Stylistic Duplication or Earnest Search?— An Open Letter To Kitsch-Painters and Self-Proclaimed Followers of Odd Nerdrum by Matthew Ballou
A number of years ago I contacted perhaps two-dozen self-identified kitsch-painters, sending them the open letter you find below. At that time I was merely interested in asking them what they thought they were doing as painters. Having lived through a number of years of infatuation with Nerdrum, I felt I had a perspective on the conceits and assumptions of a kitsch-painter. In the end, I guess my missive came off more like a challenge – and that is what it was. It amounted to the same series of questions and observations that I had considered myself a couple years prior. I came out of that time of obsession through the aid of a few good teachers, much honest, open investigation, and many serious hours at the easel.
The popularity of Odd Nerdrum continues unabated. This is understandable; he is a polarizing figure with undeniable painterly skill and large body of evocative work. Many of those who came of age as painters in the 1990s had, like me, long periods of fascination with Nerdrum’s work and persona. He has given a great many young (mostly white, mostly male) painters permission to obsess about a certain kind of representational tradition while stroking their dubious sense of superiority and intellectual prowess.
Though I really do enjoy much of his work and have written serious examinations of it(1), I take significant exception to the overall lack of quality among those who claim Nerdrum as a mentor. This feeling is what motivated me to write to them in the first place. Unlike so many of the great painters/teachers/influences of the last century or so – Thomas Eakins, Robert Henri, Fairfield Porter, Charles Hawthorne, Edwin Dickinson, Ted Seth Jacobs (and many, many others) – Nerdrum’s students, when they follow him, tend to follow him in blind, stylistic fashion. This stands in stark contrast to the masters mentioned above, whose students often excelled far beyond them. Good students shape and broaden the paths and visions their mentors gave them. They are not satisfied to attempt only surface-level recreations of their teachers’ projects.
The derivativeness of Nerdrum’s followers is not at issue here. We are all derivative and would be nothing without the influences and frame of reference the past affords. The problem is a seeming lack of thoughtfulness, something apparent in many of their works. My charge of thoughtlessness here is not meant to suggest that they are not thinking about their work. It is rather that they are not engaging with, challenging, reorienting, re-contextualizing, or re-applying the lessons of their chosen master. I have to ask: are they in love with the materials? Are they digging deeply into what it means to make images? Or are they using a unilateral notion of painting and image-making as a polemical tool?
The answers to these questions seem obvious to me. Many kitsch-painters ape Nerdrum’s thinking, Nerdrum’s exploration, and never truly get to their own. As I describe below, their work ends at derivation instead of beginning there. They are not the whole story, however. There are many painters who can appreciate and learn from Nerdrum without becoming acolytes, apologists, or myopic copyists. The challenge of this open letter stands against stylistic duplication but should encourage those who earnestly seek a path that, while connected to great masters, is servile to none.
A Helpful Note
Some of those reading this may not be familiar with Nerdrum’s definition of kitsch, which deviates sharply from the accepted art-historical understanding of the term. I offer the definition below in hopes that it will clarify my use of the word in the letter that follows: “Kitsch deals with the eternal human – love, death, drama, jealousy, family. If you seek to imbue your work with pathos, melodrama and sentimentality, then you are a kitsch person. These qualities are not negative, as long as you master them through handcraft. Kitsch is not dry naturalism, but a poem about life. When you portray a human’s inner feelings through handcraft, you are approaching kitsch. Michelangelo’s Pieta, if created today, would be called kitsch. Kitsch puts quality over originality. Kitsch embraces talent, where art sees it as its enemy. Kitsch represents handcraft, drama, pathos and sincerity without irony.”(2)
The Open Letter to Kitsch-Painters
Is the follower of Odd Nerdrum’s kitsch engaged in stylistic duplication or in an earnest participation with kitsch ideals? I ask this question because my impression is that the direct exponents of Odd Nerdrum – his students – are engaged in a practiced duplication of his visual subject matter, symbols, and compositional schemes. Nerdrum’s personality is no doubt powerful, and I am certain that students under him are pressured in a unique fashion, thereby ending up with certain themes, poses, gestures, figure placements, landscapes, and surfaces that directly reference the master. Is this what Nerdrum wants? Or does he desire that his students (both those directly under his tutelage and those he instructs indirectly through his paintings and writings) come to the knowledge of kitsch ideals and then strike off to make their own work? I think the answers to these questions are worth contemplating for the self-described kitsch-painter.
