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.'”]

Bibliography

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

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Not the Town in Surrey

The Amazing World of M.C. Escher (Modern Two, Edinburgh, 27 June-27 September 2015, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, 14 October 2015-17 January 2016)

I have three memories.

Viewing an Escher exhibition in Manchester in the mid-1980s.

A family holiday in the Lake District, after the best part of a year spent in Hull, clinging onto the side of a hill with vertigo.

A colleague showing us paintings at the National Gallery and pointing out the Dutch interest in squares.

The first memory is almost certainly false – I suspect the only previous Escher show in the UK I could have seen was at Croydon in the 1990s and I’m pretty sure I didn’t see that, nor when it moved north.

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in Leeuwarden, Friesland, in 1898, son of a civil engineer, and went to school in Arnhem, which was a dreadful experience. He was a good drawer, but he was initially expected to train as an architect. However, it was speedily agreed that his talents lay in the visual arts. He travelled around Western Europe and, whilst in Italy, met and fell in love with Jetta Umiker. Their parents agreed an allowance for the couple, whilst Escher began a career as an artist specialising in woodcuts.

In 1922 he designed a grouping of eight heads, “Eight Heads”, which cut be fitted together indefinitely and seems to have been the earlier example of an interest in tessellations. When he was to come to the Alhambra in Granada later that year and admire the Moorish tiles there, it was already part of his set of interests. Over the next five decades he was to play with birds, fish, lizards and all kinds of animals in a series of tessellations.

But before he developed that theme, he was to work on landscapes, especially those seen on his travels. The Tower of Babel (1928) is a nod to Brueghel, but generates a vertiginous sense in us by depicting it from above. Castrovalva (1930) – a name familiar to me from Doctor Who — depicts a series of buildings, a monastery perhaps, high on a hill, with a village deep below. I suspect that there is a play with vanishing points here, as there is so often, so that the distance is increased in several directions. I cannot help but feel that Escher, as someone from a flat country, would have felt the hills and cliffs of Europe to be steeper than they really are. Indeed, the landscapes that have a real-world counterpart are apparently exaggerated.

He was to move from the possible to impossible – the fantastical Dream (Mantis Religiosa) (1935) has an ambiguity over whether it is a bishop dreaming he is a praying mantis or a praying mantis dreaming she is a bishop, with an Alhambra palace architecture behind. In a street scene he balances rows of books against buildings, as it transforms into a bedside table. In a mirror, the street outside the room is reflected, but not the room. All of this is rendered in wood cut, occasionally wood print or lithograph, rarely mezzotint.

His work came to the attention of two mathematicians, Coxeter and Penrose. H. S. M. Coxeter, a British-born Canadian, was an expert in geometry and tessellations and was impressed with Escher’s apparently instinctive approach. In correspondence with Escher, he came up with a better way to represent infinitely tessellating fish in a circle – the way you do. Meanwhile Roger Penrose and his father Lionel Penrose were inspired to devise an impossible triangle – which Escher was to use in his endless Waterfall (1961) – and endless stairs – which Escher used in Ascending and Descending (1960). (Penrose’s uncle was Roland Penrose who was husband to photographer Lee Miller and whose library is in Modern Two.)

His work continued to play with perspective, some of it incorporating the staircases and halls from his hated school. A final piece of work was a tangle of snakes and chain, based around the circle motif. By then he was already being subsumed into popular culture – although he said no to Jagger and Kubrick who wanted his services.

I was suddenly reminded on seeing relatively straightforward work such as Three Worlds (1955), with fish in the water reflecting the sky and trees, how far his play with the play has influenced my own photographic aesthetic. I am a sucker for reflected surfaces.

Elements
Apparently there is only one Escher work in a British collection, Night and Day (1938) in the Hunterian, Glasgow, and that only because it interested a geographer. He would seem to be just too popular – and also, one suspects, there is a bias toward oils and watercolours over prints.

So go see Escher in Edinburgh if you can – it may be more convenient for the metropolitans in Dulwich, but I’m not sure they can fit in all the work and Modern Two has a rather more generous scale. I fear it will be heaving.

