The year was 1999. My Norwegian partner and I were living in Amsterdam. One morning I saw in the newspaper (this was back when one read actual newspapers) that there was an exhibition at the Rotterdam Kunsthal of a contemporary Norwegian artist I’d never heard of.
His name was Odd Nerdrum, and the exhibition was entitled “New Old Master,” because his work, apparently, was influenced by the likes of Rembrandt and Caravaggio.
Rembrandt? Caravaggio? What kind of contemporary artist was this? We’d just moved to Amsterdam from New York, where for years I’d regularly made my way to SoHo galleries and uptown museum exhibitions in search of something new and exciting, only to find, almost without exception, unoriginal imitators of the most easily imitated of modern artists — Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, etc.
No, I don’t mean to put down all the abstract expressionists — just the ones that I view as derivative drones or cynical careerists — charlatans, hacks, no-talents. But I do despise the art-scene doyens who dismiss gifted portraitists as unserious.
For example, the father of a friend of mine is a brilliant figurative artist who’s taught for decades at the Art Students League but is entirely off the art-world radar.
My cousin’s ex-partner made a living painting impeccable portraits for private clients, but he didn’t even respect those works himself; what he (and his gallerist) took seriously were his abstract canvases — which, frankly, looked like a thousand others by other hands.
Then there was the very talented artist, daughter of a poet friend of mine, who for years couldn’t sell her beautiful representational paintings and switched to abstraction as a pure career move. Again, the result was pictures that you felt you’d seen a million times.
Which is why, in Amsterdam, in 1999, I wanted very much to check out this “New Old Master.” So the two of us took the train to Rotterdam and found our way to the Kunsthal. And we were blown away. Odd Nerdrum’s canvases were a revelation. His subjects were mythic, mysterious, magical. And his technique was breathtaking.
He really was a “New Old Master.” Why hadn’t I ever heard of him?
Later, living in Oslo, I understood. Oslo, I soon discovered, had a sizable art scene. It still does. And Nerdrum has never really been a part of it. For all but a few of the “important” artists and art journalists, he’s persona non grata.
In fact what’s really going on is that he’s the real thing, and they’re not, and they know it.
They’re frauds, and the only way they can keep their scam going is to put out the word that Nerdrum — who’s definitely Norway’s greatest living artist, and perhaps even the greatest living artist on the planet — is a fake, that his kind of representational art and his unrivaled painterly technique are passé, and that real artistic genius in our time takes, well, other forms.
What’s really going on is that Nerdrum is the real thing, and they’re not, and they know it.
What kinds of forms? Well, earlier this month it was reported that Michell-Marie Letelier, a Chilean-born artist now living in Berlin, had received about $45,000 in Norwegian taxpayers’ money for an artwork that consisted of her talking to, and swimming naked with, an aquarium full of salmon.
Or duck into the Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo’s premier venue for contemporary art, where you can ponder an installation that looks like monkey bars in a playground. You can see pretty much the same stuff, of course, at every contemporary-art museum on Earth.
But in Norway, there’s a little something extra in the mix. Because Norwegians are programmed from infancy onward not to think they’re special, or smarter, or better, or more knowledgeable, or more important than anyone else. It’s called the Jante Law. It’s not a law in the law books, of course; it’s a law — a way of looking at the world — that’s hard-wired into almost every Norwegian’s head.
And Nerdrum — who’s the best, goddamn it, and knows it, and lets you know he knows it — is the ultimate breacher of that law.
This, I’m certain, is why the Norwegian tax authorities tormented him for years, in what seemed like nothing more or less than a brutally malevolent effort to crush his very soul. Twice he would’ve been sent to prison if not for intervention by the Supreme Court (the first time) and the king (the second time).
In a 2016 Morgenbladet article chronicling the tax nightmare — which, he convincingly demonstrated, was an act of sheer Kafkaesque injustice — Dag Solhjell concluded that Nerdrum had been weighed down throughout by “a double burden: he’s an artist, and he’s Odd Nerdrum.”
Indeed. Many another country would be bursting with pride over Nerdrum. Not Norway. “I’ve been called a genius many times,” Nerdrum said in a 2011 TV interview, “but in Norway that’s a term of abuse.” He hadn’t talked to a journalist in 10 years, he said, because “I don’t want to socialize with the enemy.”
I work as a translator, and some years ago, just by chance, I was asked to translate the textual content of Themes (2007), a massive, magnificent compendium of Nerdrum’s work. That textual content consisted of a witty short story by Bjørn Li in which a tyro art reviewer discovers the phenomenon of Odd Nerdrum, about whom the young scribe’s former professor, a feminist critic, rages:
Completely at odds with the times! Pathetic and reactionary! I’ve never seen such arrogance — as if an entire century of art history never existed! And what a view of women! It’s got all the clichés — women as mother, mother, and mother. Pure milk machines!
