Odd Nerdrum (born 8 April 1944) is a Norwegian figurative painter. Themes and style in Nerdrum's work reference anecdote and narrative. Primary influences by the painters Rembrandt and Caravaggio help place his work in direct conflict with the abstraction and conceptual art considered acceptable in much of his native Norway.
Nerdrum creates six to eight paintings a year that include still life paintings of small, everyday objects like bricks, portraits and self-portraits, and large paintings allegorical and apocalyptic in nature. Subjects of Nerdrum's paintings are often dressed as if from another time and place.
Nerdrum says that his art should be understood as kitsch rather than art as such. "On Kitsch", a manifesto composed by Nerdrum, describes the distinction he makes between kitsch and art. Nerdrum's philosophy has spawned The Kitsch Movement among his students and followers, who call themselves kitsch painters rather than artists.
Odd Nerdrum was born in 1944, in Sweden, during the last year of World War II. His parents, Resistance fighters, had been sent to Sweden from German-occupied Norway to direct guerrilla activities from outside the country. A year later, at the end of the war, Odd and his parents moved back to Norway. In 1950, Nerdrum's parents divorced, leaving Lillemor to raise two small children, Odd, and a younger brother, on her own. Nerdrum's mother, Lillemor soon after went to New York to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The feeling of being unwanted and abandoned that Nerdrum felt at this time would stay with him until he was in his late forties, at which time he would begin to understand the underlying reasons for the sensations he felt.
Nerdrum's father, Johan Nerdrum, later remarried. Although he was supportive of Odd, he kept an emotional distance between himself and his son. At his death, Odd was asked not to attend the funeral. He found out three years later that Johan was not his biological father. Odd, was in fact, the result of a liaison between David Sandved and Lillemor. Lillemor and Sandved had had a relationship prior to Lillemor's marriage, and this was resumed during the war in a period when Johan was absent. Richard Vine, art critic, describes this episode in Nerdrum's life as one which created "a conflicted preoccupation with origins and personal identity", that "came natural to Nerdrum" and was represented in his pictures.
Nerdrum began his formal education in 1951 in Oslo, in a private Rudolf Steiner school rather than in the standard, public school system. This education would set Odd apart from his contemporaries. The system was based on anthroposophy that saw mankind as once living in harmony with the universe but now existing in a lesser state of rationality. Through spiritual or esoteric practice, Steiner believed mankind could find its way back to a connection with higher realities and to renewed harmony with the universe. Learning for students was often kinesthetic, for example, through dramatic enactments of history and fantasy, and through musical exercises that were reminiscent of the patterns found on ancient Greek vases, depicting figures moving in parallel patterns. These parallel patterns could be found in later Nerdrum work, as can a sensibility for iconographic images and costume.
Jens Bjørneboe, a grade school mentor said Nerdrum even at that age exhibited tendencies of innate talent and industry, but also impatience with those with less abilities than himself.
Nerdrum began study at the Art Academy of Oslo, but became dissatisfied with the direction of modern art, and began to teach himself how to paint in a Neo Baroque style, with the guidance of Rembrandt's technique and work as a primary influence. Nerdrum had seen Rembrandt's painting, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis in the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm. Nerdrum says seeing the painting was "a shock... Pervasive. Like finding home. I can say I found a home in this picture,... The wonderful thing with Rembrandt is the confidence he inspires - like when you warm your hands on a stove. Without Rembrandt I would have been so poor," By abandoning the accepted path of modern art, Nerdrum had placed himself in direct opposition to most aspects of the school, including his primary painting instructor, his fellow students, and a curriculum designed to present Norway as a country with an up-to-date artistic culture. He, in his own words was chased from the academy after a two-year period like a "scroungy mutt". Years later Nerdrum said,
I saw that I was in the process of making a choice that would end in defeat. By choosing those qualities that were so alien to my own time, I had to give up at the same time the art on which the art of our time rests. I had to paint in defiance of my own era without the protection of the era's superstructure. Briefly put I would paint myself into isolation.
Nerdrum later studied with Joseph Beuys, at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.
