Who Is Odd Nerdrum and Why Do We Care?

15 Sep 2011

Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum, currently facing time in prison for tax fraud, is certainly a character, taking on more of a dramatic persona than most people do in their day-to-day lives. He's also a bit of a polarizing figure. I know artists who think he is a kind of prophet, talking about art in a way contemporary artists are inspired and mobilized by. Others find themselves unmoved by his work and put off by the hype.

I don't care to promote or vilify Nerdrum. But I will say is that his work and his writings make me think. First off, Nerdrum believes that art--he quibbles with the word, preferring to describe his work as kitsch--is eternal, not of a particular time and place.

Early Morning by Odd Nerdrum, oil on canvas.
Early Morning by Odd Nerdrum, oil on canvas.
For me, this brings up all sorts of questions about the things that I would categorize as eternal and worthy of making art--human connection, the male and female figure, spirituality in the broadest sense--but I also push against this dictate. Why can't the specifics of a life merit art? What about the small moments where nothing is "happening" but there's significance to be found all the same? What about pleasure? What about fun? I'd say if something has a place in life, it certainly has a place in art, right?

But I do find myself intrigued by Nerdrum's work because the figures and the compositions seem to be practically screaming their narrative, and yet those narratives aren't really clear or concise. That means the viewer is free to think through the work, puzzle it out, come up with multiple and possibly competing narratives. I like that freedom and not every painting gives me that opportunity, so it is certainly one I relish.

Drifting by Odd Nerdrum, oil on canvas. The Kiss by Odd Nerdrum, oil on canvas.
Drifting by Odd Nerdrum, oil on canvas. The Kiss by Odd Nerdrum, oil on canvas.

As a painter, Nerdrum is well known to have taken up with the Old Masters, particularly Rembrandt. Using a muted, earth-toned palette, he creates works using the same oil painting methods that have produced well-painted works for centuries--layering, glazing, scumbling, and balancing color value. By making works that are skillfully painted, Nerdrum is essentially critiquing the idea that painting well or with skill is painting conventionally. Because that is not always the case, and it certainly isn't with his work.

But Nerdrum does know how to paint--very well indeed. And if you are looking for the same skill set, American Artist Guide to Painting Techniques is one of our best resource guides. It has all the essentials of painting and illustrates how all of them are utilized. And for figural work--which I believe is a cornerstone of all great artwork--Masters of Realism and Figure Painting Highlights are sure bets. Today is the last day for the Artist Daily Fall Sale, so shop for these now and enjoy!

P.S. What do you think about Odd Nerdrum's philosophy and works? Leave a comment and let me know. All best!


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Eric Armusik wrote
on 16 Sep 2011 9:30 AM

If it weren't for Odd Nerdrum I wouldn't have known that traditional art existed when I was getting my BFA in the early 90s.  Classical painting was mocked and dismissed and Odd was one of the few artists daring enough to follow his passion.  We take it for granted today now that we have a real movement established.  While I am not as much of a fan of his current work, the man made me feel like I wasn't alone in my admiration for artists like Caravaggio and Rembrandt.  I will always respect him for that.

Eric Armusik


on 16 Sep 2011 10:49 AM

Even beyond incredible classical technique, Nerdrum's work is inspiring, disturbing and worth consideration on many levels. To lead with tax fraud issues surrounding is beneath this blog. Consider the work, but please don't stoop to sensationalist journalism, Courtney. I expect better.

herb jones wrote
on 16 Sep 2011 11:24 AM

I LOOOVE ODD NERDRUM !!!! I love his iconoclastic mind and his courage to stand alone [ all his life really ] in the face of intense criticism from the contemporary art establishment !!  I say BRAVO  to ODD NERDRUM , may he live long and prosper !!!.

jaydub wrote
on 16 Sep 2011 11:48 AM

I have had a lot of exposure to ODD, via Facebook. He inspires people through his honest visions. He is a Noregian Patriot also. He actually commented to me once, on facebook, encouraging me. So he has got hang in there!

