Funny how the further away you get from home the more the distance tones down what once seemed so very important. In Norway Odd Nerdrum is either revered or reviled because he has made the Old Masters modern. This painter of flesh and desolation has been accused by the more ideological among his critics of being a painter of kitsch. The artist pleads guilty, but only to fire back that contemporary art has lost its grounding.
Halfway around the world Nerdrums elaborately worked paintings confirm much of our stereotype of Northern Europe as a vast but dark region populated by emotionally cold, existentially isolated people. It is their bluntness, their frankness, and their oddness that roots them in the present. The personae of Rembrandt, Titian, Delacroix, or Caravaggio may suffuse them with a perplexing air of radical return, but the credibility of the aesthetic voice is repeatedly sustained by Nerdrums dogged capacity as a painter.
A single or small handful of figures typically populate landscapes that lack any sort of vegetation or architecture. Bodies of water often compel the contemplation of the sparse population, who are by turns either deeply absorbed or quite disturbed. Clothing and and other fabrics are heavy, drab, even primitive hides lacking in color or decorative detail, yet they are remarkably compelling. If desolation is a word often used to describe the overall tone of Nerdrums images, there is good reason for it. The exceptionally rich and painterly surface is delightfully opulent, yet this is placed in the service of a mythological world--that of a medieval past or post-apocalyptic future--that is desiccated. The skull of a horse set by a figure in ambiguous emotional turmoil might be ready to sip water from the lake it appears ready to slip into in Resurrection of a Horse. The atmosphere of desperation hovers whether you choose to view the drama as expressing strong horror or intense fascination. The feeling is of craggy historical pessimism that closely matches, through utterly different means, that of Anselm Kiefer. The tone of moral authority is that of an Old Testament prophet informing a skeptical populace to beware.
Swaddled babies appear to have a strong hold on Nerdrum (himself a father of three), often appearing as twins. In Twins by the Sea a woman who is presumably their mother props up her head as she lies beside them, observing them from her sleeping bag as they sleep a discreet distance away. The plural in the title Summer Nights suggests that the ensuing scene is typical and bucholic. It is anything but, as a man rises from bed with a rifle in his left hand. His classically reclining nude wife and basket-borne infant remain fast asleep. The front door to their apparently small cabin stands open, but the outside view exposed to our scrutiny contains nothing more than diffuse light. Nothing contextualizes their environment as urban or rural, nor what has caused this husbands concern.
Technology is nearly absent from this hand-made world, the gun in Summer Nights being a rare exception. Unlike the Pre-Raphaelites, who hearkened to their own invented notion of a Gothic ideal that was profoundly skeptical of 19th-century industrialism, the minimal technology here screams poverty. The fractured social fabric is most explicit in Wanderers by the Sea, in which a relative crowd of seven pilgrims squat in the dirt to stare out over the ocean. None is allowed by the artist to acknowledge an awareness of another human being, though dress and pose tie them together. This is George Tookers rhetoric of post-War existentialist alienation recast as beings who are trying to come to grips with disaster. And to the degree that they fail, Nerdrum succeeds.
36 1/2 x 31, 2000.
"Wanderers by the Sea,"
o/c, 78 x 101 1/2", 2001.
Summer Nights, o/c,
71 1/4 x 75 1/2, 2001.
"Resurrection of a Horse,"
o/c, 65 x 72 3/4", 2001.