In Search of the Indigenous

From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, 1 November 2014-15 March 2015)

I confess that I had never heard of Emily Carr, apparently one of Canada’s best loved female painters. Of course, the list of female painters is depressingly short — although I’m fond of female surrealists such as Frieda Kahlo and Leonora Carrington, not to mention Laura Knight, Paula Rego, Elisabeth Blackadder and Bridget Riley… I presumed that she might have some connection to the Group of Seven, in part because the Dulwich Picture Gallery had a show of their work a few years ago.

If memory serves there were a number of landscapes painted on wood, painted on location in the wilds of Ontario and points north, accompanied by full scale canvases. Slightly before them was Tom Thomson (1877–1917), who I think I saw a show by in Toronto (unless it was in Adelaide…). The landscapes are strangely depopulated, presenting Canada as a Terra Nullis, untouched by human hands. Of course, there were any number of indigenous native groupings, out of sight. It left me a little uncomfortable — but we’ll come back to that.

Emily Carr’s exhibition began with paintings of forest from the 1920s – in a sense toward the end of the story. The leaves spiral, there is a real sense of action in the painting – although, of course Carr writes “If there is no movement in the painting, then it is dead paint”. One of the most significant paintings is “Indian Church” (1929).

This is not Terra Nullis, because there is clearly the impact of western society on the forest, a whole way of thinking in the new world. But she was also interested in theosophy and mysticism and argues that “Metamorphosis between species and states is the only predictable feature of the cosmos”. Magic? Maybe.

Daughter of English immigrants to British Columbia, Carr had an interest from an early age in the wilderness outside the settlement. She had art lessons as a child and, despite the death of her parents, went to study at the California School of Design, San Francisco where she learned how to paint outside. On graduating she went to London, to the Westminster School of Art and took courses at places such as St Ives. Back in Canada she taught and painted, before travelling in 1907 to Alaska. She was inspired by Native American culture and art, and started trying to reproduce it in her paintings: “Indian art broadened my seeing, loosened the formal tightness … I was as Canadian-born as the Indian but behind me were the Old World heredity and ancestry”. Her paintings stay largely deserted – although some of the sites she depicted had been abandoned through disease or general depopulation. Here’s Janice Stewart: “Emily Carr found in her unproblematic identification with the Indians of the Canadian west coast a second skin to inhabit, which seems to have allowed her to paint and write beyond the gendered boundaries of contemporary conventional aesthetics. Carr identified the creative part of herself as Indian.” But Stewart is more interested in Carr’s writing than her paintings.

In 1910, Carr took a trip to Paris, where she was exposed to the Impressionism (and I guess early Post-Impressionism). Again, this would feed into her art – and it did strike me that some of her landscapes had the flavour of Vincent Van Gogh to them (whom she referred to as a “crazy poor chap”).

One striking painting is of Kwakwaka’wakw war canoes (1908 and 1912)– and this one does contain figures.

These are exactly the same boats as appeared in Edward S. Curtis Land of the Head Hunters (1914) – an extraordinary and deeply problematic drama where native culture was presented in a deliberately antiquated manner:

Inevitably she has taken a decision in the representation or not of indigenous peoples. A photograph of Blunden Harbour from 1901 (with people)

became the centre of a painting in 1930:

I’m torn – I don’t have enough data from the exhibition to know whether the elimination of the indigenous (whilst retaining their cultural productions) shows respect for them or is part of the Terra Nullis drive. As a female artist who kept not quite being taken seriously, she found something in the peopels she met to inspire her. But is is a form of romanticisation? Gerta Moray labels it “aestheticized nostalgia”, and suggests that Carr’s attempt to preserve what she perceived as a dying culture contributed to the decline.

Sources

  • Moray, Gerta (1993) Northwest Coast Culture and the Early Indian Paintings of Emily Carr, 1899-1913. Diss. University of Toronto, 1993.
  • Morra, Linda (2004) “‘Like Rain Drops Rolling Down New Paint’: Chinese Immigrants and the Problem of National Identity in the Work of Emily Carr,” American Review of Canadian Studies, 34(3): 415-438.
  • Stewart, Janice (2005) “Cultural Appropriations and Identificatory Practices in Emily Carr’s ‘Indian Stories’”, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 26(2): 59-72.