The issue in stylistic duplication is that those individuals who I would characterize as doing it seem to think they are following Nerdrum’s kitsch. This, I believe, is not so. To follow another’s path, mimic their depiction, and utilize their symbols is to fall far short of the true aim of kitsch ideals. To leave the most fundamental aspects of a painting’s creation up to parameters set by another is to deny the exploration of what kitsch really is. It is the individual painter who must seek out the issues surrounding kitsch and discover what the range of work possible to him might be. We owe more to painting than the regurgitation of another painter’s representation of the world. This is the question we must all face: do we blindly duplicate a particular depiction or do we seek to use kitsch values to reference something more?
When well-meaning painters who believe in the power of Nerdrum’s kitsch attach themselves to a style and attempt to paint in that style, they do it in the belief that it justifies their interest in archetypal themes, timeless issues, and sublime truths. But the fact is that kitsch does not need a style for its proper expression. Nerdrum’s early works are no less kitsch-like than what he is painting right now. And we have Nerdrum’s own example of his historical legacy: Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Puvis de Chavannes, Ilya Repin, Albert Pinkham Ryder; the list goes on and on. None of those painters are stylistically similar to each other, yet we know that each embodies the kitsch ideals to which Nerdrum subscribes. Why then do so few self-proclaimed kitsch-painters follow the lead of these masters? Why is it that so many of Nerdrum’s followers (particularly those who have never personally studied with him) copy the subject matter, colors, and content of his current work? What of Munch? What of Segantini? What of Hodler? What of Titian and Tiepolo and Tintoretto? What of the many masters who have left their works for us to study and emulate? And what of the many amazing contemporary painters? I believe that the works of current painters such as Vincent Desiderio, David Linn, or Paul Rahilly are much closer to the ideas and values of Nerdrum’s kitsch than the blithely derived imagery of many claiming his lead.
A difference can be seen between the followers of Nerdrum and the students of another modern master, Ted Seth Jacobs. His most prominent students are Anthony Ryder, Jacob Collins, Michael Grimaldi, and Christopher Pugliese. These painters are very well trained in the fundamentals – drawing, constructing a painting, building surface, achieving paint quality – but their training also gave them the basis for the pursuit of their own interests, values, and expressions. Each of these painters challenges the master in moving on from his tutelage. These younger painters have transformed the classicism they received from their teacher, mixed it with their own content, subject matter, issues, questions, concerns, and ideas, and discovered their own paths in the process. That transformation is the important part. That transformation and adaptation is what is needed. The fact is that these painters are participating in Nerdrum’s tenets of kitsch as much as anyone else painting today and more than most of his followers. They are doing it while pursuing their own directions, their own paths.
The imperative of striking out and pursuing one’s own way is one Nerdrum himself has obeyed. He says, “Where I walk there are no roads.”(3) He has forged his own path after reading the maps left by previous seekers. “All my life,” he continues, “I have been a lonely hunter in the wilderness.”(4) It is an idiosyncratic, personal, interminable search. This individual, kitsch-seeking pathway is what he is calling painters to, not sycophantic worship or blind replication. He has outlined with his work and philosophy the basic principles needed to pursue a kitsch-path: the devotion to skill, the rigor of paint, the challenge of flesh, the necessity of taking on grand archetypal themes, the mystery of seeking eternity, the glory of the sentimental, and the value of attempting to strip away the masks of contemporary life. These are the keys I believe he wants people to take in their own hands and use to unlock the power of painting.
Go to a different place; find a different path. This is what we must do as painters who admire Odd Nerdrum. I am not interested in an obsequious, stylized rendition of pictorial imagery that is other than my own. It must be my own investigation. Training to develop my skills, putting in the hours, and becoming more devoted to the values I espouse is the only way.
