Interview: Behind the Scenes for "The Hunt of Odd Nerdrum"

February 08, 2018

During the spring of 2016, Odd Nerdrum’s sons Bork and Ode, who are now in their early 20’s, informed me of their plans to visit New York City along with one of Nerdrum’s most scholarly proteges, Jan-Ove Tuv. They were coming with the ambition to produce a documentary film series about their archetypal journey to discover a deeper understanding of their father figure, who emerged, despite his time, to create masterpieces that rival the entire history of oil of painting.

The Nerdrum brothers have debuted their film talents under their company name Nerdrum Pictures with two great documentary short films: “Odd Nerdrum: meeting the master-in St. Petersburg” and “Odd Nerdrum: the Self-Portrait.” These short films, roughly about 30 min each, established their cinematic style for this new documentary series. Their most ambitious film project yet, the series runs six episodes and follows Ode and Jan-Ove through New York, Minneapolis, Washington, DC, Vienna, Amsterdam, London, Italy, and Greece. As the episodes unfold, we witness many real epiphanies and realizations about the nature of Nerdrum’s inspirations and influences.

This new documentary series offers a tour of some of the greatest achievements of Western painting and sculpture and how these masterpieces have influenced Nerdrum to step forward and carry on the torch. The series is a perfect film binge for representational art lovers and cultural effecianatos alike. The Kickstarter campaign for The Hunt of Odd Nerdrum offers affordable awards that will contribute to helping finish the series which is now in the final stages of production for world wide distribution.

Eager to learn more about this series, I had the opportunity to chat with Ode Spildo Nerdrum and Jan-Ove Tuv who shared behind the scenes insight into their Divine Comedy-like journey as they searched to find the great masterpieces which influenced the course of Odd Nerdrum’s development in becoming one of the greatest contributors to the grand tradition of figurative narrative painting. —David Molesky

David Molesky: How are the episodes structured?
Jan-Ove Tuv: The first episode is about Odd’s life in Norway. Particularly the painterly influence from Edvard Munch and Lars Hertervig. You could say that there are three old master painters in the history of Norwegian painting: Hertervig, Munch, and Odd.

In the second episode, we show how Odd understood from Caravaggio the necessity of clear outlines. What makes Odd different from a lot of painters, is that he is not painting old master just like they did in the olden times; he joins history to create vaster dramas and stories.

We visit Iceland in third episode which turns out to be just as important an influence on Odd as Rembrandt or Caravaggio. Then we stand before the Hope by Watts. Many people might not be aware how Odd’s view of man towering above the earth is at least supported by, if not entirely derived from Watts. Watts and Iceland have both deeply contributed to Odd’s grand ethical view and philosophical perspective of human existence on earth.

A in front of the Murder of Baader

Rembrandt, who is the pure painterly influence, is the focus of the fourth episode. He is not only realistic in terms of color and proportion, he has also recreated realistic matter which is quite symbolic. Odd has been fond of some of the symbolists, but he grounds their ideas on earth so that the symbolism becomes realistic. When you mix the episodes with Caravaggio and Rembrandt, you get a very clear track of what Odd is doing.

In the fifth we look at Titian which has the great tragic aspect and the influence of his loosening up of the painterly technique much more than Rembrandt who is more concrete.

And then, in the last episode we traveled to Athens and Olympia to look at the influence from the Greeks on his perception of form and the human being. So we sort of get back to what was the strong influence by the Parthenon Marbles.

Ode Spildo Nerdrum: It might surprise a lot of people that we're not filming brush strokes. It's not a how to paint video, it is more about the realm of ideas. The painter should not just be a painter but rather a philosopher that uses a brush. The thought process is equally important as painting. I don't mean artistry, I mean actually thinking through what you're doing.

JT: In Odd’s case, it's never been a question of emulating a style, but it's about the basic necessities, when you don't have civilization, you have to have basic things that you need to live and that's how he's been thinking as a painter: What do I need to create my stories? And he's gone right to it, and what we're seeing is that from Day 1, he's known exactly where he's been going.

