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Reflections on The Nerdrum School

In August and September of this year I had the privilege of being a student at The Nerdrum School, at Odd Nerdrum’s estate in Norway. It was an extraordinary time and it has taken some time for me to get enough distance to reflect upon it. If you have not heard of Odd Nerdrum, then the best introduction is through his work: www.nerdrummuseum.com

To begin with, this is not really a ‘school’, but an in-residence apprenticeship. There are no fees. The only expense is food. In this respect it is almost like WOOFing (willing workers on organic farms). Students assist Odd in the studio and model if required. The only other expectation is that students will paint, will work on their craft, and do so from life, in community.

The studio house

My first days there were quite magical. The weather was good and in the early evening Odd would set up outside to work on a portrait of a fellow student, Natalia. That particular evening light is very important for Odd, as is having a timetable for modeling appointments through the day. During those early evening sessions we gathered round to watch Odd paint, and what a joy that was! Having marveled at his work for some years it was something of a miracle to watch a painting emerge.

 

The Nerdrum estate, called Memorosa, is located in the forest, by the sea. From the window of the student studio one can gaze far out into the ocean. The water is surprisingly warm, and the natural environment glorious. It is a world far removed from built up urban environments, a fact which reflects Odd’s earth-rooted approach to life and painting. From my diary on 12 August:

It is a beautiful, clear evening, waves crashing on the rocks, clouds limned  with light – the lightest copper blue blushing across the sky – a sail touched by the gold of the setting sun, a bulwark of dusty mauve clouds sailing passed.

If this sounds like a kind of paradise, then it’s not far off! But within this paradise there are also shadows. Real people live here, with all their personal ghosts, beliefs, projections, devils and angels. Those ghosts may find their way into paintings, and those beliefs may emerge as heated arguments. But Memorosa is a safe place for them all to surface, the calm structure and atmosphere of the day ensured by Turid Spildo’s (Odd’s wife) cool, assured management, and quiet, friendly direction.

This is, however, no place for beginners or hyper sensitive souls. There is no instruction as such, and those who need it can flounder. Those with enough experience can learn an incredible amount just through watching Odd work, and from each other, by painting and drawing every day. Another entry from 12 August:

One thing Odd said earlier in the day has stuck with me – that a story in a painting must have a past, a present and a future – intimations and indications of each.

It may sound obvious enough but it is one of the things that sets Odd apart from his contemporaries: he is a narrative painter – one of the last – and his paintings invariably have stories to tell. We ‘read’ them because the compositions and delivery are bewitching, but those things are in turn empowered by the substance of the plot.

It was a reminder that developing ones technique is not an end in itself; that technique is there to help unearth the vision which haunts the spirit.

 

To be continued…

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