They know how to tell a tale or two, up north. With the jagged landscape, midnight sun, and the Aurora Borealis roaring overhead, perhaps that’s unsurprising. We have the high Norse mythology with its gods, like the hammer-wielding Thor or feathered Odin, who travel to and from the immense mythical Yggdrasill: an ash tree which connects the nine worlds of the cosmos.
And then we have the low mythology; fairy-tale and folklore. Norway’s fjords and forests bristle with trolls, elves and seductive Huldra. Demonic Natmarra haunt sleepers: skeletal women with black hair and nails, who give us our word ‘nightmare’. We have shimmering lights, tree-spirits and strange wisps of smoke. These tales, beloved and poached by Tolkien, are heirlooms of den Gamle Tro, ‘the Old Belief’. The old Nordic paganism was a religion of land – there were no temples, but sacred groves, piles of stones, bonfires.
The luminous landscapes of Norwegian painter Nikolai Astrup are alive with the magic of these legends. Where his contemporary Edvard Munch gave us anguish, Astrup gives us the crooked wonder of fairy-tales. Wandering around the major Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition, we encounter an army of trolls in a field (or is that piled wheat?), a demon by the lakeside (or is that a tree?), faces in the mountains. Unlike someone like John Bauer, Astrup does not depict his folkloric figures explicitly; rather they are bound to the land, half un-seen, half-imagined.
The artist is perhaps best known for his midsummer bonfires: jubilant scenes full of drink, dance and song. The bright orange flame and coils of smoke from these pagan fires fill green the valley, staving off the cold of the snowy mountains and the impassive silver of the night-sky. The pull of ‘the Old Belief’ is felt keenly in these scenes; we can almost hear the pipe and little drum, and feel the heat of the fire on our cheeks.
Astrup is Norway’s most beloved painter, above Munch, and to have these works here in London is privilege. The fact that the Norwegian Queen opened the exhibition, which is the first outside Norway, is a testament to his national importance.
It isn’t hard to see why he is a hero: the magic of Astrup’s paintings lives not just in the folkloric, but in the land itself. The artist resided in Jølster, in Norway’s West, for his entire life, between a mountain and a fjord. Again and again he would paint the scenes of his childhood: the crystal waters in shocking turquoise, emerald grasses studded with primrose. He loved this land intimately, finding in the same old scenes something new to cherish.
Astrup was not merely ‘Painting Norway’ and its customs, as an outsider would do. He was painting his home. This exhibition reminds you what a powerful thing home is.
|What||Nikolai Astrup: Painting Norway Review, The Dulwich Picture Gallery|
|Where||Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London, SE21 7AD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Brixton (underground)|
05 Feb 16 – 15 May 16, Open daily from 10am to 5pm
|Price||£12.50; Senior Citizens 11.50; Concessions 7; Children and Members Free|
|Website||Please click here for more information|