Three Views of Karl Johans Gate

A couple of years ago I had about half an hour in the Rasmus Meyer Collection (aka KODE Three) to look at the Munchs. I knew The Scream, of course, which if memory serves is the painting destroyed in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (unless it was Melancholia) and of which I had an inflatable version. The collection — assembled by one of Munch’s first collectors — has a lithograph version, and it was great to see that. There were three other rooms, exclusively Munch.

I nearly didn’t go into the fourth room, because my art sense had said it was French Impressionism, and I was all about the Munch. But perhaps I had a little spare time, or I’d circumnavigated the rest of the floor (in proper chronological order) because I did get into that room and realised it was early Munch.

He’d been born in the Ådalsbruk in Løten, in 1863 and became a painter against the wishes of his father. After dropping out of technical college where he was studying engineering, he enrolled in 1881 at the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania (Oslo), where his teachers included the naturalistic Christian Krohg. Munch was trained in a naturalistic style, but he also explored Impressionism.

This looking to France was a break from the Dahl tradition of German romanticism, and Munch was to exhibit in 1889 at the Exposition Universell. He also got to see work by Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, discovering the use of colour to be emotional rather than realist.

This explains the style of what felt a very un-Munch-like painting, Spring Day on Karl Johan (1890), which looks pontillist in style.

Karl Johans Gate is a street in Oslo, named for King Charles III John (1763-1844), linking the Royal Palace to Oslo Station. My best guess is the painting is opposite the Grand Hotel, looking down to the palace, just before the Rosenkrantz’ Gate junction. The figures belong in a Seurat painting, with umbrellas and straw hats, with various figures perambulating towards the trees in the open space. Figures are about to walk into the frame, suggesting a kineticism. The shadows are quite long, note, with the sun to the south west. Note how blotchy the street is, with sandy colours picked out. In the top half of the canvas, with the grass and the buildings, there are far more people, a mass of pedestrians. It is a busy scene, perhaps vital, and you can make out the parasols and hats.

I knew the name Karl Johan, though and returned to the previous (actually next) room, which contains the Frieze of Life paintings. There, as I thought, alongside Melancholy and Jealousy, was Evening on Karl Johan (1892).


This is more clearly Munchian. The figures are not quite as stylised as his screamer, but there is a cartoon, skull beneath the skin, look to them. The men have top hats and the women straw trilbies, with black ribbons. But, to be honest, there’s a lack of differentiation between the faces. Whereas in the earlier painting, the clothing is in a variety of colours, now everyone is in black. The perspective is reversed — we are looking in the opposite direction, closer to the palace, and on the opposite side of the road. We are in the midst of the shoppers or flaneurs — these could almost be the undead that Eliot speaks of thirty years later in The Waste Land. The vanishing point is lower — more or less the centre of the canvas.

Jay A. Clarke writes: “this new technique, along with the intense colors and inventive subject, mark a decisive turn away from his impressionist experiments and toward a world — and a modern mythology — all his own.” (56) Munch goes from Impressionist to Expressionist. He has become Munch. (Clarke also suggests that Munch had seen the work of James Ensor in Brussels the previous year, and that makes sense.

I hadn’t realised then that there was a third painting in Bergen — not just in another room, but in another building, KODE Four, as part of the International Modernism wing. This is Summer on Karl Johan Street, Oslo (1933).


That forty year gap is misleading — the painting is in a style (Fauvism, maybe?) that Munch had been using since 1908. It’s a much more spare painting, with much of the canvas blank paint. It is harder to pin down the geography — is it the grass area? — and we don’t have the perspective of the earlier pictures. The street is pink and orange, with much canvas visible , almost painted around the figures, which are painted in, quickly I suspect, largely as outlines. There are much fewer figures, and some of them merge into each other, as depth becomes a plane. I think we only have women here, but a milliner would need consulting. Figures further away are little more iCal brush strokes. The trees are authentic green, if childlike, whereas the buildings (maybe the palace?) are pink and purple.

I’m not sure what to make of this picture — it is less nightmarish than Evening on Karl Johan, but there’s a sense of the uncanny about it, because you have to decode it more. The colours are more cheerful, but there’s an air of mystery here.


Clarke, Jay A. (2009) Becoming Edvard Munch: influence, anxiety, and myth, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Trolling the Uncanny


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.


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.

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.


Why Don’t You Come Up and See My Motifs, Sometime?

Nikolai Astrup: The Way Home (23 January 2016 to 22 January 2017, KODE 4, Bergen)

Whilst many of the important Nikolai Astrup paintings were out on tour to places such as the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Bergen offered a selection of work to demonstrate his emergence as an artist. Since Astrup is hardly known outside of Norway, it shouldn’t be a surprise that few of these are household names. Norwegian art for us begins and ends with Munch, alas.

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Norwegian Marigold

Painting Norway: Nikolai Astrup (Dulwich Picture Gallery, 5 February-15 May 2016)

It’s perhaps odd to think of landscape as political. It shouldn’t seem odd – humanity has shaped the planet with earthworks and agriculture and transportation across the centuries, and the ideological boundaries of course define it. Landscape painting goes further in its selection and depiction of topic, to write a nationality in oil or watercolours.

We’re pretty pisspoor when it comes to Norwegian artists – we only really know Edvard Munch and we mostly know him through misreading The Scream. Add to that Johan Dahl and Peder Balke (to whom I will come back in future blog entries), and I fear the list is exhausted. Munch isn’t really known for his landscapes as such, more his figures in them, but his backgrounds are clearly psychological in nature.

