On a steep terraced hill rising above the south bank of the Jølstravatnet lake rests a cluster of old turf-roofed buildings. Surrounded by silver birch, bird cherry and horse chestnut trees, they are almost impossible to spot from the shore below.
This hidden treasure is Astruptunet, the home – and, perhaps, the ultimate artwork – of Norwegian painter Nikolai Astrup. The artist spoke of this peculiar site as ‘a wall’, and when you stand on the mossy path between the cottages, out of breath from the short but sheer climb from the lake, you realise the truth in the description.
Astrup lived at Sandalstrand, as his smallholding was formerly known, from 1913 until he died at the age of 47 in 1928. But the history of Astrup in Jølster – a scenic municipality in west Norway, about four hours’ drive north from Bergen – begins on the other side of the lake, in 1883. Astrup was nearly three years old when his father was appointed as the district’s pastor, and the family moved into the parsonage at Ålhus. As he was the oldest son, it was expected that Astrup would join the church like his father, and at the age of 15 he signed up at the Cathedral School in Trondheim. To his father’s disappointment, he dropped out, determined to train as an artist instead. In 1899 he started at Harriet Backer’s influential painting school in Kristiania (Oslo), and then, after travelling through Germany in 1901, settled in Paris to study at Académie Colarossi under Christian Krohg. Ironically, it was in Paris that he discovered the painterly qualities of the Norwegian landscape he had known since childhood; and so, in May 1902, he decided to end his formal education and return home in order to dedicate himself to the art of place.
Jølster became Astrup’s lifelong project. He spoke of himself as ‘one of the painters who are most attached to a place and to the soil’ in Norway. The parsonage, the old cottages in the neighbourhood and the rich colours and textures of the surrounding environment, characterised by constantly changing weather and moods, are the subjects of his early landscapes. But his commitment to this particular location went further than the 19th-century tradition of plein-air painting, embracing not just its landscape but local culture and folklore. When he left Ålhus and moved across the lake, settling at Sandalstrand in 1913, he began transforming every aspect of his environment to fit his ideals. He physically shaped the land, working with his hardy wife, Engel, to carve and turf the terraces into the hillside, and reconfiguring the old log houses into a traditional cluster, called tun. Over ten years, what had been a difficult and unpromising site – neglected, subject to landslides, not even served by a road, and in Astrup’s own words, ‘one of the saddest places in Jølster’ – was transformed into a self-sufficient farm, with enough animals and vegetables to sustain what became a family of eight children.
While Astruptunet was clearly created as the exemplar of the traditional Jølster way of life, the artist also incorporated ideas and influences from elsewhere. In its clever reinvention of five to six cottages, the main house actually challenges traditional building practices, while inspiration from Astrup’s travels abroad infiltrate the interiors, albeit in a modest way. An eye-catching example is the octagonal tea table, which Astrup saw and drew at Hotel Albert in Algiers, and copied when he returned home. The Japanese doors in the studio and the fluted cabinet in the so-called ‘kitchen cabin’, although stripped of its black paint today, indicate an interest in Orientalist style, while the choice of garden plantings – lilac, horse chestnut, rhubarb might have been inspired by Art Nouveau. Astrup’s commitment to traditional crafts have obvious parallels in Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement. He supported his mother’s work in preserving local weaving techniques, providing her with designs of his own, and encouraged his wife to study textiles; Engel’s embroideries and prints on curtains, pillows and tablecloths, which still decorate the interiors, introduce a soft touch into the dim old wooden houses.
Though Astrup’s initial intention was to make a home, the place also became a work of art. Throughout his garden, Astrup constructed viewpoints and sceneries that he used as motif in about twenty-two paintings. Put together as a series, these paintings would present a panorama of Astruptunet. In the painting Sandalstrand with rainbow (1913) Astrup examined the picturesque effect of using red roofing tiles on the kitchen cabin. Thereby he decided to use turf instead to achieve a totality. Hence, Astruptunet was not only a motif in his art, but was actually shaped by his art.
For Astrup, the garden became a place for artistic research. He pruned and shaped trees to represent troll-like figures that then found their way into his paintings, and created a kind of outdoor living room, called ‘the Grotto’, with a stone table and pond beneath a bower of trees, inspired by Japanese and English formal gardens. He also dabbled in botanical cross-breeding, admitting in a letter of 1918 his ‘weakness for experimenting with all possible and impossible plants that can grow here in the mountain village – even those that cannot grow here – most of my attempts finish up in this latter category …
Transforming nature and creating – not just painting – landscape as art is more often associated with the land art movement of the 1950s onwards: the earthworks of Robert Smithson, for instance. Astrup’s project could also be seen as a parallel to the multi-media experiments of his avant-garde contemporaries – to forays into theatre or textile design made by Pablo Picasso or Sonia Delaunay. He tested many boundaries in his art – between painting and printmaking, for instance, when he hand-coloured woodcuts or added graphic elements to his paintings. But Astruptunet is surely the ultimate crossover: between landscape and art, between object and visual expression.