«The Savior of Painting» by Odd Nerdrum
Odd Nerdrum´s self portrait is titled «The Savior of Painting».
Almost life-size, it depicts the artist in a golden robe, armed with paintbrush and palette, against the soft Norwegian evening sky. On his palette is one single color: that of gold.
«This is kitsch in its purest form,» remarks the artist in front of the nearly finished work, gracefully saving us the embarrassment. «Mind you, there´s absolutely no irony here.»
The golden robe is for real. He had it made in New York a few years back, and it´s already a garment of international notoriety. His «Self Portrait in Golden Robe», first exhibited in Stockholm last winter and now showing in a retrospective at the Astrup-Fearnley Museum in Oslo, shows him in this robe, which is lifted to reveal a markedly curved erection. Needless to say, the painting, done in the Rembrandt-like style that is both Odd Nerdrum´s life and his curse, caused a major debate in his home country. To Odd, that was business as usual.
«There are other things to that painting beside the penis,» he excuses himself. «Notice that I made myself fatter than I really am. I once saw my grandfather being bathed, and I noticed that he had the body of a baby. That image appealed to me — the old man in the baby´s body. Nature going full circle.»
Yes, but how did he paint it? we ask.
«That was easy. You grab the robe with the left hand and the paintbrush with the other, and … oh, I see what you mean. Well, I sort of know what it looks like when erect.»
He assures us that seeing himself in the mirror is not sufficient to get aroused. Contrary to popular belief.
«It is quite possible to be a great artist without doing a lot of autoportraits,» he says, implying that it´s virtually impossible, «but you soon realize that you are your own most willing subject.» And he should know. In 1983, he exhibited 25 autoportraits, filled a whole Oslo gallery with images of himself. The critics were furious. Who the hell does this man think he is?
We´ll get to that shortly, but let´s pause for a minute and consider what he looks like. Odd is a man who wears robes. A brown, paint-speckled one as he greets us at his pretty summer home near Stavern, a couple hours south of Oslo, but he assures us there is a white robe underneath. One of the more curious spectacles in his home town of Oslo, is seeing Odd Nerdrum crossing a busy street dressed in his robes, often with a tail of young students, like some biblical prophet or Moses parting the Red Sea.
This weird apparition is painting a lovely blonde half-nude, without her hair, as we arrive. The Norwegian summer being what it is, the sound of thunder soon forces us indoors, to a historic house (the great Norwegian17th century sea warrior Tordenskiold once lived here) that was recently rebuilt and is furnished in almost Shaker-like simplicity. His two strangely named young sons (one is called Øde, which means «desolate») are going through their door-slamming period, punctuating the interview with loud bangs. Suddenly one of them appears and declares: «We are going to get a little baby sister». «Are we?» asks Odd, bemused. The expression is one of smugness and, yes, of royalty. Maybe the golden robe isn´t such a bad idea after all.
Once a tall, dark and very handsome youth, Odd at 54 wears a crow´s nest of grey curls, tied in a dirty headband, and his features have somewhat coarsened; despite the biblical garb, he really reminds you of that mythological Scandinavian creature: the Troll. Trolls, in fact sinister beings that devour children, are usually depicted as having kind eyes. And so does Odd. There´s a deep gentleness to his being that belies his reputation: that of being the most arrogant, pompous and self-loving painter in Scandinavia and quite possibly the entire world.
«I most certainly am not,» he says. «Ninety percent of what is printed about me is lies, even quotations. I once tried to file a formal complaint, but I lost. It´s no use fighting them.»
But one quote he doesn´t try to retract. Asked about appearing in the media in a previous interview, Odd said: «It´s like hollering down the garbage chute, and getting money in return.»
«Yes, I definitely said that. But I do it all the time. Maybe not as often as you think; I actually say no to most requests. But at times it amuses me. I view it a bit in the same way as sports fishing. And I also happen to think that letting your voice be heard is an artist´s responsibility.»
Which is why every Norwegian above the age of four has an opinion about Odd Nerdrum. At times, he´s been so busy appearing in the media that programming directors suspected him of possessing a private helicopter. And he also has something to say. Odd´s voice is the voice of the classicist, the voice of breeding and manners and culture. Of knowledge. Among other things, he has an impressive knowledge of classic literature. When checked upon, he can recall this writer´s favorite Thomas Mann novel in great detail.
«As a student, I felt that it was my duty to read the classics, so I did. All of them. Only later, it dawned on me that most people don´t. Not even the writers. And I think it´s a shame.»
