at The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA:
Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway, through Sept. 19, 2021
Claude & Francois-Xavier Lalanne: Nature Transformed, through Oct. 31, 2021
Take heart, struggling artists. Just keep going and be sure to leave a few works with at least one person who will take care of them and perhaps facilitate your coming out a century later. Actually, Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928) is fairly well known in his native Norway as a tentative modernist on the heals of elder compatriot Edvard Munch, but hardly known elsewhere until a 2016 show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (London). Yet his work sits squarely within the European Post-Impressionist milieu of his time in engaging emotional as well as formal ways. He clearly moved away from naturalism towards highly subjective transformations of the visible world into pictures, on occasion broaching Symbolism, yet retained plein air effects held over from Impressionism. The collection of work here imparts an idiosyncratic painterly charm, tempered by gestural, impasto brushwork and content suggesting the metaphysical dimensions of humans interacting with nature.
Beyond the promotion of personal stylistic autonomy and disavowal of mimesis as an art goal, Post Impressionism’s orbit reined in a catch-all European-defined “primitivism”–in Astrup’s case, fomented in depictions of regional folkloric–aka pagan, according to Astrup’s preacher father–festivals gathered in an opening gallery. They suggest blended earthbound and mystic experience, a la Gauguin in Brittany and Van Gogh in Arles and recall Munch in their swirling, smoky bonfires.
Following some traditional art training, Astrup, like Munch, apropos of interest in a questioning new art, sojourned in Paris and Berlin. His animated renderings of rugged mountains and spectacular fjords are kin to Alpine views by his German contemporary, Ernst Kirchner and others of the expressionist Die Brucke group. Unlike Kirchner or Munch, Astrup enjoyed a close-knit married family life intertwined with the environment on a near self-sufficient farm-residence. Think holistic healing idyll a la Heidi (the late 19th c. novel. best known from a 1937 Shirley Temple film). Several ersatz replications of his last homestead in the form of hi-rez photo wall paper appear in gallery corridors (as in the header image above). A bit overblown (literally)? I liked this curatorial touch, considering the simultaneously intimate and monumental, transporting sense of place that his art itself registers. Somewhat ironically, Astrup died of pneumonia at 48, reminding of the probable many harsh realities not alluded to in these portrayals.
Among the engaging technical variations in Astrup’s paint application, breezy but deliberate dabs approximating botanical details stood out. At times, swaying foxgloves, blankets of marsh marigold, and giant rhubarb (for example) suggest transformation from wood’s edge to wonderland.
Domestic scenes are conspicuously filled with cut flowers, towering plants, and table-top produce, and often include open doors and windows to meld inside and outside space.
A substantial cache of Astrup’s woodcut prints, most hand-colored in experimental ways, are also on display, along with some of the corresponding carved blocks. It is obvious he shared a trendy interest in Japanese woodblock prints of the ukiyo-e “school” then flooding the European market, notable especially in his images of the local Mount Klauva as a repetitive, stabilizing stand-in for Mount Fuji in the protoypes.
Some compositions and ostensible subjects veer distinctly away from naturalism through awkward scale, and enigmatic, sometimes anthropomorphized shadows and objects (like giant coffee-pot silhouettes and scarecrow-morphing grain stacks); even a few anamorphic forms, like a rocky crevice or ridge that can appear alternatively as a skull or a woman’s body, can be discerned sparingly. But it’s Astrup’s ability to convey the ethereal through his rooted allegiance to the earth that is awesome and uplifting.
Astrup’s pictorial nature segues nicely to non-human creatures featured in the sculptural work of Claude (1925-2019) and François-Xavier (1927–2008) Lalanne, couple-creators somewhat akin to the ubiquitous art collaborators, Christo and Jean-Claude. Each Lalanne, however, generally created independent works, albeit with related content, namely, fauna, which they exhibited and marketed jointly as Les Lalanne.
Among their signature designs are woolly-coated “sheep” seats, examples of which are included, some replete with cast bronze faces, some distorted and partial, first created by Francois-Xavier in the ’60s and popular with the European jet set.
Having seen some of these previously in outdoor settings, I wondered, at first, whether a glimpse, beyond the glass gallery wall, of still cattle in the distance at the edge of the Clark grounds was a site sculpture extension of the exhibition—not. But a perfect backdrop, past a large cast metal fish sculpture in an architectural pool just outside the gallery that is.
I found the large-scale bronze “flying rabbit” richly evocative, conjuring a prosaic Pegasus, an updated ritual Near Eastern lamassu, and a Brancusi fish, for starters.
Jointly, the collection here may insinuate inter-species development and mutation–discordant and slightly sinister–but also suggest blow-up toys in a futuristic 3D bestiary.
The Astrup and Lalanne exhibitions are unexpectedly complimentary, each striving for a child-like visual and psychological examination of non-human living things as extensions of being.