DM: There is a part in the new book where he mentions how his grandfather tells him to go to the library and to read everything. And that would become an important tool for him in the future.
JT: Odd doesn't have any boundaries in terms of time. So he doesn't think of Rembrandt as something from the 17th century, he sees it as something immediate. This is something that we see in the second episode on Caravaggio, which deals with his early social-realist pictures, and how even in that period, he was timeless. You could compare him with some of the really good Soviet painters with certain similarities of themes, but compared to them, he is much more timeless; even when he's in his time, he's timeless. He tries to find the timeless in the 1970s person. So it's in there as a thread all the time. He has been searching for archetypal images throughout his career - and just like Theseus, he's found his way out of the Labyrinth.

DM: What are your specific roles in this project?
ON: This is a three-man project. Bork and I are producing. It came very naturally, since Bork is mostly behind the camera, that he is also the director. It’s not an ordinary documentary, there is a plot written mostly by Bork. We have collaborated together all the way to make everything work.

D visit to Iceland

DM: What countries did you visit?
JT: Iceland, England and the glorious United States of America: (New York, Minneapolis, and Washington, DC). We also went to Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, Italy and Greece of course. You could say that in the same way that we follow Odd’s development going forward in time, to a great extent, we go backwards in time to the Greeks.

DM: Might you use this same format to trace the inspirational paths of other historical painters who might fit in with Odd’s lineage?
ON: Not sure how we would do that; the central point of this series is how magnificent Odd is. Very often it is expected of me as a son to be sober about it, and to not speak highly about it, but then I think I would be a disgrace to myself not to—even fathers deserve recognition. Odd is magnificent, if you look at history. Firstly, he has done these things in this horrible time, when culture is concerned. And secondly, if you compare him to the great Old Masters, Odd has actually many more masterpieces than most them. It is not just that Odd has achieved something great despite his time, he has actually achieved something great compared to everyone in history: big, human-scale compositions. This is not a documentary about some small interesting painting—on the contrary, this is actually quite huge.

JT: That's something that struck me too, in terms of Odd's development and what his work encompasses. Consider this: you have a development in Greek culture from the Archaic to the Classical to the free Hellenistic times. It goes over 500 years or so.

Now, Odd, in just 50 years, goes through that same development! As Ode mentions, it is even more amazing and unfathomable that Odd Nerdrum comes into being in a time like this where there's no tradition. You cannot say that he personally studied with Titian and Rembrandt. He had to find all of it himself. So it's a tremendous achievement.

A lot of painters stick with one manner or style until they're dead, but usually it’s not as good in later years as it was in the beginning. But, Odd really has changed form. From Rembrandt and Munch in the beginning, to Caravaggio's strict but very fluffy still. And then you get the whole eternal landscape, and Rembrandt comes much more into the picture after some time, and then Titian and then the Greeks. There is a clear change around a central core which remains the same, and that is the Heliocentric view of man that is not contemporary but it's the nature of man, the archetypal man, which has always been his concern, even in the socialist realist period.

Look at that painting called The Meeting, with the man and woman. They're in 70’s dress, but the eyes of the woman is not 70’s.

That development that he encompasses from the Archaic to the Hellenistic times, or from Giotto to Titian; the development from being stiff to lose. These natural movements that he use now are the typical ancient Greek way of doing it. That's what we're tracing in terms of technique or the way he actually paints.

DM: Who do you think your target audience is for this? Who might you expect and who might you hope to gain interest from?
ON: My brother Bork had a very clear goal; this series should be something that anyone can watch and enjoy, even non-painters. So, it should not be a dull documentary with a lot of professional words. It's actually quite an Aristotelian influence. An original guide was Trond Berg Eriksen. He had studied Aristotle a lot and had concluded that the goal of Aristotle's thinking was to find a philosophy that everyone could potentially agree on. And it’s the same idea here, even though the painting audience is a small one, we tried to make it in a way so that it's of interest for anyone.

