I was a student of Odd Nerdum in the ’90s

In the early 1990s, I was an apprentice of the painter Odd Nerdrum.

In general, I am interested in how it was to be an apprentice of well-known artists. That information is often lost, so I thought I would do those who may be interested a favor and give a brief account of my experience.

THE STUDIO

At the time Nerdrum had a house in Frogner in Oslo, and his studio was in another house (in Kristinelundveien) near Frognerparken in Oslo.

The studio had a large central space two levels high with large windows towards the north or northwest1. The walls were painted dark brown since it’s a good background for looking at paintings. The window had lamps to compensate for the fading sunlight on dark days or late afternoon and to give light at night.

He had a vintage couch there, one or two of his early and especially inspired paintings on the wall, and Persian rugs on the couch and nearby floor. He also had a good stereo where he would often play Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, and similar kinds of music2.

Off that room was a smaller area where we students had our own space with easels and so on. There was a small bathroom there, and stairs up to a balcony around parts of the large space. Downstairs was a kitchen, the main bathroom, and a couple of bedrooms. He often used one, likely because he was in a divorce process at the time. Another was used by a friend of mine, who had been a student of Nerdum before me, and introduced me to him.

NERDRUM IN THE STUDIO

Nerdum would come in the morning, although the exact time would vary. He painted through the day, with brief breaks for food. He was there more regularly and for longer than most of his students.

He painted quickly and would put up the first layer in one or two hours. Most artists today would probably have been happy with that first layer, but he continued. I assume he used roughly a month on each painting, with variations depending on the size of the painting, and with most of the work on the details and texture.

He would work on more than one painting at a time, perhaps two or three, and sometimes also a charcoal drawing or study for a future painting.

He would use beautiful clear colors while painting, and cover it up with a brown varnish at the end. I assume he did it to mimic old paintings, and it was heartwrenching for me.

While painting, he would have conversations with the model and/or students or guests. The conversation was mostly about art, artists, music, or philosophy.

Sometimes, well-known people would come by – art historians, philosophers, TV personalities, adventurers, and so on. David Bowie came by one day to buy one of his paintings. (Unfortunately, I missed it!)

NERDRUM AS A PERSON

How was he as a person?

He was simultaneously an ordinary human being and larger than life.

He was deeply passionate about his art and art in general. I don’t hesitate in calling him a genius in painting and charcoal drawings. He was knowledgeable and unafraid to speak his mind.

He was socially smart and also unafraid of offending people.

He was happy to talk about the art of others, and he did talk about the aesthetic and visual aspects of his own paintings. One thing I never heard him talk about was the symbolism of his paintings. That was likely very intentional. He wanted to leave it open and available to the rich imagination of the audience. (I think he may have mentioned something about that, not sure.)

THE APPRENTICE SITUATION

When I was there, he had about five apprentices3 in the studio. The number was naturally limited by the space available, and he may not have wanted more anyway.

In my case, I was a model for one painting, I mixed his white paint, and I transferred a charcoal study for a painting onto a large canvas (using grid lines) so he had an outline to follow while painting.

My impression is that most students were models for one or more paintings, and they also did other tasks, likely depending on what Nerdum felt they would be good at or happy with doing.

There was no formal teaching. We were there to learn through observation, immersion, and conversations with him and the other students.

I assume most students came through either writing him directly or because they knew someone already a student. In my case, I had a meeting with Nerdum where I showed him some of my work. I also got the impression that he wanted me as a model.

We would occasionally do things as a group with Nerdum. For instance, we went to see a Spanish movie together at the local movie theater. I also went with him to Kjeller where they work with radiation (!). He was interested in knowing if radiation could help some of his paintings where the paint sagged over time.

NERDRUM, MODERNISM & NORWAY

Nerdrum received a lot of resistance to his approach to painting and drawing from the beginning.

His response was to develop an apparently deep-seated aversion to modernism and much of the art community in Norway.

His response is understandable. It’s a response to hurt. And yet, the whole dynamic was and is somewhat baffling to me. Why did he meet so much resistance just because he painted in a more figurative style? Why did he respond by rejecting their approach? Life and art is rich, that’s the beauty of it. It’s very possible to love or appreciate a wide range of approaches to art and anything else.

