WILLIAMSTOWN — There’s been a lot said lately about Nikolai Astrup — the woodsy Norwegian heathen who died of pneumonia in 1928 trying to keep his homemade beer from freezing — as the best artist you’ve never heard of. Silly me, thinking his lack of name-brand recognition might buy me some time.
I’m later to the conversation than I’d like. At the Clark Art Institute, the first-ever North American exhibition of an artist who’s beloved in his homeland, but otherwise largely unknown, has become a bona fide hit. (The Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker, no less, are cheerleaders.)
When I was there in late July, the gallery was packed. The show embodies a growing appetite for non-standard fare, whether among audiences or museums themselves. The last time the Clark filled its entire subterranean special exhibition galleries with work by a single artist, it was the summer of 2019, with Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whom I’m willing to bet sounds familiar.
So here we are, two long years later (PSA: get your shots), with unknownness less a burden than a commodity. (It’s worth noting that the Clark has doubled down on unfamiliarity this summer, with the delightfully weird “Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne: Nature Transformed” in its airy contemporary space up above.) Astrup’s restless landscapes painted in weird disharmony, with thick oils here and bare canvas there, and his obsessive-compulsive woodblock prints — retouched by hand, no two ever the same — offer worlds of their own. Known or not, he’s utterly unique.
For museums, coloring outside the lines isn’t just novelty. Modern art orthodoxy typically runs a straight and narrow line from Paris to New York, but as we keep learning, its willful blindness has left untold wonders aside. What else outside the bounds of the established art historical order have we never seen? A lot — and that’s exciting. I don’t know about you, but my deepest pleasure in museum-going comes as much from learning new things as revisiting the standards. And with Astrup, I was starting from scratch.
His career was short, which might help explain his lack of broader renown. Astrup died in 1928, at 47, after catching a deathly chill in an open carriage on the way to a winter opening of a youth center, having wrapped his coat around a keg of beer to keep it fluid. (This scene unfolds with thick melodrama in “Astrup: Catching the Flame,” a syrupy but thorough 2019 biopic.)
Astrup’s status in Norway, where he is revered, seems yoked to a kind of folksy nationalism — here was an artist who aspired to depict nothing further than the world outside his rural, rustic front door. That’s short shrift. Astrup was well aware of the upheavals in artmaking taking hold in cosmopolitan centers such as Paris and Berlin because he went there to work, to learn, and to largely reject the dominant strains of Modernism he found there. He was, however, a fan of Wassily Kandinsky, an affection that seems to be borne out in the spontaneous exuberance of “The White Horse in Spring,” 1914-15, a radiant scene of mountain, field, and sky rendered with the lightest of touches, swipes of yellow and green and bare patches of canvas.
He became an inspired outlier. Swaths of “Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway” — an anodyne title for a presentation of his body of work that’s both breathlessly inventive and a bit much — are great. Astrup’s lusty affection for the pagan midsummer’s eve celebrations in the show’s final room are the crescendo of a sometimes uneven display, with his bonfires, searing bright in thick curls of oil paint, climbing in ragged columns to lick the dark night sky amid mountains and fjords buried in shadow.
That you’ll have a hard time identifying his artistic kin is revealing of an artist not willing to trail along in anyone’s wake. “I do not like him,” Astrup wrote of Edvard Munch, several years his senior and Norway’s key artistic export. “Everything he does is supposed to be so brilliant.” Munch, it is known, admired Astrup and owned some of his work.
To make an unfair comparison that nonetheless rings true: We revere Claude Monet not because he fell in line with his forebears, but because he broke rank in spectacular fashion. Astrup cared little for rules, too, though his motivations (and results) differed greatly from the Impressionist master. During a stint in Paris in the early 1900s, Astrup wrote of Monet and his kind: “I felt the most intense disgust towards the artificial coloring they use.”
Astrup grew up the son of a pastor on the far outer rim of Norway’s deeply-fjorded west coast in a town called Jølster, which clings to a sharp slope above the icy sea. He suffered asthma, which often kept him confined indoors, where drawing offered escape; but his growing aspirations as an artist were crushed by his father, who demanded piety and that he follow him into the clergy to carry on the family line.
Astrup’s ambitions survived by a series of dodges. Exiled by his father to his grandmother’s house in Trondheim to learn Latin, he kept drawing in secret. Back in Jølster, his obvious talent led to a local teacher’s urging that he attend the renowned art school run by Harriet Backer in Christiania (now Oslo), an idea his father flatly denied and refused to fund. His mother, having seen in her sickly child the one thing that gave him joy, scraped together enough money behind her husband’s back to pay for art school. Once there, the young artist quickly became a star student — so much so that, at 21, he was awarded a grant that took him to Paris, an experience that shaped his thinking profoundly.
There’s a furtiveness to Astrup’s artistic meanderings, a lost soul in search of something always beyond his grasp. The show opens with his paintings of the old parsonage, where he grew up, painted multiple times and in wildly different styles: here, eerily exact; there, hoary and misted, like a misremembered, unsettling dream.
Painting so much from his own experience, Astrup chafed at being cast as a Norwegian flag bearer, a role imposed on him from the start. The National Gallery of Norway even changed the title of the first painting it bought from him in 1905 from “Sad Autumn Day” to “Storehouse in Jølster” to make it more identifiably Norwegian, which infuriated the artist. He was tethered to place, though more by emotional trauma than patriotic service, and that plays out viscerally in a body of work as fascinating as it is uneven.
There is, at times, a wildness to it: the bizarre, skull-shaped effigies that writhe inside the ruddy mounds of “Barren Mountain,” 1905-06, an otherwise bleakly pale, lightly-painted scene; or “Interior Still Life: Christmas Morning,” 1926-27, strange and otherworldly, cast in darkness, a child-size figure, unfinished, perched at the shadow’s edge.
Astrup’s bitter rejection of religion, brought on by his father’s harangues, is a theme he revisits with force; his irreconcilable vision of the parsonage in paint embodies his failure to square his upbringing with the life he chose. As he grew older, tending his own land with his own family, free of his father’s influence, his vision became sharper and more expansive. A near-roomful of bonfire paintings finishes the show with explosive, radical glee: crowds of people swarming from the shadows toward the flame, godless ritual binding them in community.
But the work that defines the show comes a little before: “Birthday in the Parsonage Garden,” an image of resolute peace. It’s a celebration under the heavy boughs of trees near the parsonage, peopled by family past and present. Adrift in time, it feels resolved, emotionally and pictorially both — lushly painted, with confidence, affection, and care, a lifetime’s memories of home reconciled in a single scene.
He began painting it in 1911 and worked on it, incredibly, until 1927, just months before he died. It’s as though he was putting his life back together stroke by stroke, in real time. It’s a dark irony that Astrup, who was so much of this place, was cast out of it only to find his way back through painting. Darker still, that, in the end, he would die alone in a hospital bed a day’s journey from home.
“Visions of Norway” is the title of the show, but it feels like a flag-waving disservice. Did Astrup paint Norway, or an inner landscape — long razed by self-doubt — where the unfamiliar terrain of joy had only recently begun to sprout? There’s nothing particularly Norwegian about that. Wrapping Astrup in the flag has always stunted his growth. Shouldn’t he be allowed, finally, full bloom?
NIKOLAI ASTRUP: VISIONS OF NORWAY
Through Sept. 19. At the Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown. 413-458-2303, www.clarkart.edu