February 2016

The slippery alpine slope of folk romanticism in nordic tradition

This month saw epochal opening of individual retrospective of Nikolai Astrup in Dulwich gallery of London, the first time to leave the country after being long prepared by gathering items from private collections and family members with huge support from DNB Bank of Norway. It started with impressive invited guests only reception with bonfire in the gallery’s garden being the main theme in several of Astrup’s oil paintings and sketches.

Why bonfire and why Astrup to choose as iconic image of Norway for imprint in stereotypes of 21 century art connoisseurs?

First it was Edwared Munch, then it was academicians like J C Dahl or Adolf Tidemand, to follow with majestic solitude of monochromatic arctic visions of Balke at National Gallery last year.

The choice is strange and personal. It is in the legend.

Artist’s life story is as much his artwork as his physically created pieces.

Born to a family of lutheran minister with bad health, struggling both with self-imposed poverty being part of lutheran ministry upbringing and pains in joints and chest, he with heroic effort similar to one of Per Gynt rips himself out of well-known environment to explore the world in a zeal of being a painter. He studies with Krogh and moves for several years to Paris, where he gets engaged with Toulouse-Lautrec and Henri Rousseau, moves further to London to attend The New English Arts Club, and further Berlin steeped at the time in experimentalism from Den Blau Ritter to Bocklin and Stuck. After which he returns to Norway, secludes himself in a hut in the mountains and paints.

The cabin is traditional, no electricity or drive access to it, so the artist carries all necessities by feet up the hill, miles upon miles. He is happy, and in no way is his art as dismal and hysterically close to nervous breakdown as Edward Munch, whos artistic flourishing fell upon decade earlier in capital of Christiania.

Was he mad, as mad as Munch, maybe as Van Gogh? Probably, suffering from pain, he was extracting out of it naivist joyful visions of austere norwegian folk life in utmost remotest hideaways. It obviously is style of mad naivist art, not intentionally and deliberately naive as Henri Rousseau’s, but the whirlwind spirals of fire do remind in shape ones of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, a sign of insights in the universal mysteries through emercing in them through direct contact with life rather than academic study of it. Also, he was not keen on selling it.


Nevertheless, how safe is romancing the folk life in the eyes of growing monster of industrialism, the Moloch consuming all sacred and authentic bit by bit, and on the other hand, of a misfit fetus of culture of nazism and fascism?

The rest of the artists of generation of nordic folk romanticism have been stored away from public for almost a century, as a shameful reminder of greatness than never got to be. The bordrline between innocent folk romanticism and historism, involving much higher academic background both in study of motifs and their execution, is almost invisible, the two floating into each other, as mythology, fairy tale and historic fable are intertwined with spirit of folk, being its vital artery.

Not to mention Peter Nikolai Arbo or Knud Baade deliberately conveying and propagating nordic myth as ultimate aesthetic and spiritual salvation.

How far is too far? how close is too close? Shall we see ban on performing Wagner in public?

(Erik Werenskjold, Peasant’s Burial)

(Hans Heyerdahl, Brunhilde’s March)

(Eilif Peterssen, Duchess dreaming)

With personal thanks to Ian Dejardin, co-curator of exhibition, for insights into artist’s life
Intentionally blury photos from book by Knut Ljøgodt “Historien fremstilt i bilder”

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