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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Odd Nerdrum

Self-portrait in a Tree Trunk, 1999-2000, Odd Nerdrum.
What Would Jesus Drink?
(Kitsch Coke Perhaps)
Although I've mentioned it before, I don't think I've ever adequately defined the art term, "kitsch." There's a good reason for that. It's a hard term to pin down. Often it's defined simply as poor taste (left), but that's an oversimplification. I always liked my own definition, "Art that's so bad that it's good." That too, though perhaps clever and easy to remember, is not adequate. If kitsch has a face, it would probably be that of Elvis Presley. But what about a painting of Buddy Holly? Both were rock 'n roll legends, both died tragically before their time, yet virtually any and every attempt to depict Elvis in paint would risk the "kitsch" label. Buddy Holly...not so much. Why? Some sources use the phrase, "excessively garish," with regard to kitsch and certainly that's often a factor, but it's also too limiting. The words "low brown" and "tacky" often appear as well. I've also heard the phrase "absurdly popular," associated with kitsch. Although it might be difficult to construct a defining sentence conveying all that, I think you get the idea. If someone tells you your work is "kitsch," you can assume, first that he or she probably doesn't much like it, and second, you should possibly reevaluate you content selection process. But what about an artist who, himself, refers to his own work as "kitsch"?

Five Singing Women, 2004, Odd Nerdrum
The older he gets, the more Nerdrum
looks and acts like his idol, Rembrandt.
The Norwegian figural painter, Odd Nerdrum, uses precisely that word. However, he uses it in a comparative sense rather than as a derogative term. Nerdrum was born in 1944 and came of age as an artist in the 1960s and 70s just as Modern Art was belatedly finding its grip on Norwegian painting. While his fellow art students were gravitating toward Warhol and Lichtenstein, Nerdrum veered off toward Rembrandt and Caravaggio. He became such an outcast among his colleagues and instructors at the Art Academy of Oslo, that, as he put it, after two years, "I was chased from the academy like a scroungy mutt" (below). Modern Art had taken such a hold that all else was considered kitsch. Classic works of the past had become too popular to be considered fine art. In the midst of such a culture war between old and new, Nerdrum claimed pride in the label, "kitsch," meaning out of step with Modern Art.
Self-portrait as a Dog, Odd Nerdrum
The Sleeping Couple, 199-2000, Odd Nerdrum
The culture war continues, though it's become more akin to the cold war than mortal combat; and the word, "kitsch" has, over time, taken on a different slant as to meaning, now having little or nothing to do with the art of the old masters, more to do with the words "trite" or "hackneyed." In that sense, Nerdrum's work is neither. In selecting images to illustrate an artist's work, I've found it best to steer clear of art which I find difficult to understand. Usually that's of little consequence, but with Nerdrum, that's damned near half of what he's done, compounded by the fact that he's not at all timid about painting full frontal nudity either male or female, some of it not just erotic in the romantic sense (left) but veering dangerously close to pornographic (below).

The Kiss, 2002, Odd Nerdrum

The Running Bride, Odd Nerdrum
In viewing Nerdrum's work, it's not difficult to see the man loves Rembrandt. He's also attracted to the dramatic light of Caravaggio. Likewise, you'll see a lot of Nerdrum himself; he frequently paints self-portraits (top)or uses himself as a model in other thematic contexts. But looking a little deeper one also sees evidence of Brueghel, Goya, Chardin, and Millet, as well as less apparent traces of Henry Fuseli, Caspar David Friedrich, Ferdinand Hodler, Edvard Munch, Käthe Kollwitz, Salvador Dalí, Chaim Soutine, and Lars Hertervig. No one has ever accused any of these more recent masters of being kitsch (though Munch and Dali are in danger of becoming "absurdly popular").

You See We Are Blind, Odd Nerdrum

I could find no title for this work by
Nerdrum, which is probably just as well.
Not only does Nerdrum paint in the manner of Rembrandt and his Baroque friends, but he extends this element past matters of style to include the paints themselves (he grinds his own pigments), the use of live models (often himself or family), his painting techniques, even the way he dresses. Often he lays aside his brushes in favor of a palette knife, or even his fingers. Nerdrum has another kinship with Rembrandt too. He has money problems. In fact, the Norwegian courts have sentenced him to two years in prison for tax evasion (during which time he would not be permitted to paint). It's a complicated mess involving safe deposit boxes, law suits, and legal hairsplitting. Even after having attained a second trial, the verdict was the same, but the sentence was ten months longer. Like Rembrandt, Nerdrum has had to put his home up for sale, a seaside farm in Norway listed for $22-million. As of this moment, the legal morass is in the appeals process with Nerdrum planning to move to a second home in France.

Nerdrum's barn/studio, Røvik farm West of Stavern, Larvik , Norway.
Asking price, $22-milliion.
The Dentures, 1983, Odd Nerdrum. He paints
still-lifes too. Okay, this might be a bit kitsch.


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