Early work (1964–1982)
Nerdrum's work from the first twenty years of his artistic life consisted of large canvasses, generally polemic in nature, that served to refute accepted social or economic view points. The work from this period was highly representational and detailed in nature with often careful attention to contemporary references, such as in clothing, or in the model of a bicycle as in the painting The Arrest. Vine notes that, Nerdrum's influence was not, as might be expected, given the themes of the work, of the ideological Ashcan school movement, but predates the Ashcan school, although similar in subject matter. In 1968, Nerdrum had viewed for the first time the works of Caravaggio whose psychologically intense work, use of cross lighting, strongly suggested shadow that implied three dimensionality, and use of the faces of real, everyday people impacted him intensely, and provided one of the major influences for his work of this time period. He would revisit Italy and Caravaggio's work for on-going inspiration for many years.
As well, Nerdrum was a reader of visionary literature that included works by Rudolf Steiner, the prophetic William Blake, the dark Dostoyevsky, and the mystical Swedenborg. This would influence him towards a more vertical sensibility rather than the linear Marxist view based on revolution that influenced most artists with socially reformist sensibilities.
As a young student, Nerdrum had encountered the works of the master painters in the National Museum. In particular, Rembrandt's The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661) acted as a powerful antidote to his sensibilities. His disillusionment with modern art, such as Robert Rauschenberg's Monogram, a stuffed goat with a tire around its middle section standing on a flat, littered surface, which Nerdrum had encountered in the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, filled the young artist with disgust.
These influences both positive and negative would impact all of Nerdrum's work. A turning point in Nerdrum's work - the end of Nerdrum's more contemporary scene-like work, and the movement towards more Rembrandt-like painting elements- revolved around the enormous (11x16¾ foot) Refugees At Sea (1979–1980). Nerdrum, according to Vine, later considered the work to be naive in the sense that Rousseau defines the word, in which mankind is seen as innocent and innately good. In the painting Nerdrum endows the refugees, 27 Vietnamese boat people, with heroic stature, but in a highly sentimentalized manner that Nerdrum later described as "cloying".
Change in direction
In 1981 Nerdrum created a seminal work that would serve to indicate a change in direction from the sentimentalized view of Refugees at Sea to a starker, unadorned view of reality. Twilight, a rear view of a young woman alone in a wooded landscape defecating, offers nothing sentimental or ideal in its betrayal, but instead offers a stripped away view of life and reality.
Paintings were no longer as multi-figured as they had been with Refugees at Sea, and still lifes were of individual objects such as a brick or loaf of bread. The individuals who now populated Nerdrum's painting were imbued with great quiet and stillness, but as Vine says, additionally, were vitally alive evoking a cosmic oneness, but yet did not transcend individuality.
These figures, as types rather than endowed with features or apparent stories that might distinguish them as individual, were costumed in garments that seemed timeless: furs, skins, leather caps, rather than in clothing that would link the viewer to a specific time and place.
Archetypal-like, these beings, inhabited pre-social, apocalyptic-like circumstances that included stark, severe landscapes, a reference to some place beyond our own time and space.
Nerdrum's approach to painting is based on traditional methods that included mixing and grinding his own pigments, working on canvas he had stretched or stretched by assistants rather than on pre-stretched canvas, and working from live models often himself, and in many cases members of his own family. In 2011, Nerdrum stated that the technique he used in the 1980s was faulty, "a special mixture of oils and paint in an effort to recreate the style of the old masters" which subsequently melted and disintegrated.
Odd Nerdrum has declared himself to be a kitsch-painter identifying himself with kitsch rather than with the contemporary art world. Initially, Nerdrum's declaration was thought to be a joke but later, and with the publication of articles and books on the subject, Nerdrum's position can be seen as an implied criticism of contemporary art.
Of his process Nerdrum says." When I paint as if I struggle in the water. I will try with all means not to drown. Sandpaper, rags, my fingers, the knife-in short everything. The brush is rarely used."
