This year’s summer exhibit at the art center founded by legendary Norwegian ice skater Sonja Henie has won rave reviews and drawn an enthusiastic public. It’s also part of an ongoing effort in Norway to cooperate with other museums outside the country, and introduce some of Norway’s most cherished artists to an international audience.
The Munch Museum, for example, cooperated with major museums abroad when mounting some of its major recent exhibits of Edvard Munch’s masterpieces that are owned by the City of Oslo. While Munch is likely to remain Norway’s most celebrated artist, there’s a major effort underway to get other locally legendary artists, including some of Munch’s own Norwegian contemporaries, better known and exhibited as well.
Two years ago, Norway’s small but acclaimed Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum (Northern Norway Art Museum) in Tromsø arranged an exhibit of 19th century paintings by Peder Balke that later moved on to museums in Austria and Denmark before having a successful run at London’s National Gallery. Balke’s landscapes and seascapes from the mid-1800s are due to be sent on to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art next spring, accompanied by works of two other Norwegian artists from the 1800s, JC Dahl and Thomas Fearnley. Meanwhile, paintings by Norwegian artist Frits Thaulow, a contemporary of Munch, have been shown recently in France.
Now the works of another Munch contemporary, Norwegian artist Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928), are on display at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter at Høvik in Bærum, just west of Oslo. The extensive summer exhibit, entitled Norwegian Landscapes, is also part of an international tour of sorts. Astrup’s art returned home to Norway after first being presented at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, where the exhibit was called Painting Norway and drew an estimated 50,000 visitors including Norway’s own Queen Sonja, an artist herself.
Many of Astrup’s paintings are well-known to Norwegians, not least those depicting midsummer bonfires in the mountains surrounding his long-time home at Jølster, which opened to the public in 1986. Astrup created colourful, iconic, even mystical landscapes portraying the stunning scenery around Jølster. After a childhood plagued by illness and a strict father who was the local pastor, Astrup scraped together enough money to travel in Europe and learn from other Norwegian artists like Harriet Backer and Christian Krohg who already were well-established on the continent. It was while abroad, however, that he realized the best motifs for his art were back home in the mountains of Western Norway.
He had some early breakthroughs, mounting successful exhibits in the Norwegian capital and selling several paintings, also to the National Gallery. As with many artists, though, Astrup never enjoyed a financially secure life, especially after he and his young wife Engel had eight children. Astrup also continued to suffer from asthma and died of pneumonia at the age of just 47.
Magazine D2 reported recently that the Astrup exhibit, which will move on to the Emden Kunsthalle in Germany after it closes at Henie Onstad in September, is the result of a careful strategy and economic support from the Norwegian art foundation Sparebankstiftelsen DNB. After buying a collection of Astrup paintings around a decade ago that it placed at the Art Museums of Bergen (KODE), the foundation began work in 2010 to make Astrup known internationally. An exhibit was mounted in Denmark, then the one in London.
“In recent years, Sparebankstiftelsen DNB and Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum have stood for the most successful profiling og historic Norwegian art abroad,” art historian Nicolai Strøm-Olsen wrote in the magazine Kunstforum (Art Forum) earlier this year. “The new stories about less-known historic artists have been told by small institutions.”
The new Astrup Exhibit at Henie Onstad has won acclaim not only for Astrup’s art but for how it’s all arranged, with plenty of historical details about the art and the artist and connecting it with contemporary art, nature and ecological experiments. It’s organized by themes that drive home some of the messages Astrup was conveying.
In much the same way that Swedish artist Carl Larsson and his wife Karin created an artistic home and then he painted it, and how Claude Monet created his gardens and painted them, Astrup and his wife created a collection of timber buildings on their small plot of land perched on a steep mountainside (Astrup Tunet) and then he painted them – often with his wife, children and other family members figuring in the pictures. Astrup grew several different types of rhubarb on the property, and they’re featured in paintings. He turned mountain peaks and trees into human-like subjects. If you look closely at his depiction of snow-clad peaks in the distance, you’ll see a woman’s reclining body, while a tree void of its leaves in winter depicts a man stretching his arms up in the morning.
Kjetil Røed, art critic for newspaper Aftenposten, dubbed the exhibit “makeløs” (exceptional), high praise followed by Røed’s assessment that it also “emanated quality – Bravo, Henie Onstad.” Critics for D2, Dagsavisen and other publications have been raving as well. The exhibit is another grand success for Henie Onstad director Tone Hansen, who recently was behind another successful exhibit featuring the works of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Hansen is also the new head of Norway’s Kulturråd, the national arts council that makes Hansen one of the most powerful cultural figures in the country. Hansen was just asked to take on a second seven-year term at Henie Onstad, which she accepted.
“We want the public to be able to experience the largest collection of Astrup’s works ever and see how his interest in nature has strong relevance today,” Hansen told news bureau NTB when the exhibit opened in June at a waterfront museum complex that also offers swimming and strolling options right outside its own front door. The exhibit runs until September 11.