Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Concept to Composition: Odd Nerdrum's Studio Practice part 1

When analyzing Odd Nerdrum's technique simply from looking at a painting (even in person), most people invariable come to a brick wall. It's almost inscrutable how he produces such sensuous and luminescent flesh, while at the same time creates a surface replete with texture and transparency that would make any abstract painter blush.

Much like Rembrandt before him, Nerdrum hides his tricks. So, just as I began my study of Rembrandt's technique by studying the works of his students, who are not so skilled at covering their tracks, I began my search for Nerdrum's secrets through his students as well. Unfortunately, this revealed important but limited information. Further, as I couldn't see their work in person, I was left at an impasse.

This is when I decided to go to the master himself. I was incredibly honored that he accepted my application and, giddy as a child, I hopped on a plane to visit a land I had never before seen. When I arrived, jet lagged and exhausted, he and his wife greeted me at the train station and he immediately put me on the spot. "Why do you want to study with me?" he asked. And through the mists of my dream clouded mind, I was luckily able to furnish an answer, "I want to learn how your idea translates into a composition; how it speaks not like prose, but like poetry." To this he grunted his assent. I sighed with relief that I had passed the first test.

But I could not have known how closely I nailed the question. This was precisely what he wanted to teach, and this was precisely the answer to the question of his technique. In order to understand how he paints the way he does, you have to understand why he paints the way he does. It is all in service of the idea.

Consider his self portrait above. There's not much to it: a single figure stands in a murky atmosphere, surrounded by impenetrable darkness. Yet, this painting speaks more powerfully than many much more complex paintings. This painting speaks fluently in a visual language. It is poetic, like a perfectly structured Haiku. In order to discover why, I began by asking him about his influences. Of course, at first we covered the obvious: Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Titian... but then two names struck me. Eugene Carriere and Joseph Beuys (he studied with Beuys in his youth). And what do these artists have in common? An interest in symbolism, spirituality, and an even hermetic interest in the artist as alchemist.

The pieces began to come together. What this painting is about is mortality. Not only that, but through contrast, the immortal spirit, the essence of eternal life. There are many levels on which we could read this painting. Critical theory would discuss it's relationship to Platonic and Dionysian thought as a contrast to post-modernism which focuses on objective materialism. An art historian might point out its references to Rembrandt, Carriere and the iconic composition. Though all of these inform my search, what I'm really interested in is how he communicates this.

Study the detail above. What you might notice first is the incredible looseness of the paint application. It does not look as if he has resolved the form into clarity, but actually destroyed the form. Much of the face is accurate, but ambiguous. The effect is breath taking, and I choose my words carefully here because you might next notice the two things in greater focus: the nose and the mouth. This serves the minor purpose of creating depth in the painting, but weren't we taught in the atelier that every inch of the canvas is as important as every other? Yes, and here, every inch is important, each nuance plays a role. But each element doesn't have to be painted to the same degree of clarity or detail. In order to communicate it is necessary to have syntax, structure, a hierarchy, and therefore a focal point. The focal point here gives us the key to cryptographically decode the painting. His mouth is open, his nostrils are slightly flared, he is in ecstatic contemplation of a single thing: breath.

Breath, is the crux of life. In many ancient cultures, the last breath before dying was considered the soul escaping the body, and judging by how Nerdrum has enchantingly lacerated the surface of the canvas with sand paper as if he was an embodiment of Kali, the emotive mist that we feel so deeply in this painting is the veil between life and death. The centering of the figure invokes the memory of Byzantine Icons, yet the symmetry is thrown off balance by the addition of the bright yellow shock of hair below his left ear, injecting dynamic life into the composition. The detail and contrast in the eyes are compressed and lost almost to point of simply representing the sockets in the skull. The hair disintegrates into rusted shadow. Every value, every color, is condensed with the greatest care to enhance the solidity of a single idea: breath. There is no need for more information, there is no need for less. The ambiguity of the statement insures that each and every one of us can identify.

Consider the detail of a different painting below. The hand holding the palette is beautifully drawn in contour, yet there is almost no information in the shadow, nor much more in the light. This gives him the ability to use this hand compositionally as a singly shape, almost in the sense of formal abstraction. The other hand (happens to be mine, as I modeled for this painting) is painted in much more clarity and contrast, because as it is the hand holding the brush, it is the acting hand, the one that creates. These methods are simply a few in Nerdrum's oeuvre, which he uses to lead the eye of the viewer, and therefore to the meaning. It is the difference between the musical emphasis of speech and the monotone of writing.

Continued.... Concept to composition part II


Davi said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post.
Thank you for shedding more light into Nerdrum's meanings and approaches.
I admire his work greatly and have been looking forward to your postings!!
Thanks Richard and good work!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...


I'm a Mexican artist, and I've been doing some research to get into a residency with Odd Nerdrum, but it seems it's an unbreakable secret, and then I found your blog.

Would you please give me some clues for application?

You can see my work here:


Thank you very much,

Hector Herrera.

Bruce said...

How wonderful that you have found each other. Your work has long held the same luminosity and magic of his; perhaps even before you ever came to know his work. I await your New York show with great excitement. The chance to see both of you hanging in the same space...wonderful!

Jovan Radakovich said...

Thank you for the insights into this master's work!