Friday, 2 January 2009

Odd art - or not art?

For a while I've been meaning to mention the paintings of the Norwegian-born artist Odd Nerdrum: see the official sites and - whose works have been described as "the result if Rembrandt had painted the sets of The Road Warrior". While not all of his works come into this category - he also does still-lifes and portraiture - a large body of them are allegorical paintings of classical figures involved in incomprehensible trades and rituals in a sombre landscape (based on Iceland, of which Nerdrum is now a citizen). This permanently twilit world is evidently post-apocalyptic; despite the generally primitive trappings, a few (such as the rifle-bearing Water Protectors) carry modern equipment.

But despite the evocative power of his works, and his adoption of the highly traditional media and perfected techniques of the Old Masters, Nerdrum doesn't view himself as an artist but as a creator of "kitsch": not in the usual pejorative sense, but in the sense described in his manifesto, On Kitsch, of figurative, non-ironic and narrative painting that focuses on skill over innovation (see World Wide Kitsch). He came to this stance via a split with Modernism after a controversy that arose when Nerdrum protested at the Norwegian National Academy of Art's failure to offer classes in figurative painting - see The Importance of Being Odd: Nerdrum's Challenge to Modernism (Paul A. Cantor, Artcyclopedia).

Whatever the intent and classification, his work has remarkable intensity, and turns up in surprising places. One of the scenes in Tarsem Singh's film The Cell - the point where Agent Novak encounters three hooded figures inside Stargher's mind - is a clear quote from Nerdrum's Dawn (Singh saw the painting on the wall of its owner, David Bowie).

Nerdrum's works have been used as cover art for several books: his Isola for the Erotic Distance poetry anthology by Barbara Campbell, his Five Persons Around a Water Hole for Joshua Buckley and Michael Moynihan's Tyr journal, and Sleeping Twins for Dennis Barone's The Returns. There are a number of book collections of Nerdrum's work: see Google Books. The most recent, and most comprehensive, is Themes (Odd Nerdrum, Bjorn Li, Distributed Art Pub Inc, 2006, ISBN 8275472261).

The reason Nerdrum sprang to mind was seeing the work of another kitsch artist, Agostino Arrivabene, yesterday; the latter's Figure series - tribal figures doing peculiar things in sombre landscapes - strongly resemble Nerdrum's. I don't know if there's any conscious influence or homage. Looking at World Wide Kitsch, however, there appear to be stylistic similarities within the movement: Luke Hillestad's The Recovery and the works of Ibolya Csanádi also contain archaically-clothed figures in brown landscapes with a glimmer of sun low on the horizon.

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. Definitely Road Warrior. (I used to love that movie; now it looks so old.)

    I love his name (and I had never heard of him before).

    He reminds me of many different Dutch artists (because I can't remember the names of the exact ones...). Also, composition and body style, he sort of reminds me of Andrew Wyeth -- especially the paintings of his (Wyeth's) German neighbors. Wyeth's colors are more delicate and his light much ... lighter/clearer, but the body style and sparse terrains are similar, to my not-very-expert eye.