Ever since 1882, the big annual art event in Norway has been the Statens kunstutstilling (State Art Exhibition), also known as Høstutstilligen (Autumn Exhibition). Last year, the judges accepted tons of the usual rubbish but rejected Nerdrum’s haunting work “Three Men in a Boat.”
(Several other figurative artists also got a thumbs-down; one of them, the 19-year-old prodigy William Heimdal — who seems on track to be Norway’s next Nerdrum — asked in an op-ed, “Have we been rejected because our works cast large shadows on the rest of the exhibition?” Answer: yes.)
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to view “You See We Are Blind” (Galleri Fineart, Oslo, March 17–April 13), Nerdrum’s first exhibition of paintings in Norway since 1998.
I feared that I might not be as overwhelmed as I was in Rotterdam in 1999. I was, and then some. To confront a galley full of Nerdrum canvases (like the Rotterdam Kunsthal 23 years ago, Galleri Fineart was dimly lit, the paintings illuminated by pin lights with small pieces of paper taped over their lenses) is to feel one’s cynicism about art fall away.
Yes, one is reminded with a jolt as powerful as a punch to the gut, there is such a thing as artistic greatness. And yes, however long it’s been since you experienced such greatness at close quarters, you haven’t lost your ability to recognize it and be transported by it.
Painted in a brown-dominated palette, most of the works in Nerdrum’s exhibition are quite large; each centers on one, two, or as many as half a dozen human bodies, mostly naked, often dead-looking, almost never comely, against a usually vague, dark background, their faces often contorted in pain and their mouths open in a way that suggests Munch’s Scream. Many of these figures stare directly at the viewer as if to say, “We are you. This is you, stripped bare.”
To confront a galley full of Nerdrum canvases is to feel one’s cynicism about art fall away.
It is a portrait of the human condition, of life as a vale of tears; and yet, in an otherwise dark world, it is the humans, often ghostly pale, who are the points of light, and the female humans — yes, those “mothers, mothers, mothers” — who, even in torment, can be seen clutching infants to their breasts, suggesting endurance and earthly eternality, though hardly triumph or joy.
These are works of immense technical genius, artistic beauty, philosophical profundity, stripping humanity down to its essence. Although I was shocked to find myself entirely alone in the gallery, except for the two young people working at the front desk and a middle-aged couple who were talking to them (it was late on the afternoon of Saturday, March 26, and I’d expected a sizable crowd), it was an ideal circumstance in which to take in the art.
For to have wandered around this gallery amid a crowd of chattering tourists, students, and artistes would surely have diluted the experience. Ideally, Nerdrum should be encountered one-on-one, because the viewer needs to be able to commune with those figures on canvas — a communion best achieved without clothed, pretty, happy people around him to soften the blow of Nerdrum’s dread vision.
The day before I went to the Galleri Fineart to catch up with Nerdrum’s work of the last quarter century, I dropped into the new Munch Museum. It was late on a Friday evening, but the museum was busy, the clientele consisting mostly of young Oslo sophisticates, plus a smattering of academic types, some of whom could be heard discoursing pretentiously in American English.
If Odd Nerdrum is Norway’s greatest living artist, her most famous artist of all time is certainly that earlier master of despair, Edvard Munch (1863–1944). Munch owned 26,000 of his own artworks and left them to the city of Oslo, which later was also bequeathed 900 additional Munchs by the art collector Rolf Stenerson.
For half a century, these works were housed in a small, unprepossessing museum on the city’s outskirts — far too small to exhibit more than a fraction of its holdings. Built before Norway was transformed by North Sea oil from a relatively poor country to a rich one, the museum was so modest in scale that when I lived in Oslo, I lost track of the number of times tourists asked me where it was — when we were both standing right in front of it.
That old museum was so low-tech that in 2004 a couple of burglars with a gun managed to make off with its painted version — there are four versions altogether, two in paint and two in pastels — of Munch’s most famous work, Scream. It was later recovered. (The National Museum’s Scream, incidentally, had been stolen 20 years earlier, in a heist that took all of 50 seconds, and was also later recovered. Norway is a high-trust society.)
Anyway, it was long felt that Oslo needed a new Munch museum. That dream was finally realized late last year with a 13-story, $322-million building designed by the Spanish firm Estudio Herreros and located on the Oslo Fjord across a canal from the city’s architectural pride, the 14-year-old Opera.