The classics. They´re his life and his curse. What is one to make of a man who debuted as a painter back in 1964, the age of Warhol and Rauschenberg, in a style comparable to Rembrandt´s and Caravaggio´s? An instant outsider with anarchist leanings, blankly renouncing the last century of development in the world of visual arts? He was a damned paradox. And soon, the object of a veritable shitstorm of scorn and ridicule. Things have been written about Nerdrum and his art that wouldn´t be fit to print in a family magazine.
Stop persecuting us paranoids! Oh yes, Odd has a tiny slice of that, a mild paranoia directed at what he sees as the Establishment, mainly the Modernist art world and their cowardly lackeys, the critics. Modernism, to Odd, is everything from Van Gogh to performance artist Joseph Beuys, with whom he actually studied in the late sixties. There is, however, one concept of Modernism that Odd has greedily adopted: that of The Happening. A Nerdrum exhibition nearly always has that air. If not, he makes something happen, like pulling a painting that isn´t placed well, or pulling the entire thing.
Actually, his first US exhibition ended that way. It was SAS, the proud owner of the airplane seat you´re probably seated comfortably in right now, that invited him to exhibit in their Fifth Avenue gallery in New York City, 30 years ago. He arrived to discover that the exhibition had been censored — one work, a grisly painting of a disembowelled man named «Amputation» was deemed to strong, also a thing called «The Antichrist» and, less understandably, a nude titled «Irene». The Antichrist, they said, might induce fear of flying! The show never opened, and Odd didn´t exhibit in the US again until 1983. To top it all, his father, or really stepfather (in 1992, Odd discovered that he was the product of a wartime extra-marital affair), was a SAS director, though he had no hand in choosing Odd for the exhibition in the first place.
«I was really ashamed, but he supported me when I told him what had happened. But I think someone got fired. I guess I´m pretty stupid in that way — I never learned how to compromise.»
Odd Nerdrum, though probably the most highly prized artist in Scandinavia, views himself as somewhat of a loser.
«My stepfather advised me to become a Modernist. They´re doing pretty well for themselves, he said. I chose defeat. Money is absolutely irrelevant. Anyone can make money. You just need to open a hot dog stand.»
He doesn´t really say it, but Odd Nerdrum lusts after something entirely different: recognition. He´s been quoted (true or false) as describing himself as a genius. One might imagine that it would be nice if someone else said it, for a change.
«The choices I´ve made are in every way so hair-raising that I´ve reconciled myself to that I will leave this life as an oddball, a victim of ridicule. I haven´t seen a single sign of change in thirty years.»
Odd is wrong, or just coy. Today, there is rarely argument about his technical mastery, and his often controversial content has been lavishly praised as well. Odd Nerdrum has definitely had his international breakthrough. He exhibits in New York each year, is represented in several American museums — the Metropolitan now owns two Nerdrums — and has numerous supporters, the most famous of whom is rock star David Bowie, who has visited Nerdrum several times and recently bought his painting «Dawn». The admiration was not mutual. «Our only mutual interest is in my paintings,» Odd was quoted as saying, though: «He´s a nice man and a good listener.» Nerdrum knows to appreciate a good listener.
And though raised in the counter-culture of the sixties, Odd has no taste for rock music. It´s the classics again, or really the modern classics. He usually paints to music, preferably by someone like Gustav Mahler, Philip Glass, Dimitri Shostakovich, Arvo Pärt or his favorite, the late Swedish romanticist Allan Petterson. The latter, who died broke in the 1980´s after finishing a Beethoven-sized body of romantic symphonies, Nerdrum strongly identifies with.
To be precise, the scorn and ridicule heaped on Nerdrum is a local phenomenon. The Norwegian critics have tailed his career in a manner which could fairly be described as «persecution». One of the gravest incidents occurred just two years ago, when Odd was involved in a controversy about art education. He applied for the position as professor at the State Academy of Art in Oslo, got the job, and resigned his application at the last possible moment, following a tangible media campaign against him. Listen to what a major newspaper wrote, as an editorial: «Norwegian art society should have room for a multitude of expressions, including Odd Nerdrum´s. But we don´t think he represents the future of Norwegian art, neither at the Academy nor anywhere else.» (Dagbladet, 18.06.96, my italics) The last time somebody wrote something similar about a Norwegian artist, the year was 1895, and the artist in question the great Edvard Munch.
Why not contrast this with an American reaction? Art critic Hilton Kramer with the New York Observer, wrote about Odd in 1995 under the heading: «How long will curators ignore the great Nerdrum?» (not that long, with hindsight). Kramer writes: «When you see the work, you might very well dislike it intensely. But you will not soon forget it, and you will certainly not remain indifferent to it. Afterward, you may even find that a lot of contemporary painting looks perfectly trivial by comparison. Mr. Nerdrum is that rare thing — a deeply disturbing artist, and I mean genuinely disturbing, not merely irksome or cleverly provocative.» And later on: «The future of painting will be affected by his example.»