Rembrandt and Caravaggio are primary influences on Nerdrum's work, while secondary influences include Masaccio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, and the less obvious influences, according to Vine and either mentioned by Nerdrum himself or other critics, that include Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Goya, Chardin, Millet, as well the even less apparent Henry Fuseli, Caspar David Friedrich, Ferdinand Hodler, Edvard Munch, Käthe Kollwitz, Salvador Dalí, Chaim Soutine and Lars Hertervig.
Drawings and prints
Odd Nerdrum prints are based on his paintings. For example, an etching entitled Baby is based on a painting of the same title from 1982. Nerdrum refers to his highly finished, charcoal drawings as "paintings" Often his drawings are large in scale and are works in their own right, as well as being studies for future paintings.
Odd Nerdrum's work is held in several public collections worldwide including in the United States: the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, New York, New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), New Orleans, Louisiana, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD), San Diego, California, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and in Norway, the National Gallery in Oslo. Odd Nerdrum is represented by the Forum Gallery, New York City.
Kunstnerforbundet 1967-70-73 Oslo-76-84
Galleri 27 Oslo, 1972
The Bedford Way Gallery, 1982
Martina Hamilton Gallery, 1984
Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, 1985
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago IL, 1988
Lemberg Gallery Birmingham, MI, 1991
Gothenburg Art Museum, Sweden, 1991
Bergen Art Museum, Norway, 1992
Edward Thorp Gallery, New-York, 1992
New Orleans Museum of Art, 1994
Forum Gallery, New-York, 1996
Frye Art Museum, Seattle, 1997
Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo, Norway, 1998
Kunsthal Rotterdam, The Netherlands 1999
Amos Anderson Art Museum, Helsinki, Finland, 1999
Young Classic, 2000
Harry Bergman Gallery, Stockholm, Sweden, 2000
Åland Art Museum, Mariehamn, Finland, 2000
Forum Gallery, New York and Los Angeles, 2002, 2004
Forum Gallery, Los Angeles, 2006
Forum Gallery, New York, January 2007
Forum Gallery, New York, May 2007
Edsvik Art Gallery, Sollentuna, Sweden, October–December 2011
Nerdrum's work as inspiration
A 2000 horror film, The Cell, contains a scene that was heavily influenced by Nerdrum's 1989 painting Dawn. The scene features three identical figures sitting down, looking upwards with pained, trance-like expressions on their faces. Director Tarsem Singh in the film's audio commentary says that the painting was the inspiration for the scene's imagery. Singh had seen the painting while visiting the owner of the painting, David Bowie.
Nerdrum also created the cover of the progressive rock band, Junipher Greene's LP, Friendship (1971).
Australian choreographer, Meryl Tankard's 2009 dance piece, "The Oracle", was inspired by the work of Nerdrum. The work, featuring the dancer Paul White, was about the human being in constant struggle with forces outside of itself.
In 2011, Nerdrum was convicted in Norway of tax evasion and sentenced to two years in prison. An appeal was filed. His defense claimed that a very large amount of money in a safe deposit box in Austria was "a safety fund for some 36 paintings that he created in the 80’s using an experimental medium which collectors complained began to melt when exposed to heat." The sentence was criticised as excessive. Art professor Øivind Storm Bjerke called the sentence "strict" and many supporters stated that there were flaws in the proceedings of the trial, such as faulty evidence. Nerdrum claimed the case was an attempt at political persecution.
In January 2012, the Norwegian court of appeal granted Nerdrum a new trial. The trial began on 11 June. After three trial days, Nerdrum was once again convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to two years and ten months in prison. In 2013 the verdict was set aside by Supreme Court of Norway; in 2014 court of appeals found him guilty of tax evasion and he was sentenced to 20 months in prison, whereof 8 months were suspended. Under Norwegian law, Nerdrum would be forbidden from any painting activity in prison, as prisoners in Norway are not allowed to pursue business activities while incarcerated.
In October 2012, Nerdrum lost a suit filed against the regional tax authority. The Oslo court ruled that the funds that Nerdrum had set aside in Austria did not constitute a 'loan, security, depot or committed funds' and should have been disclosed as income. Nerdrum will be responsible for court costs related to the suit unless his appeal is successful.