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Nordic Violet
January/February 2016

“Midsummer Eve Bonfire” (before 1915), courtesy The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE, Bergen Art Museum, Norway; photo © Dag Fosse / KODE.

The artist Nikolai Astrup filled his notebooks with the most curious commands. “Remember to photograph the door lock in the sitting room.” “Find a swamp and study the animals.” “Be really hot when you paint.” “Try also to study a naked woman in the moonlight and one next to firelight.” From his father’s vicarage on the shore of Lake Jølster lake in western Norway (Vestlandet), Astrup kept lists in his books of the “miscellaneous motifs” he wished to paint.

Some are lacking in any obvious beauty: the smokehouse, the woodpile, the smithy, the cowshed, the hayloft, the dung heap, the sod hole, the pig sty, the water well and the toad pond. Others were more obviously the stuff of painters’ and poets’ imaginations: rowans against the sky, a shepherd girl, marsh marigolds, bluebells, buttercups, alder woods, foxgloves, apple trees and hay stooks.

Then there is the third set of motifs Astrup resolved to paint, more unfamiliar and less rooted in the farms and fields around Jølster: “Ragged trolls yelling to each other”; “The fairy tale tree”; “Hansel and Gretel”. One note simply states: “Remember the dragon as well.”

To Astrup’s eyes the landscape of Vestlandet at the turn of the 20th century, was peopled not only by its peasant farmers, shepherds and dairy maids, but by fearsome trolls clomping up hillsides like bears; bark-bound willow goblins, raising their branches to the sky and howling; sleeping ice queens tucked into blankets of snow in mountain gullies; and the dragons and flaming devils which rose from wood fires.

He painted Vestlandet with the exacting eye of a botanist, geologist or meteorologist — “find some willows with catkins standing against the water in the spring thaw when the lake is gushing with melted snow water” — and the impressionable imagination of a mystic. He called such landscapes “fantasies” or “fairy tales” and worried in his notebooks about whether his scenes had come from real childhood memories or dreams.

A word which appears often in his motif books is “violetagtig” — violetish. Many of his landscapes are lit by this numinous violet half-light. When you see the paintings reproduced in books or on the walls of the Kode Gallery in Bergen you don’t quite believe it is real. But in Jølster, in the early evening, looking across the lake from outside Astrup’s father’s church, there are the painter’s violetagtig skies and mountain snows.

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