This blog provides reviews of art books, including recently published releases and old classics in the second hand bookstores. My aim is to help fellow art lovers build a collection of richly illustrated art books, with the help of discerning advice about the grandest visual treats and which books are mediocre. This blog mainly focuses on books about individual artists (old masters to modern). We can't all afford to collect original masterpieces, but we can all afford a good art book!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Odd Nerdrum: Themes

My most recent book review dealt with the upbeat artworks of Norman Rockwell. Rockwell painted a world that was idealised, to the point of caricature. He wrote “If there was [any] sadness in this creative world of mine, it was a pleasant sadness. If there were problems, they were humorous problems. I’d rather not paint the agonizing crises and tangles of life.” This is a quality that many of us like in art.

My next review is of a book on Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum, a painter who could not possibly be more different from Rockwell. Ghoulish, eerie and haunting, his work is bound to disturb you. Yet his uncanny talent for realism is so superb, that it is hard not to also be awestruck by his paintings and find yourself lingering in marvel at the power of these confronting images.

Nerdrum’s paintings are great inspiration for any artist to study. He has a dexterous ability to paint the human form, the dance of light across skin and the rich colours that dwell in the shadows and folds of flesh. An admirer of Carravagio, he has become a modern master of chiaroscuro, using nocturnal or twilight settings to create an air of apprehended danger. His working methods have traditional rigor. He grinds his own pigments, works from life models, visits Iceland to study its landscape and works for months to perfect some of his large canvases.

The book“Odd Nerdrum: Themes” is the most complete collection of Nerdrum’s paintings in circulation. At over 500 pages there is very little writing and a maximum of pages given over to artworks from over 40 years of work. The book is still in print and can be bought at a remarkably good price, unlike earlier books on this artist which have inflated through the roof.

The single introductory essay briefly recounts the artist’s turning point as an 18 year old art student when he visited a modern art museum with an overbearing art professor and a flock of credulous students. While the teacher hectored the students about the inner meaning of abstract art, Nerdrum lost interest and walked over to a traditional museum. There he admired the many old masters and eventually found himself drawn to a dark and moody Rembrandt painting of a historical event set in the first century AD. Later he was teased by his peers for his deviance and his old fashioned taste. Nerdrum then realised that “I had to paint in defiance of my own era. ... I would paint myself into isolation.”

Since he made that vow, Odd Nerdrum has flown off on an independent trajectory leaving a trail of controversy behind him. He has skirmished with the Norwegian art establishment (“an aristocracy of incompetents”), criticising abstract art for its failure in both technique and ideas. He surpasses the ability of most old masters in his realism and has won acclaim as one of the most collectible contemporary artists in the world. Nerdrum has built up a large body of artwork that is unique, bordering on inexplicable. While he paints with a pungent realism, the imaginary worlds he paints are nightmarish and unrecognisable.

The book starts on conventional ground with reproductions of some of Nerdrum’s paintings from the 1960s, including a few studio still life portraits and some impressive paintings of dramas set in the 20th century. But from his earliest days, Nerdrum also began painting post-apocalyptic scenes set in desolate landscapes. The book is packed with these horror-scapes: a tangled mound of naked human dead, a disembowelled man, blind wanderers, a woman being buried alive, naked figures in pain or death throes, abandoned babies. These depraved scenes seem to be set in some kind of dark age, with the inhabitants of Nerdrum’s world often wearing leather caps and robes of a medieval fashion. Their dirtied hair is sometimes dreadlocked and they inhabit a barren and uncultivated landscape. Sometimes though, the characters lug rifles, adding another element of illogic into the peculiarity of this misfit world.

Nerdrum does show some a tender moments including series of paintings of mothers and their babies, and couples in embrace. But for the most part his figures look lonely and fearful. Disability and insanity are common conditions in this miserable land of suffering. The frightening artworks defy understanding and this book fails to give any explanation for why this artist puts his talents behind such perturbing work.

A much better book for some background on the artist is Richard Vine’s "Odd Nerdrum: Paintings, Sketches and Drawings" (the first Nerdrum book I’ve bought). If you had to choose between the two I’d pick the former, for its more informative account of the artist's life story and his influences, as well as the superior sharpness of the close-up images. But this new book captures the latest five years of the artist’s output and is printed in an even larger format than Vine’s book.

Odd Nerdrum: Themes has an eccentric introduction. It features a fictional account of a young freelance art critic, struggling to write a newspaper review of a book about Nerdrum. The critic is very mindful of the contempt that his old art professor has for this reactionary artist who paints with confidence and arrogance, “as if a century of art history had never existed!” The wet young critic writes a verbose and shambolic review full of pretentious post-modern theories about Nerdrum’s art. Then the tangled review is rejected by the newspaper’s editor and replaced with a caustic review by the old feminist art professor who derides Nerdrum for his realistic technique and his conventional portrayal of women in maternal roles. The punchline of the farce is that one critic, with an inability to understand or appreciate the art, is supplanted by another who refuses to.

I wouldn’t pretend to understand this disconcerting artwork. But I don’t hesitate to extol the genius of Odd Nerdrum’s unrivalled skill in painting the human form and his ability to conjure an atmosphere of dramatic foreboding. This is an artist I have to admire inspite of my prejudices towards beautiful and more familiar art.

Book specs:
Cloth bound hardcover 554 pages, 12.5 x 11.4 inches, hundreds of paintings

Other recent books on Nerdrum:

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