At home with Nikolai Astrup

Several major exhibitions of Nikolai Astrup’s work have made people travel to western Norway to visit the farm where he lived and painted the last 15 years of his life.

It was perhaps the worst plot in the area. Barren and steep, with no passable road up to the small, dilapidated houses. Nikolai Astrup was just as poor as the land he purchased with a bank loan of three thousand crowns. In the beginning he and his family lived in a 250 year old house on the plot, with one room and a dirt floor. Draughty timber walls made it hard to keep the house warm.

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The farm and garden at Sandalstrand was the project of a lifetime for Nikolai Astrup. The house in the picture was finished just a few years before he died. Photo: Private

Gradually Astrup built several houses on the land, with more space and eventually an artist studio. Over the last 15 years of his life Astruptunet, or Sandalstrand as it was called in his lifetime, became what he had imagined. He divided the plot into terraces where he grew berry bushes, fruit trees and especially rhubarb, of which he cultivated several new varieties. Not all his attempts were successful, and some of the trees and bushes died. Then he simply started again, never afraid to experiment. It is said that Nikolai Astrup had red currant with yellow stripes growing in his garden.

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The artist and photographer Oddleiv Apneseth has made book about Jølster, including photographs of Astruptunet and it’s very special atmosphere. Photo: Oddleiv Apneseth

There’s something peaceful and almost humble about the small collection of gray buildings today, with a magnificent view of the water. The first thing that strikes you when you come walking up the small road from the parking lot, is the light. It’s exceptionally clear and pure, almost sacred. It’s as if the whole place says to you: Relax. Sit down. Inhale. Look around.

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A view of the lake at Jølster. Photo: Oddleiv Apneseth.

The next thing you think about is Astrup’s paintings. In the terrain there are small signposts telling you which motifs he painted where. It’s only when you stand there you realize why he never got tired of it all.

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Nikolai Astrup, Marsstemning ved Jølstervannet, før 1908. Photo: Anders Bergersen

This year’s international launch at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London and subsequent exhibitions at Henie Onstad Art Centre in Bærum and Emden Kunsthalle in Germany are making people curious about the landscape so strongly represented in Nikolai Astrup’s pictures.

– We’ve got an influx of so-called quality visitors, says Janne Katrine Leithe, director of the Sogn og Fjordane Kunstmuseum, which Astruptunet is part of.

– These are people traveling from far away just to visit the farm, often because they’vee seen one of the exhibitions. Even after closing time people wander up here. Now we are working on a pilot project in cooperation with Jølster Municipality and Sparebankstiftelsen to determine which opportunities and challenges we face when it comes to preserving the buildings and developing the garden.

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It’s no small project. The buildings are old and global warming has changed the conditions for the garden. Heading up the garden project is one of Norways’s most renowned landscape architecst and garden historians, Ingeborg S. Mellgren Mathiesen, with the help of several botanists from the University of Bergen.

– For Nikolai Astrup the garden was an art project. He traveled extensively to countries like Algeria and Spain and brought knowledge and inspiration back to Sandalstrand. Here he customized his ideas to match the local conditions. I find that really fascinating, says Leithe.

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Nikolai Astrup, Rhubarb and young girl at Sandalstrand, after 1920. Photo: Dag Fosse/KODE.

The last few years Leithe have welcomed both foreign museum directors, curators and journalists from places like Japan, China and Brazil to Astruptunet.

– These are people who have traveled a lot and seen just about anything, yet they’re mesmerized by the farm and don’t want to leave. The same goes for ordinary visitors. We’re not really talking about a particular audience segment, but all kinds of people. Whether you’re the CEO of a large company or a local farmer, eating lefse and drinking coffee in this landscape is something most people find charming.

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Photo: Astruptunet

The influx of tourists will probably not be fully felt at Astruptunet until next year, in the wake of this year’s three major exhibitions.

– The challenge is to retain some of the charm, says Leithe.

– The experience visitors have here just won’t be the same if they’re walking in line with  hundreds of other people. We want to improve Astruptunet, yet still preserve all the things that make it unique today with the beautiful light and the peaceful atmosphere. When you come here, you should really feel that this is a truly special place.

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