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Picturing a World

Nikolai Astrup

Exhibition alert: Yesterday, for the first time since the 2020 lockdown, my husband and I went to a museum exhibition, namely Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts (through September 19, 2021). It had been scheduled for last summer and was the closing that disappointed me most after COVID hit. I was delighted therefore, when I learned that it would be delayed rather canceled, and I can assure you that it was worth the wait. 

Astrup is little known outside Norway, largely because most of his work remains in his native country. For instance, By the Open Door is privately owned there, so this is a rare opportunity to see it.


In 1927, Astrup said that the painting depicted his wife and sister on a rainy day. Rainy? Maybe. It certainly shows two women indoors looking as though they wished they could follow the step railing down to the path and into the outside world beyond the fence. Or maybe they are watching for someone special to arrive? It is open-ended enough to allow various narrative responses if that's your bent.
It's also interesting for its straight lines in the railings, door panes, reflections in those glass panes, the cloudier windows over the door, the fence, the floor-boards, etc., if you go in for that sort of analysis. It also shows people living their lives in rural Norway, and that's the real focus of Astrup's work.


Although he studied in Oslo, Germany, and Paris, he settled back in the Jølster region of Western Norway where he grew up and painted the rural life and land forms he knew intimately. And he was no summer visitor. He and his wife gardened to feed their family. His deep familiarity with his particular world gives his pictures authenticity and immediacy. He was, moreover, knowledgeable about techniques being explored in the larger art world and used them to make his pictures vibrant.
I'm reading the catalogue now. I intend to visit the show again and recommend it to anyone interested in art of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, in Scandinavia, in rural life, and in mountainous landscapes. As a bonus, you can walk around the grounds of the Clark and see the Berkshire hills with new eyes.

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