JT: Yeah, you'll see that in Episode 3, the interview with Hrafn Gunnlaugsson, the Icelandic movie director. It says a lot that a movie director is influenced by the qualities in Odd's work. That's the irony and insight, especially in the 70’s when Odd was criticized for being theatrical. However that was his whole point, to not just make paintings but to make stories. Therefore, you see a great interest in his work from people who make movies, for example that horror movie that also used his work, “The Cell.”

DM: You are both experts on his influences. What were some of the fun discoveries that you had that were fresh inspirations to you while working on this film series?
ON: For me, it was the moment in front of Watts. Sometimes you have this notion or feeling that you recognize an influence, but suddenly you deeply understand exactly what the influence is. And that happened a lot during our journeys, where all the pieces came into place. During filming, we accidentally stumbled upon the Hope, not knowing that it was there. So seeing it and understanding the exact influence from Watts, was quite amazing.

JT: I can think of two things. In the first episode, Per Lundgren mentions the landscape painter, Lars Hertervig. Lundgren's interpretation is that Hertervig influenced Odd's way of tightening up form. So this does not only come from Caravaggio, but also from a 19th century Norwegian landscape painter who produces the influential example pointing the way that you have to be careful with the outline of the forms, to give them greater individuality and stronger impact. A second moment for me, was at the Seven Bridges Museum. I've known that Odd has developed, but to see it so clearly through the sixteen paintings they have there, and that you come to a painter who makes amazing work and you stand and you look at it and you think, "Well, this is amazing, but it's not as good as that one because it lacks this and that." And that's just strange. First you're admiring a great masterpiece and then you see that it's not as good as the new things he's doing now.

ON: I would like to add something. A lot of people think that Odd has been helping us decide what to see for this project, but he never talks about his direct influences. So this has been, from A-Z, a hunt that we have had in gathering information and finding the pieces.

Bork and I heard Odd say something at the beginning of this year, and we thought, "Oh damn it. Why is that not in the series?" But we do say that in the last episode, that we haven't gone through everything, it's impossible, but hopefully we have gone through the core.

DM: So then what were the breadcrumbs that lead you through this series, if Odd wasn't directly influencing its trajectory?
JT: People know certain things from reading the books. But what we are doing here is going directly to the sources and connecting Odd's work to those sources. Some things are more obvious like Caravaggio and Rembrandt. Other things will be more or less unknown like Watts and the nature of Titian's influence on Odd. Something that I think is particularly outstanding is how Odd goes to the Greeks. I have an impression at least that painters and sculptors today see the Renaissance as olden times, and the Greeks just as something different.

But Odd goes directly back to that; he does not see it as frozen, but something that he brings immediately into his work. That's the amazing thing. Because when he is then influenced by Watts, Watt is influenced by Greeks. Actually all the painters that we have been looking at go back to the Greek's more or less directly. So when he comes directly to the Greeks, he reinforces what has been with him all the time. Its like what he says in the series: "There is no time in my work. I am timeless."

And I think American viewers will also find the bit about Hertervig interesting, because he's only a Norwegian phenomenon, and he should be an international phenomenon.

C Nedrums Vietnamese WIP

DM: How do you keep your conversations in the series fully accessible to both beginners and Nerdrum experts alike?
JT: We do it in a casual conversational way without theoretical or difficult language. It's very clearly illustrated when we're standing in front of a painting and talk about the exact nature of the influence on Odd's work. We talk purely about the visual solution. We compare the images on the screen, so you can see clearly the similarities and conclude where Odd has gotten different attributes. And of course things come from our interviews with earlier students and also with the Icelandic movie director who all have experiences of Odd from different times.

In the trailer, I think what Boris says is just amazing. How you have to recreate everything, because the next world war will come and people will forget us. And that was also one moment in the production of the series that was grand. The way Boris manages to let you know that this is not just about painting the type of pictures that your grandmother liked or you should like because it’s the real art or something. It’s about a much, much grander perspective then that.

For more information about "The Hunt for Odd Nerdrum" Kickstarter campaign, click here