Friday, 17 October 2008

Odd indeed

The art of the Norwegian figurative painter Odd Nerdrum (b. 1944) unnerves, fascinates, and occasionally repels. He paints in a highly classical manner, with an obvious debt to both Rembrandt and Caravaggio, but also to the disparate school of late 19th century Symbolists. Nerdrum's paintings are numerous: many are self-portraits (including one, undoubtedly unique in the history of painting, showing Nerdrum as a cloth-of-gold-clad character pulling up his smock to display a a doughy belly and a rather forlorn erection). Some have a scatological focus; still others depict hermaphrodites, the deformed or the mutilated, or are painstaking still-lives of enigmatic single objects such as a brick, or a set of false teeth.

Many of his paintings resemble allegories weirdly divorced from any interpretative framework, like an emblem-book written in an indecipherable language. Against stark landscapes of rock and tamped-down red earth (we recall Genesis 2:7 and the meaning of Adam, Hebrew adamah, 'ground, earth' - Adam is literally a 'groundling'), nude men and women appear caught in sinister, threatening psychomachiai.

In 'The Cloud', a hooded figure overlooks a twilit, estuarine landscape from a high vantage point. His leather snood has a vaguely Egyptian or Persian air. As often in Nerdrum's paintings, the curvature of the world is clearly visible, lending the painting a strange sense of expansive distance and simultaneous claustrophobia. On the horizon, out to sea, a monstrous, blimp-shaped dark cloud is forming, perhaps threatening the end of his civilisation, as though nuclear war had been transplanted to ancient Babylon and the wadis of the Euphrates. In 'Woman Kills Injured Man', two struggling, naked figures hurtle from right to left across the darkling canvas, the woman clutching the man's leg and preparing to stab him with her blade. Together, they make the shape of an odd, hobbled, two-headed quadruped, whilst in the background, a group of people, one with a flaming torch, stand impassively by the shoreline looking in a different direction, as though taking part in sacred mysteries.

In the last image above, a howling, immobile woman is being buried alive by a man with a rifle. Why can't she move? Is she somehow paralysed, like many of the maimed - legless, armless - individuals who appear in Nerdrum's paintings? The man, the red flaps of whose hat resemble the horns of the demons in Michelangelo's Last Judgement, has gone about his task in a strange way, placing the woman's feet in the hole before he has dug something big enough to put all of her in. He appears to be turning to her, perhaps telling her to stop screaming. One suspects an existential allegory: if the woman runs away, she will be shot with the rifle, and will be dead instantly; but if she stays where she is, the man will eventually smother her, and she will be dead eventually. The gravedigger may be death himself, and the painting an image of the human condition.

The painting is also beautifully structured, the horizontal, prostrate form of the woman contrasting with the sharp downward plunge of the spade, and the crooks of elbows and knees echoing each other. The curved emptiness of the hole in the bottom left is mirrored by the rock arch framing the top right, with the pivot of the man's knee acting as the focus of the composition. It is an intolerably gloomy and unsettling painting: the woman's tightly-drawn up arms seem parodically to echo the shape of a butterfly, the psukhe which both is and is not going to escape from the larval form of the woman's body.

Nerdrum's paintings can be viewed here.

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