Appreciating one doesn’t mean you have to reject something else. It’s not a zero-sum game unless you make it so. This is not kindergarten.

MY SITUATION

I had been passionate about learning to draw and paint in a soulful traditional style since my mid-teens, especially the style of Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and other Baroque artists. It wasn’t until high school that I discovered the art of Nerdrum.

I went to art school for a couple of years after high school, got to know another student there who was also a student of Nerdrum, and she introduced me to him.

I was an apprentice for about a year (?), and during this time, I started studying at the university. First, art history and then psychology.

THE LIMITS OF MEMORY

I only knew him during this period, so other students at other times will likely have a different experience.

Also, this is the memory of one person, and it’s a memory – which is notoriously unreliable. Over time, some things fade and some things stay, and what stays is filtered by how we see the world in general.

Still, I think most of this is pretty accurate.

NOTES

(1) The light from the north is best for a studio since it’s more stable and you avoid direct sunlight.

(2) I happened to have a very similar taste in music as him, and a very similar taste in art in general.

(3) We were apprentices in the old-fashioned sense, more than students. When some talk about the “Nerdrum School”, they refer to younger artists inspired by his style, of which many were his apprentice at some point.

The painting is the one I transferred from a drawing to canvas so he had an outline to work with to begin the painting.


INITIAL NOTES

  • how was it to be a student of Odd Nerdrum? / I was a student of ON
    • situation
      • me
        • deeply drawn to paint/draw in the traditional style, Rembrandt, even before I had heard about ON
        • how I got to be his apprentice – fellow student introduced me, showed him my work, he wanted me as a model for one of his paintings
        • lived centrally in Oslo, usually biked through Frognerparken, his studio was in Kristinelundveien, loved the journey
        • don’t remember exactly but this it was about a year
      • at the studio
        • a house, open two levels with a balcony around, brown walls, Persian rugs,
        • students located on the same level, in adjacent rooms open to the main room
        • more apprentice than student, just worked in the same space, did some tasks for him (mix paint, transfer sketch to canvas etc.), he never taught in the way implied by the word “student”
        • light from large window
        • music – Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, etc. (music I loved before coming there)
    • good
      • genius, focused on own work, came later in the morning, worked more than any of us,
      • very fast painter, did a very good portrait in a couple of hours that most would be happy to finish there and then
      • Had very occasional off days, but few and far between (think I only remember one, he couldn’t get it to work and left to do something else)
      • talked while working with models, students, guests
      • a string of interesting guests, sad I missed David Bowie
      • sometimes went out for food, movies
    • bad
      • I was painfully shy, didn’t engage in real conversations with him
      • Sad that he put a brown glaze on top of the paintings, had beautiful colors before he did it
      • he had some mood swings, slightly unpredictable, probably bc of focused on own work + stress from divorce
    • ugly
      • not much really
      • went through a divorce, had some encounters with female students
      • the art went before anything and everything, clear priorities (as far as I could tell)
    • Nerdrum in Norway
      • National museum, have only one early painting by him
      • One of the greatest artists in the world, and not picked up by the ng

Since I would have loved to know more about how it was to be an apprentice of well-known artists in the past, I thought I would share this and give others a glimpse into that world.

….

This is where my memory is slightly fuzzy, and I also don’t want to engage in gossip.

….

Nerdrum received a lot of resistance to his approach to painting and drawing from the beginning.

His response was to develop an apparently deep-seated aversion to modernism and much of the art community in Norway.

His response is understandable. It’s a response to hurt. And yet, the whole dynamic was and is somewhat baffling to me and I feel somewhat embarrassed on their behalf when I see how it plays out.

Why did he meet so much resistance just because he painted in a more figurative style? Why did he respond by rejecting their approach? Life and art is rich, that’s the beauty of it. It’s very possible to love or appreciate a wide range of approaches to art and anything else.

Appreciating one doesn’t mean you have to reject something else. It’s not a zero-sum game unless you make it so. This is not kindergarten.

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