This is Part 3 of a series of reflections on my time at The Nerdrum School, in Norway, August to September 2017. For information on Odd Nerdrum visit: www.nerdrummuseum.com
One of the highlights of my stay at Memorosa, Odd Nerdrum’s Norwegian estate, was witnessing the beginnings of “The Opening of the Prisons”, a monumental 30sqm composition, which Nerdrum has been dreaming of for decades. The “Prisons” is set up in a purpose-built studio affectionately called “Paris”. To help out in Paris is, for a student, a special treat, as the studio houses not only the “Prisons” but many masterpieces, some tantalizingly rolled, revealing just a glimpse of their curled up worlds.
I was fortunate on my very first day to help shift a dozen paintings from Paris to a truck bound for a show in Denmark. Some of these pieces I had seen in a show in Barcelona, and it was a little surreal to be handling them. At that stage the “Prisons” canvas was untouched. Work on this piece did not start until the end of August when a returning student, Bruno Passos arrived. Bruno, the lucky devil, was tasked with sketching and blocking in the composition, based on the master drawing. This was no small task: dozens of figures and 30sqm! Bruno, an excellent painter in his own right, brought Odd’s composition into the initial phase of its life.
As Bruno refined or corrected sections of the underpainting Odd began sessions with a male model for one of the figures. Although it is still in its early days the blocked in composition is enough to mesmerize. Its lineage also reveals itself quite clearly: it has the scale and poise of Raphael’s The School of Athens, and the drama of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. It feels, in many ways, like Nerdum’s definitive answer to the titans of the Baroque and the Renaissance.
Whilst the “Prisons” lies at the apex of Nerdrum’s ambition as an epic composer, his modest portrait studies – often of his students – lie at the doorway of his heart as a painter. “In the beginning and the end there is only the face,” were Odd’s words at the end of a conversation one night. I was deeply moved by that utterance; by the words themselves and the way he spoke them, with deep and genuine feeling. That one line summed up his entire life’s vocation: to encounter and witness the mystery of the Other.
Before my first week was up I was called upon to sit for one of these portraits. I was to be Odd’s ‘Christ’ (apparently I fit the bill). Nerdrum developed this portrait over the next two months in 8 or 9 sittings. A lesser painter would have been thrilled with the results after two or three sessions (or even after the first), but Odd really showed us how to push further, how to strive for a quality of expression and vibration that he had not yet encountered; how to dance with the appearance and disappearance of a shoulder line; how to add something more and how to pare back, to simplify.
What is exemplary in Odd Nerdrum’s life as a painter, and what has impressed me most, is his work ethic. He is working for ten hours a day, on five or six separate projects. Even on a Friday night when we would gather by the fire for a film Odd would be working away at a sketch book. One day towards the end of September he had a terrible ear ache and felt quite unwell. I suggested he should take a day off – “Nooo! I cannot take a day off!” He is quite simply a painter-holic, and the thought of not working does not occur to him.
Those two months at Memorosa were so rich and one can never capture the entirety of the experience in words. It was very moving to be painted by such a master. After the last three or four sessions we began comparing the portrait to works by ElGreco and Rembrandt, both of whom Nerdrum reveres. It was fascinating to look at the differences in temperament and feeling. Odd’s work would sit beautifully besides ElGreco’s Saints Peter and Paul.
There is, of course, a social side to life with the Nerdrum family at Roedvik Gaard (Memorosa). I will not forget Bruno’s special desert (made with quite a lot of fake nutella), nor Giacomo’s tiramisu; dinners, films, games of soccer, ocean dips and a lot of rock-hopping along the shoreline; the evening bell signalling the Nerdrum family to dinner, reminding me of a monastery, a monastery for painters in black smocks, emulating the masters of the Western figurative tradition.