You see, Odd has a certain right to view himself as misunderstood. It´s not all fantasy. And in his art, he has always sympathized with the outsider, the persecuted, the victim. His maybe most famous work, and definitely the most discussed painting in Norway in the entire century, was called «The Murder of Andreas Baader» (1978). Probably based on Caravaggio´s «The Martyrium of St. Peter», it is dark and cleverly composed around the shape of an Andreas cross. It also never found a home. Odd originally wanted to donate it to a public building. Apart from the political controversy (the German terrorist´s death in Stammheim prison in 1977 was officially deemed to be a suicide), the horror and quality of the image was highly disputed. «Murder in brown sauce», one critic dubbed it. Since then, Odd has abandoned present politics in his work, in favour of more timeless images.
«That painting was made by a completely different person,» he says today. «It was an unperson (in the Orwellian sense) painting an unperson. I would say, though, that all my work is more or less autobiographical. Another thing is, I never made a penny on that Baader painting. I only had expenses. Had it been a novel, I would have become a millionaire.»
And now, this new … thing … about «kitsch painting». Odd is preparing a lecture for this autumn, probably sparking yet another media controversy, in which he will renounce his claims of being an artist.
«Yes, I would like to apologize for having called myself an artist all these years. I am a thief, and what I do is kitsch. In my paintings, what you see is what you get. It´s not like this squiggle or this particular flat field of colour hides some deeper significance, some invisible plane of meaning. Not with me. That´s for real artists.»
Odd says this without smiling, with no hint of appearing ironic. His sense of humour, warm and nice when surfacing, is perhaps not his most distinctive trait. His favorite word is «metaphysics», which appears in a myriad of contexts.
«You have to realize there´s a decisive difference between kitsch and camp. Camp implies irony, kitsch doesn´t. Kitsch is meant to be deep. Bad kitsch is intended to be deep, and everybody laughs. Good kitsch is intended to be deep, and nobody laughs.»
Well, at least Odd takes his «kitsch» pretty seriously. His knowledge of the Old Masters, always the driving force behind his fierce anti-Modernism, goes way deep.
«Yes, I´ve even researched the way they mixed their colors, the sort of linseed oils they used and so on. But I don´t think you should dabble too long in that sort of thing. To me, a painter like Rembrandt has his greatest value in his reluctance to use color. Color is in many ways painting´s enemy. To me, the mother of all colors is a warm grey. The closer you get to grey, the closer you are to real substance. And most important of all, is drawing. That nameless metaphysic, man´s longing for love, is mainly to be found in drawing. Leonardo was probably the greatest draftsman ever.»
But even a reincarnated Old Master (Odd describes himself thus, as a joke) has to contend with the 20th century. Odd confesses to a liking for TV commercials; there´s one for Strepsils he particularly enjoys. He does even watch movies.
«My favorites are Soviet Communist pictures, from the Stalin era. I loved the big, hollow sincerity in those films. Also, I like Francis Ford Coppolas Godfather trilogy, mainly because it reminds me of those Russian films.»
An Old Master would not be an Old Master without his students. Odd has been taking on students, or «assistants», as he rather calls them, since he was in his early twenties. He does not accept payment, but keeps them at hand to pose and do practical chores. Today, one rightly talks about a «Nerdrum School», with some of Norway´s technically most proficient painters emerging from this apprenticeship. Some of them are doing quite well, like the excellent draftsman Even Richardson and Trine Folmoe, who might be dubbed «The feminine Nerdrum». There´s even been incidents of that time-honored ritual, called «Renouncing the Master».
Since they´re the ones who pick us up and drive us back to the railway station, we get plenty of time to talk to a couple of Nerdrum´s present apprentices. They hold him in great revere, talk about him incessantly and even share his musical tastes. A more cynical observer might detect the slightest sub-note of religious cult in their devotion to Nerdrum. As Odd says himself, almost as a complaint:
«My students are all extremely virtuos. Often, they aspire to higher moral standards then I do myself.»
Apparently, even a Savior has his use for a couple Mary Magdalenes around the house.
Mr. Nerdrums retrospective will be showing at the Astrup-Fearnley Museum in Oslo until early January, when it moves to Kunsthal Rotterdam in Holland. Coinciding with the exhibition is the release of Odd Nerdrum — Storyteller and Self-revealer, a highly personal biography by Jan Åke Petterson, former director of the State Academy of Art in Oslo, Norway.
Torgrim Eggen (born 1958) is an author and journalist based in Oslo, Norway. In teenage years, also a kitsch painter of highly limited promise.