By 1920, Nikolai Astrup had met with considerable critical success and acclaim, but it had not brought him financial security, better health, or stability. The huge changes in art taking place outside Norway did not help. Responding to the growing popularity of Cubism and modernism, he wrote in 1920:
At the moment I am only interested in beautifying my surroundings to the best of my modest abilities.
The Parsonage Garden is undated and may be from before 1920, as it shows his earlier style. In the 1920s he broke free of that, modulating his later strident colour and looseness to a magical realism – just as he had moved out from the parsonage into his own world at Sandalstrand. He continued to produce prints, and in early 1920 exhibited some with the Bergen Art Assocation.
March Morning (c 1920) is a good example of how he used those prints to inform and develop his painting. This motif originated from woodcuts which he made based on his painting A Bird on a Stone (1913), in which he progressively focussed on bare willow twigs. By 1916, those were showing a human form emerging from the willow trunk, from which came this strikingly supernatural painting of an old willow pollard.
By local tradition, cut corn was not left to dry in low stooks, as in most of Europe and America, but built onto poles. In a series of paintings and prints, Astrup developed these Corn Stooks (1920) into ghostly armies standing on parade in the fields, the rugged hills behind only enhancing the feeling of strangeness.
In 1920, Astrup also revisited his earlier painting of foxglove flowers, which he had been developing in a series of prints. This second version of Foxgloves lacks the sophisticated composition of the first, but deepens its magical atmosphere. A stream emerges from the dark and vague forests behind, to drop in a series of small waterfalls to the lower right.
Two almost identical women are bent in strained arcs as they forage among the dense birch trees in the middle distance. In the centre the far waterfalls glint like the eyes of unseen trolls. In the foreground Astrup repeats his evocative combination of delicate foxglove flowers and lichen-encrusted rocks. The scene seems rich in Nordic legend and enchantment.
Astrup also gives us the occasional peek into his domestic life. Interior Still Life: Living Room at Sandalstrand (c 1921) shows how well the family’s accommodation had developed, with a tapestry hanging in the corner, an unidentified painting on the wall, potted plants, a bowl of fruit, and an articulated wooden figure leaning against a pitcher of milk. Astrup’s former teacher Harriet Backer would, I am sure, have been proud.
This painting also demonstrates how Astrup had recovered from his gloom and fears, and developed a new optimism. His health still gave cause for concern, and he didn’t yet have good studio facilities at Sandalstrand, but his life there now seemed less spartan, better settled, and more comfortable.
Astrup continued to paint his lifelong favourite views when the brilliant yellow marsh marigolds and fruit trees were both in flower. Apple Trees in Bloom (after 1920) adds a couple of young girls picking flowers beside the stream. In the distance the hills still have plentiful runnels of snow from the previous winter, and the tops are wreathed in patchy cloud.
In the early Spring of 1922, Astrup exhibited his paintings in Bergen, at the Bergen Art Association. Late that year, mainly for health reasons, Astrup and his wife travelled to North Africa, going overland through Germany, Austria, and Italy. The couple stayed in Tunis and Algiers, where Engel gave birth to their sixth child.
It isn’t clear how many sketches and paintings Astrup made during their trip overseas, but this pastel painting of Algiers (1923) suggests they are worth locating. This shows Engel, his wife, staring out into the night from the verandah of their hotel in the city, presumably after her delivery. Exotic palms are silhouetted against the lit buildings, and a row of hackney carriages awaits their customers.
Following their return to Norway, Astrup concentrated on painting the lyrical landscapes around the family smallholding at Sandalstrand, which was to be the focus of his work during the remainder of his life.
Growing Season Weather (c 1923) is a rather looser depiction of the same part of Sandalstrand, now above the Astrups’ home. The artist’s wife and two of their children look intently at a steeply-sloping vegetable patch which will soon be harvested to feed the growing family.
Waterfall and Mill House (1923) shows half a dozen small huts for watermills dotted among the waterfalls high above Jølster Lake. Although the snows have gone from the hilltops, there is still plenty of water to drive those small mills.
The Cold Frame Mound (c 1921-28) reveals more of the Astrup family vegetable garden at Sandalstrand, including the ‘cold frame’ of the title. Despite their name, cold frames actually protect plants from the cold, and are used to enable earlier starting of vegetable crops. Sinking the cold frame into the ground (and siting it on a high point) protects its contents from ground frosts, while covering it with glazed windows ensures that daylight can raise the air and soil temperatures within it.
Landscape with Houses and Blossom Trees (c 1921-28) is another, looser view over Astrup’s smallholding at Sandalstrand, as the blossom is emerging in the Spring.
By the mid 1920s, Astrup and his young family seemed settled on the shore of Jølster Lake. His paintings were providing a richly detailed account of their life there. They may have been out of step with the dramatic changes taking place in the cities of Europe, but he was certainly “beautifying [his] surroundings”.
Carey, Frances, Dejardin, Ian AC, & Stevens, MaryAnne (2016) Painting Norway, Nikolai Astrup 1880-1928, Scala. ISBN 978 1 85759 988 6.