After my two articles where I defended cultural conservatism, what other artist is better suited to portray than Odd Nerdrum?
The Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum (b. 1944) has been somewhat of a savage and enfant terrible that has managed to provoke the entire art elite with his paintings and ideas ever since his debut. In 2014 he was sentenced in Oslo District Court to 20 months in prison for tax evasion.
Nerdrum has ever since his academic years in the 60's been a harsh critic of modernism and has instead looked back to the masters of the golden age of painting. His allergy against Cézanne, Braque and Picasso - dry and analytical abstraction - together with a devotion for artists such as Rembrand and Caravaggio with their enticing illusory imagery, quickly angered the entire art establishment. He dresses in ankle-length caftans, often asymmetrical animal skins. This together with his curly, long, golden hair has one wondering whether or not he's a time traveler from the 17th century.
Nerdrum was a student in the early 1960's at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Oslo under Aage Storstein and Alexander Schultz. It was here that he discovered Rembrandt and the techniques of the old masters, but also here that he began to be at odds with the modernists and the art establishment. He saw and still sees modernism as a great scourge and he terminated his studies to instead give himself a classical training in the footsteps of old masters like Caravaggio and especially Rembrandt. Even though to a large extent self taught, Nerdrum's technical ability is second to none.
Odd Nerdrum's ideas around art clashed hard with the progressive art world in the 60's and 70's. He claimed that art didn't necessarily have to be either revolutionary or portray a social problem, and he defined modernism and contemporary art by what it was lacking:
1) The open and trustful face
2) The sensual skin
3) Golden sunsets
4) The longing for eternity
But even if Nerdrum works in a classical tradition, he differs from the old masters such as Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Tizian, since his world of motifs has an entirely different content. The paintings have a generality that often originates in the private which is then reinterpreted. He calls himself a "self-revealer", which could be a clue to the huge amount of self-portraits over the years.
Why is it then that Nerdrum has never really been generally accepted by the establishment? His anti-ironic stance has always been considered politically incorrect. Serious and sentimental art is not taken seriously in the post modern swamp of today. Serious art has been banished to live in exile in dusty history books and museums. This together with the fact that he as person and his paintings has received so much attention over the years - and that he on top of that has earned a lot of money - has enraged the establishment. The fact that he calls himself a genius and the last outpost of figurative painting (Nerdrum is not particularly famous for his modesty) has obviously made matters worse.
Just over a decade ago, Odd Nerdrum rebranded himself as a "Kitsch painter" with the explanation that when art is ironic and distant, kitsch is serious and direct. A clever appropriation of the invective used by the worst critics in the war against Nerdrum and his disciples. Odd Nerdrum sees himself as a victim, an outcast in an art world that constantly opposes him.
The cultural conservative authors Johan Lundberg och Christopher Rådlund released a book in conjunction with an exhibition with Nerdrum and his pupils called "Figurations. Realism and Romanticism in contemporary norwegian art" in 2009. This sparked a heated debate that lasted for months and some critics called the Nerdrum school of art "totalitarian" and pointed to the similar ambitions and aesthetics of the art in National Socialist Germany. Some went as far as calling for censorship (who's being totalitarian now?)
Nerdrum's pictorial world is characterized by an apocalyptic mood, and the human figures seem to come from another era, but still not. They are naked or dressed in animal hides and leather helmets, and they find themselves in dark and gloomy landscapes relying heavily on earth colors (yellow ocher, burnt umber, burnt sienna).
One of Nerdrum's most famous and provocative works is "The Murder of Andreas Baader" from 1978, where he presents the German terrorist Andreas Baader as a victim, possibly even as a martyr. The composition of the painting and the distinct chiaroscuro shows a clear relationship with Caravaggio, not least the painting "The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew" (1599-1600). Another remarkable piece of work is "Self Portrait in Golden Cape" from 1998, where he depicts himself with an erect penis. He has repeatedly aroused public debate through his art and views.
But while masterpieces of greats like Rembrandt and Caravaggio are collected by art museums around the world, the interest in Odd Nerdrum is significantly lesser. Obviously, Nerdrum has been a central figure in the figurative tradition for over 40 years, but he's still not represented in most of the famous modern art museums. Nerdrum has despite being at odds with the establishment had a lot of exhibitions and achieved great commercial success. Modern man is longing for permanent and eternal values. We live in a world where everything is volatile; we change jobs and partners and everything has been deconstructed by postmodernism. Regarding Nerdrum's work from a philosophical perspective, he stands for order in cultural chaos. This sincere longing in people is obviously something that the arrogant art elite scoff at.
It's tempting to say that Nerdrum was born in the wrong time period, but the truth might actually be that he was born in precisely the right era. Nerdrum and his art is a necessary gravel in the otherwise unidirectional art machine that celebrates banality and the meaningless postmodern ideals and shun tradition, seriousness, sentimentality and romantic pathos.