Kisu wrote
on 16 Sep 2011 4:08 PM

There is something compelling about his images, although I have to confess his work doesn't reach me on a technical level the way the work of others, both living and deceased, does.  It's more the overall impact of his images, but a little does go a long way.  If he rejects the notion of zeitgeist in art, then I think he's very mistaken.  

shray artist wrote
on 17 Sep 2011 12:27 AM

Thank you for putting his work before us, and in full view. Undraped body and all, I am so happy to know as an artist , that is ok still to show the human form in art.  My second point would be to agree with you that his art leaves room for the viewer, thus in a classic sense he is of the old school which I happen to agree with. I do not feel,  that it is the modern day arts job  to tell the viewer the narrative.  To be the holier that though spokesmen for the masses. To see only what the artist sees,  is to become blind as a society.  We all need to be the observer of life - and thank god we all see it in a different way.  The artist of today, the type of which you describeand the work produced has become a form of totalitarian perception, and with out the 'art critic'  well I guess we all would be lost as to  regocnizing what is 'good' art. Instaed smell a flower,  walk through the garbage of an old street,  see children running with joy . A man lying on the ground, covered in old news, forgotten by the world...and catch your eye and feel your smile as a butterfly lands on a blade of grass growing from the cement cracks... paint, feel  a smile and laugh with the sun. This is art,all the pretty and ugly thrown together- this is what great art can capture.  Allow once again the viewer to finish the painting or what other medium the art he or she choose to see. For the viewer is the ultimate artist. The others,like myself,  just open the door to our imagination for us.shray

olypic artist, 2008 bejing awarded

rfrivera wrote
on 17 Sep 2011 5:05 AM

Countney, thank you for this insight. Odd Nerdrum's work remind me of Anna Mandetta"s work. The message that comes through (for me) is both artists are attempting to communicate with their roots. They are trying to reenter the womb through the earth. I have no real art training, however since my retirement, I attend a senior citizens' art class and have become familiar with the old masters. Thank you. I shall research Old Nerdrum for my own edification.

Kisu wrote
on 17 Sep 2011 8:39 AM

One final thought:  it has become politically correct within some representational art circles to unquestioningly revere artists such as Nerdrum and Bouguereau more than their work actually deserves.  It's really no different than blindly adoring some Modernist without question.  

on 17 Sep 2011 4:47 PM

Soooo....who cares what he SAYS!  His skill is superb.....his imagination ...out of the box......the feel and effect of his work theatrical and mesmerizing....and to look upon his work requires that we think upon it. Great artist to me!

Carole Goldman

pcurtis wrote
on 18 Sep 2011 1:29 PM

Ok, perhaps he is a good painter.  Eccentric, maybe obsessed with nudity and sex, and certainly exaggerates his importance (god complex?).  I've read all I care to about him.

izzie01 wrote
on 19 Sep 2011 10:36 AM

As an old person I appreciate art with some juice, thought, color...as an artist I relish technique in display of these things. Indifferent to Nerdrum's chatter, I enjoy his work.

RTScott wrote
on 26 Sep 2011 5:30 AM


Great article!

I don't think mentioning the tax evasion scandal is problematic in the least. Unfortunately, sensationalism is the way that the media functions today, and to deny sensationalism to a great painter like Odd Nerdrum, is the same as hiding all his paintings in the basement so no one shall see them. Why do we care? How could we not care about one of the greatest painters of the last century - a living Old master?

Melzzartt wrote
on 26 Sep 2011 7:16 AM

Thank you for the thought provoking blog post!  Also, thanks for the free downloads.  This is really an interesting guy!  I enjoy his work.  I somewhat agree with what he says, but you made some great points.  

I think abstract art probably fits the description of not being from a particular time or place.  (This is just one way of interpreting what Odd says.)  Though, the medium used might give away the period of time in which it was created.  Though, art is one of those things that is able to transcend the boundaries of time  and location.  Something that was created hundreds of years ago in Africa is still valued today in America.

I do agree with you, though.  It's like he's saying that his work is trite, maybe even that not all art is worthy.  Everything in life is worth it's expression in art.  

Ashy87Hunt wrote
on 31 Jan 2014 2:20 PM

I've always enjoyed Odd Nerdrum's work. The narrative is both clear and mysterious. He gives you a direction but allows you to finish the story.