Both are in the heart of the city’s newest, coolest district, Bjørvika — a cluster of ultra-modern glass and steel office buildings at the edge of a city where, at the turn of the 21st century, the architectural highlights, all of them quaint, modest 19th-century structures, included, as the travel writer Jan Morris recorded in the 1990s, the “yellow-brick Stortinget, the national parliament,” which “looked more interesting than lovely”; the (also yellow-brick) National Theater, which “looked unmistakably national and theatrical,” and the old university compound, which “looked, with its classical columns and sandwich-eating students, indisputably academic.”
Most Osloites appear to hate the new Munch Museum — but the architects and architectural critics love it. In an Aftenposten op-ed, architect Åshild Wangensteen Bjørvik (no relation to the neighborhood) agreed with its detractors that it’s “provocative, strange, uncomfortable, and grim.” But so, she added, is Munch’s work! “Once again,” she gushed, “Munch is enraging the public and making people say things like, ‘I don’t think this is something cozy.’ ”
Bjørvik complained about the “tyranny of beauty” — as if the concept of the beautiful in art and architecture, especially public architecture, hadn’t been all but beaten to death a long time ago. And she stressed that the new Munch Museum has a crucial societal role to play — namely, to “put us conformist and narrow-minded Oslo residents thoroughly in our place. Because Munch was — and is — larger than all of us.”
Needless to say, we’ve all heard this line of argument before. I was living in New York when a huge city-wide controversy erupted over Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, a 120-foot-long, 20-foot-high metal wall, rusted and altogether unsightly, that had been installed in 1979 in front of a federal building in Manhattan, cutting the plaza in two and adding a big dose of ugly to the daily lives of the people who worked there.
The arguments for and against Tilted Arc were predictable. Defenders made the same noises as Bjørvik about the “tyranny of beauty.” Yes, Tilted Arc was ugly, but by being ugly it made a statement about the ugliness of the modern urban streetscape. Or something like that.
Opponents, mostly the people who had to look at the thing every day, said it was an eyesore that severely diminished their quality of life. They had to walk around it to get in and out of the building. It was no longer a pleasure to sit on the plaza in nice weather and eat their packed lunches.
Of course, that’s the whole point of such “artworks”: to épater les bourgeois, i.e., give the finger to the deplorables.
One of the deplorables in Oslo, 18-year-old Embla Eskilt Hagalisletto, published a reply to Bjørvik. While Munch’s art is “colorful and lively,” she charged, the building is “an enormous gray block.” And “if a building arouses disgust in the majority of us, something’s gone very wrong.”
I was sure I’d agree entirely with Hagalisletto. Then I went to Oslo and visited the Munch Museum. Yes, its exterior is hideous. Viewed from the east, it looks like a gigantic accordion placed on its side. Inside, it’s a set of cavernous, rectangular spaces that feel like a futuristic high-security prison, or a contemporary version of a pharaoh’s pyramid.
It’s got one endless escalator after another, as if in homage to the D.C. Metro. And while the old museum’s name was written outside at knee level in tiny letters no bigger than your hand, and could easily be overlooked, the word MUNCH is emblazoned on the side of the new museum, near the top, in huge, illuminated red letters that look like a corporate logo.
But I couldn’t help feeling that the new Munch Museum’s image was a victim of the same affliction that ails Nerdrum’s home-court reputation: the Jante Law.
As a native New Yorker, I can’t take a city very seriously as a city if it doesn’t have at least a few soaring towers. I agree heartily with much of Tom Wolfe’s brilliant rant about modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, but I can’t say I entirely share his wittily expressed disdain for what he called the “Rue de Regret,” namely Sixth Avenue in Midtown, with its “[r]ow after Mies van der Row of glass boxes.”
No, when you come right down to it I’m mostly with Ayn Rand, who wrote, “I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline … the will of man made visible.”
Anyway, Norwegians don’t think that way. They don’t like tall buildings. The Jante Law tells them not to. And that’s what the new Munch Museum is a slap in the face at — not the tyranny of beauty or the conformity of the bourgeoisie, but the Jante Law.
To be sure, the old Munch Museum was the ideal place for Scream. It’s a small painting and is best observed in a small space. In the new structure, in an effort to keep it from being entirely overwhelmed by the scale of its surroundings, it’s housed in a dark little room within a room and lit by a pin light.
It doesn’t work. The disparity in dimensions feels ridiculous.
Then again, the new museum is just right for the three gigantic, spectacular canvases — The Sun, The Researchers, and The Human Mountain — that were drafts for the paintings installed in the aula (ceremonial hall) of the University of Oslo, and that in the new museum occupy a two-story-high space that could double as a NASA assembly facility.
Looking at these monumental works, I couldn’t help feeling that, all in all, the man who created them, and who campaigned vigorously for them to win the competition to decorate the aula, would’ve been pleased to see his oeuvre on display in this looming, if unlovely, tribute to his genius.
Any bets on when Norway will turn around and install Odd Nerdrum’s work in an equally prepossessing edifice?