Trolling the Uncanny

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I seem to be constructing a history of Norwegian painting, in part because I’ve failed to find a decent book. In part this is so I can understand Edvard Munch and Nikolai Astrup’s better. There’s a list of names in Øystein Loge’s Nikolai Astrup: Betrothed to Nature I need to follow up, but it might be interesting to see what I can construct myself.

I’m also intrigued, because it seems to end up in versions of the uncanny — although Munch and Astrup take in in different directions, one expressionist, the other impressionist, although that isn’t a binary split and isn’t fair to Astrup.

It begins with J.C. Dahl, born in Bergen but who finds his voice first in Copenhagen and then in Dresden, where he meets Casper David Friedrich, and absorbs the romantic into landscape. This is a key impulse, emphasising the sublime nature of the mountainous landscape as respresenting national identity. He teaches, among others, Thomas Fearnley and Peder Balke, who I need to write about.

Their successors are Adolph Tidemand and Hans Gude, the former a genre painter (e.g. the youngest son leaves home, the wedding party, the card players) and the latter better known for landscapes. Tidemand studied in Copenhagen and then moved to work in Düsseldorf; Gude went to Düsseldorf and then to Karlsruhe and Berlin. Whilst both visit Norway, they are painting partly from the outside.

Astrup was born in 1880 in Kalvåg, to a Lutheran priest, grows up sickly in Jølster and starts priest training in Trondheim, but wants to be a painter. Against his father’s wishes, he studies art in Oslo, and gains a scholarship that allows travel Lübeck, Hamburg, Dresden, Berlin and Munich — absorbing the Germanic influence — and then to Paris — where sees both French art such as Henri Rousseau, Maurice Denis and Paul Gaughan and Japanese woodblock prints. Here he learns about Impressionism (which I will look more at) and a technique of printing (which I will also dig deeper into). Later travels include going to London to see John Constable, especially liking Parham Mill at Gillingham.

But mostly he lives and works in Jølster, drawing on memories and his childhood, giving his impression of them. There is something uncanny about the paintings, although not in an horrific way. There is a sense of symbolism, perhaps a harkening back to the sort of faintly heathen practices that his father disapproved of. This can be seen most obviously in his paintings of Midsummer celebrations, the St Hansbål marking both St John the Baptist’s saint’s day and pre-Christian rituals.

IMG_2024Astrup paints this from a distance, apparently unwilling or unable to join in, showing dragons in the flames or depicting troll-like shadows.

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Trolls are perhaps best seen in drawings and prints by Theodore Kittelson, much of whose work has a fairy tale quality. But Astrup hides them, either in the shadows, or in grain poles. These grain poles can also be seen in various paintings of Dahl, so was something that was part of Norwegian agriculture for a century or more.
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Astrup may have seen some of Claude Monet’s haystack paintings, but these are taller. Another composition, in two sizes, exists as painting and woodcut and is known as Haystacks. The important thing is you can see faces in them — they seem to be scarecrow-like, or skinny trolls. This is not a moment of horror, but of enchantment, looking back to primative beliefs, and of course the uncanny is the recurrence of a forgotten memory or a superseded primitive belief. In Munch, the symbolism is much more of a trauma, an urban bourgeois nightmare, jealosynor grief or melancholy; here it seems positive and looking back to an agrarian, seemingly utopian state. It is a spirit of the Norwegian landscape, which he also plays with in landscapes and trees.

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