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Friday, July 16, 2021

Nikolai Astrup at The Clark

Nikolai Astrup, A Clear Night in June, 1905–07, oil on canvas: That Nordic glow

This year, the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., has taken a different tack with its big summer show. Rather than feature a blockbuster on the level of Renoir (2019), Van Gogh (2015) or Turner (2003), the region’s most venerable museum has mounted the first North American show ever of a little-known early-20th-century Norwegian painter named Nikolai Astrup.

Organized in collaboration with Norway’s KODE Art Museums, and curated by British art historian MaryAnne Stevens, Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway aims to convince its audience that Edvard Munch had an unjustly overlooked contemporary who – perhaps - should be regarded as his equal. It’s an intriguing and challenging argument to engage, and one that, in all honesty, can’t be concluded – but, in the process, we are given a strong show that is without a doubt well worth seeing.

The Parsonage, n.d, oil on canvas
I am delighted by the irony that, in this era of unrelenting wokeness in the arts, a leading museum is willing to stake its reputation on a dead, white, heterosexual, male painter. What nerve! What verve! What fun. Well, it could be fun, if Astrup weren’t so generally gloomy. But how can you blame him? After all, he lived in rural Norway, the son of a parson, sickly from an impoverished childhood, underappreciated.

Gloomy – yet glowing. Despite his isolated circumstances and shortened lifespan (he died in 1928 at the age of 47), Astrup burned with a passion for his chosen subjects, the Norwegian landscape primary among them - its particular light, its plants, its folk traditions, its rustic buildings, and its people. This passion led Astrup to work feverishly, not just in paint, but also extensively in Japanese-style woodblock printing (ukiyo-e), which he executed extremely well, whether in multiple colors or in monochrome.

Bird on a Stone, woodblock print
with hand coloring c. 1905–14
Fortunately, a significant portion of the expertly laid-out exhibition is devoted to the prints, including several examples of the original blocks, themselves alone worth the price of admission. But it is the paintings that dominate and best tell the story of a man in love with his rural existence and an ancient culture. This is expressed above all in the night paintings, which capture the peculiar half-light of the extreme North in summer and the opportunistic plants that explode in its short growing season.

We learn from the concise wall text that Astrup was an enthusiastic horticulturalist, and we see evidence of that in the lovingly rendered trees, bushes, and flowers that pervade his works. No shade of green escaped his searching eye, but he also exercised plenty of artistic license in his renderings, in one case featuring identical rhubarb plants in two entirely different landscape views.

Rhubarb, 1911–21, oil on canvas
We also learn that, mid-career, Astrup weathered a crisis in the form of negative criticism of his work in a Berlin exhibition, which caused him to rethink his approach and strive to modernize it. I can imagine that the comments attacked two weaknesses in his work, one of which would be equally derided today, and that is sentimentality. The other (and I’m just guessing) could have been his awkward handling of human subjects – if he’d given them half the life force he gave his plants, many of these paintings would be far better.

In any case, the later work is indeed stronger overall, as is particularly evidenced in repeated depictions of a Midsummer Eve bonfire ritual that Astrup recalls from his youth, when his strict parents forbid him to participate, as they considered it pagan. Several of these paintings and prints are presented in the final gallery of the exhibition, making a clear concluding statement about Astrup’s life, values, and skills as an artist.

Midsummer Eve Bonfire, before 1916, oil on canvas
While I’m not a huge fan of folklore, I enjoyed immersing myself in Astrup’s personal celebration of it, especially as he worked and reworked themes in paint and prints over many iterations. But I responded more viscerally, and with great pleasure, to his formal concerns, especially where color takes on its own life in certain paintings, and where otherworldly light emanates from his subjects.

This is most apparent in some of the landscapes painted at night, and in a couple of still lives made late in Astrup’s career in the interior of his home. For me, though the subject is quotidian, private, and momentary, the painter’s approach to it has taken it beyond those limits to the universal and the eternal. Perhaps, had he lived longer, Astrup would have followed this path to a place where the question of a revival would be moot.

But, whether he was truly a great modern painter, or merely a talented also-ran, Astrup’s contribution is significant enough to be worthy of the showcase he’s now receiving at the Clark and beyond.

Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway will remain on view in the special exhibition galleries of the Clark Center through Sept. 19; from October to May, it will travel to museums in Norway and Sweden.

Nikolai Astrup, Interior Still Life: Living Room at Sandalstrand, 1926–27
oil on canvas

Two additional exhibitions currently on view at The Clark are also of great interest. Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne: Nature Transformed is an intriguing collection of Surrealist sculptural works by a non-collaborating French couple who each innovated with materials to create striking visions inspired by nature. It will remain on view through Oct. 31 in a glass-enclosed gallery on the ground floor of the Clark Center that also affords views of several pieces by the Lalannes that are installed outdoors.

Erin Shirreff, Four-Color Café Terrace (Caro, –––––,
Moorhouse, Matisse)
 2019, dye sublimation prints
on aluminum and archival pigment print

In the café area downstairs in the Clark Center, and in the nearby Manton Research Center, are several large works by Erin Shirreff, a Canadian multimedia artist who combines sculpture and photography in unique ways. While her single long video stream and simplified photographic constructions are built with layers of references from other sources, they remain fresh, not derivative. Indeed, Shirreff's elegant abstractions are successful postmodern transformations and well worth spending some time with. The yearlong installation, entitled Erin Shirreff: Remainders, runs through Jan. 2.

Finally, Dürer & After, a new exhibition drawn from the Clark’s extensive holdings, is slated to open tomorrow (July 17) and remain on view through Oct. 3 in the Eugene V. Thaw Gallery for Works on Paper.