There’s a Dahl painting of a tree in one of the Bergen galleries, which represents Norway. This is presumably an echo, conscious or otherwise, of one of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings of a tree, which represents Germany. Sylvan metonymy is the way forward – and no doubt a head scratching or two would recall an English oak to mind.

 Der Einsame Baum

Astrup (1880-1928) is an artist whose dates straddle the establishment of an independent Norway, and who is considered to be part of a generation of painters who were creating the country in paint – Norway had become ceded to Sweden from Denmark in 1814 and began fighting for independence, but it was not until 1905 that this finally came about. (I think there’s a set of artists, composers and writers in the 1840s and 1850s who were also working on this project, including Dahl.) Until the Dulwich Picture Gallery show Astrup had not been shown in the UK – and he was unknown to Andrew Graham-Dixon’s somewhat, uh, erratic, documentary on Norwegian art. The majority of canvases on show were landscapes – although sometimes there are groups of people, usually his family, whether siblings or wife and children, but also peasants planting or harvesting.

The most relevant image here is seen best in A Morning in March (c. 1920), a twisted trunk with two branches reaching upwards and splitting, with narrower twigs radiating out. On closer inspection, the tree becomes personifiable, animorphic, as a stretching figure – yawning? Screaming? – with those branches as hands. In woodcuts, some earlier, the figure looks more masculine, in others seems to be breasted.

Astrup was the son of a Lutheran minister and thus grew up both in a religious household and a damp one – the parsonage was not the healthiest of places. He seems to have spent many weeks in bed, presumably staring out of the windows, thus seeing the view in a variety of lights. Rather like Munch, although I suspect for different reasons, Astrup keeps returning to the same images – the same lake, the same mountain – but with different coloration. In painting different colours, he is painting different moods, which attach to spring, summer, autumn and winter.

Alongside oils and water colours are wood block prints, carefully carved up from a number of different pieces of wood, ready to be applied with different colours of paint. (Remember, if you think this a primitive technique, that this was Escher’s preferred media.) Each time a block is applied, he has to wait for the paper to dry again – and the paper was liable to shrink and the block expand. A complex image like Foxgloves – which exists in numerous versions – might require twenty dryings before it was complete and a single bodge could ruin the image. Sometimes he would expand a print by adding oil paint ting, sometimes he would add it to an oil painting.

Whilst this was creating a national Norwegian visual language, he was inspired by the Japanese woodcuts he saw in Paris in 1902 and in London in 1908 – most clearly in the design known as Bird on a Stone, with a dipper on a stone on the edge of a fjord, a skinny tree in the foreground and mountains in the distance. The Japanese used water-based pigments, but like him pressed the paper against the block rather than vice versa.

This layout was to lead to a set of images of tree, fjord and mountainside, made concrete in the woodcut cover design for Stein Bugge’s Vår oh Vilje (1916), Spring and Desire, where a closer inspection of the mountains in the background reveal a naked woman lying on her back – a recumbent ice queen. This segues into Spring Night and Willow and A Morning in March, in which the ice queen forms an opposition to the (male) tree troll.

The same double take is necessary in his painting and prints of Grain Poles, where the wheat echoes the image of the troll – the catalogue helpfully points us to Theodor Kittelsen’s Troll Wondering How Old He Is (1911) and Grain Poles in Moonlight (1900), as well as pointing to a house as skull (Ålhus Church) and flames as dragons (Preparations for the Midsummer Eve Bonfire (1908)).

Such haunted landscapes would have been at odds with his father’s Lutheranism – indeed the paganism or Norse mythology underlying the Midsummer Eve Bonfires that he was to repeatedly paint reflect a tension with a disapproving parent. He had to stand at a distance – away from its ungodliness and eroticism. But it has its roots in a mythology than underpins Norwegian identity. At the same time, a painting such as Autumn Dusk in the Garden (1902) has a warm light coming from the parsonage and he seems to have been upset by its fall into disrepair and demolition.

The confluence of identity and landscape comes most clearly in his landscapes with marsh marigolds. These would include A Clear Night in June and A June Night and Marsh Marigolds. The vanishing of the flowers represents the passing of an earlier world and a nostalgia for it, as well as concrete evidence of agricultural development.

A number of Astrup’s paintings show the planting of crops or their harvesting, and in his later years he established a smallholding that was garden, house, studio and source of food. He experimented with traditional native plants and cross breeding. He worked on trees to turn them into trolls.

At the heart of his work, then, seems to be the need to record a passing way of life in an industrialised age that then faced the horrors of the First World War. His paintings fix a past that generate a sense of a Norwegianness that had only just achieved constitutional identity and may yet disappear in a globalised world. The authentic Norwegian appears to be art, customs and costumes associated with the rural farmers and peasants, presumably on the grounds that they remained untouched by Swedish and Danish influence, with Norway isolated from the rest of Europe, in part because of a distrust of centralisation. More than this, I am not yet qualified to pin down – I evidentally need to do some reading.

[I note “Traditionally Norway has had neither a strong landed gentry nor a solid urban bourgeoisie, and the vast majority of Norwegians were farmers or fishermen right up to the beginning of the 20th century.” (Thomas Hylland Eriksen) but “Furthermore, he [Øyvind Østerud] shows how important aspects of our national identity were defined by the urban bourgeoisie in the last century: ‘It was the urbane ruling class that defined the culture of the mountain peasantry – in an idealized form – as quintessentially Norwegian.'”]


  • Frances Carey, Ian Dejardin and MaryAnne Stevens Painting Norway: Nikolai Astrup 1880-1928 (London: Scala Arts, 2016)