Many of those to claim to follow Nerdrum’s kitsch also claim, like Nerdrum, that “nature is god”(5) and thus the only law of the painter. But do they follow it? What that dictum means is this: observation, looking, seeing, must be primary to the painter. Observation must be the initiation of the painterly language. Nature, the body, seeing, and being must be our frame of reference. The painter must derive the image from nature, not from someone else’s translation of nature. How many of those who follow kitsch really believe this? How many actually do it? Many of Nerdrum’s followers rely on his translation of nature when it is very deeply connected to his own life experience and thinking. His is not a vision that can be casually adopted by others. Because of the compression that occurs when we study others’ works, we often forget that it took them decades to arrive where they have. We cannot simply pick up their current stylistic facture and make it mean anything: it wasn’t our path.
In the end, what is the purpose of claiming kitsch as Nerdrum has defined it? Simply put, the goal is to make an attempt to express a message about deep human values and concerns in the world. That end goes far beyond merely following a style. We need to challenge each other to do more, to push farther, to be students of painting, history, human understanding, myth, spirituality, and much else. We need to encourage each other to pursue our perspectives in those fields through our painting and with the rigor that Nerdrum has inspired. One of the greatest achievements of Odd Nerdrum’s work is the authority he has reclaimed for painting to address timeless realities. One of the biggest problems caused by his popularity is the vapid copying it has stimulated. We must move beyond this.
By bringing up all of these issues I do not mean to suggest that we can never use any of Nerdrum’s imagery, symbols, or conceptions; however, we must maintain that this self-anointed Prophet of Painting is only the guide and not the rule. He helps us to understand how to paint, not what to paint. He helps us to understand the values that may be embodied in painting, not that there is only value in what he paints. We must listen when he declares, “the old masters are my guides, nature is my god.”(6) We must be willing to see Nerdrum as just one of the many masters who have gone before us. We must allow him to teach us what we can grasp but be dedicated to the observation and contemplation of nature, just as he is. We know that his work (and therefore his symbols and subjects) “reflects his life and no one else’s.”(7) We must be careful not to presume that his pictures can speak for us; we must find our own voice in our own work. “The follower never comes first,”(8) Nerdrum said. We must become first in our own work, pursue our own directions, and walk “where there are no roads.”(9) The aim of this letter is to challenge each painter who identifies with Odd Nerdrum and kitsch to seek out “the sensual and the timeless”(10) according to your own individual expression.
“The painter will produce pictures of little merit if he takes the works of others as his standard.”(11)
– Leonardo da Vinci
I intended this letter to find kitsch-painters and be read as a firm challenge, not hostile one. In an effort to be diplomatic and prove that I was not just speaking from outside the camp, not merely sitting in judgment, I shamelessly provide the following examples of my own forays into derivative Nerdrum-inspired kitsch painting:
Self Portrait as Student Holding Truth and Consequences, Oil on panel, 36 by 24 inches.
Head and Hole, Oil on Linen on Panel, 36 by 36 inches.
For more information on Kitsch and Kitsch-Painting, visit the following links:
World Wide Kitsch – primary website
On Kitsch – the definitive text by Nerdrum and others:
The Evil Genius of Odd Nerdrum – an excellent essay by Victoria Alexander:
(1) See my essay Second Horizon: The Changing Vision of Odd Nerdrum, which appeared in Image Journal:
(2) Excerpts from a Statement on Kitsch found on World Wide Kitsch, accessed July 1, 2010.
(3) Petterson, Jan Ake. Odd Nerdrum: Storyteller and Self-revealer. Page 172. ↩
(4) Vine, Richard. Odd Nerdrum: Paintings, Sketches, and Drawings. ↩
(5) Petterson, Jan Ake. Odd Nerdrum: Storyteller and Self-revealer. Page 26. ↩
(6) Petterson, Jan Ake. Odd Nerdrum: Storyteller and Self-revealer. Page 26. ↩
(7) Petterson, Jan Ake. Odd Nerdrum: Storyteller and Self-revealer. Page 104. ↩
(8) Petterson, Jan Ake. Odd Nerdrum: Storyteller and Self-revealer. ↩
(9) Petterson, Jan Ake. Odd Nerdrum: Storyteller and Self-revealer. Page 172. ↩
(10) Nerdrum, Odd. On Kitsch. Page 7. ↩
(11) Plumb, J. H. The Italian Renaissance. Page 228. Quoting da Vinci from his Treatise on Painting ↩