After completing his training, Nikolai Astrup returned to his home village of Jølster in 1902 to work there as a smallholder, painter, and printmaker. His art is inextricably linked to the nature and people of Jølster. He was nonetheless not himself a member of the peasantry and was thus able to view the lives of his fellow villagers from an outsider’s perspective. His lush depictions of the scenic Western Norwegian nature and of local customs, such as the Midsummer Night’s bonfire, have made him a beloved artist.
Astrup was wont to reuse images that fascinated him, often reduplicating them several times as paintings and colour woodcuts. For example, he depicted the local Midsummer festivities in several painted versions and in both black-and-white and colour woodcuts. The custom of lighting bonfires and gathering for games and dancing on Midsummer Night was a living tradition with symbolic connotations. Astrup was personally interested in humanity’s interdependence with nature, and the Midsummer Night rituals alluded to the magic forces of nature. Blazing bonfires, dancing, and the picking of wild flowers served both protective and invocative purposes.
In the museum’s painting, the large bonfire is the central element of the composition. A dark silhouette against the bright flames testifies to a lonely figure; the other villagers have grouped together on the slope on the other side of the bonfire, talking and flirting with summer gaiety. The scene plays out amidst the mighty Jølster landscape, with the looming Kollen hillcrest serving as the backdrop. The combination of realistic and romantic traits is characteristic of Astrup’s art.
Text: Sidsel Helliesen
From "Highlights. Art from Antiquity to 1945", Nasjonalmuseet 2014, ISBN 978-82-8154-088-0