the foreground and mid-ground of this image.

The waterfall reoccurs in much of Astrup’s work, as here in a woodblock print, ‘Midsummer Eve bonfire,’ depicting a local traditional festival. Like Munch, Astrup had knowledge of Japanese woodblock prints, ukiyo-e, that had been inspirational for European Impressionist painters as Japonisme became popular in the decorative arts, enjoying the creative and organic process in creating them. The monochromatic image, or something inspired by it, would work again for home merchandise, lending a folkloric air perhaps to rural-styled furniture ranges.

Valued for their lack of perspective and shadow (no Asian-origin images had shadows), Japanese woodblock prints contained large areas of flat colour, and views from unusual angles.

Here, Astrup’s huge, flattened mountains dwarf the local residents, just small silhouettes against the vastness of the landscape, seen perhaps from the vantage point of a bird in flight. Astrup’s wife, Engel, and child are tending the garden in Sandalstrand (now Astruptunet) planting seeds by bright moonlight to make the most of Norway’s short summer.

With its flattened volumes of colour, this woodblock has both a child-like quality, and a Japanese feel to it. Astrup coloured each copy of the print individually, creating numerous variations. Simplified versions inspired by the image could enliven the refrigerators of kitchen showrooms which, of all home sector retailing, perhaps most lack a personalised or domestic touch. It is a VM truth that the more a customer can imagine the merchandise in their own home, the more likely they are to purchase it.

Astrup didn’t spend his entire time painting pastoral scenes. He became renowned locally for making rhubarb wine, which was popular at local weddings. Engel, wearing a dress that she had hand-blocked and made herself after being inspired by a fashion plate, and one of his children are depicted tending it.

Something inspired by this image would be perfect in any café or restaurant, especially given the resurgence of interest in rhubarb, most romantically forced in the northern part of the UK by candlelight to emulate longer daylight hours.

Let’s finish with an image of Astrup’s childhood home: he knew it so well he could paint the view from each of the windows long after the house was demolished. Having contracted tuberculosis, Astrup died at 47 from pneumonia, having contributed to Norway’s emerging self-identity through his images of a disappearing rural world. A naïve painter? Not really. But a painter of rural idyllic domesticity? Yes, very much so.

Photos: Dag Fosse/KODE

Exhibition: Nikolai Astrup: Painting Norway (1880 – 1928), to 15th May at Dulwich Picture Gallery