Odd Nerdrum:  Old Master of the Obscene


J. E. Morales

3 June, 2002



         When seriously considering the motivation behind an artist’s work, often one must dig deeply, not only to uncover the actual or possible source material of the work, but the meaning of the work itself.  Though this is especially true of abstract art, even work that is naturalistic or narrative may be concealing, intentionally or not, important keys to the understanding of that work.  This investigation can be made even more difficult if the artist has a wish not to have her work understood.  An artist who wishes to be understood, and uses her life as material for the work, might be called a self revealer.  Odd Nerdrum is such an artist, and through a detailed account of his childhood, we can find corollaries between his formative experiences and the perverse imagery of his painting.

         Born in Norway at the height of World War II in 1944, Nerdrum spent his earliest years surrounded by social unrest and upheaval as Europe and her allies fought against Hitler’s Nazi aggressions.  Nerdrum’s parents, Lillemor and Johan, were resistance activists–a committed pursuit which kept them apart for much of the remainder of the war and some time beyond.  Not long after the war ended, Lillemor decided to study abroad at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.  She left the two year old Nerdrum behind in an orphanage, “like a dog in a kennel,” recalls the artist.  It is unclear why the boy was not left in the care of his father, Johan, but this fact undoubtedly contributed to Nerdrum’s sense of alienation from his father as well from his mother.

         In a second significant act of rejection, Lillemor placed Nerdrum in a boarding school started by Rudolph Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy.  This esoteric spiritual movement is based on the belief that mankind once lived in a spiritual, dreamlike harmony with the rest of the universe but has fallen into the inferior state of rational consciousness.  The redeeming element of this belief is that through esoteric disciplines, one can stimulate the primal mind, allowing the spiritually adept to reconnect with a higher reality beyond the material and immediately perceptible.  Nerdrum spent his Steiner school years under the tutelage of the regionally famous Norwegian writer, anarchist and Anthroposophist, Jens Bjørneboe, who wrote about the young Nerdrum shortly after his entry to the school:

      [Odd is a] sensitive and most exceptional child.  At times his idiosyncrasy makes itself felt to the point of hampering him in establishing relationships with other children in the class.  Odd often imposes a very strict discipline on himself and finds it difficult to understand that not everyone can manage to do the same.   It may be tempting to see this as a kind of recalcitrance, a form of self-centeredness, but all his eccentricity appears to be rooted in the deeper layers of his soul.  One would do well to overlook a considerable extent of peculiarity on his part. [1]

Later, when Nerdrum was moving on to higher education, Bjørneboe wrote:

            [He is a] noble, and thoroughly artistic being, original, independent, and highly

      competent in all his efforts.  [He] may be the most exceptional and original student I have

ever had.  He is highly gifted artistically and has a uniquely noble disposition.  He is in many ways a loner, but thanks to his keen and broad interests he still makes friends easily.  Anything Odd does carries the strong and unmistakable mark of his personality.  Along with his great–at times disturbingly great–sensibility he has a sound, discerning intellect.  Odd comes into his own only where his nature is met with respect and understanding. [2]

         It was good that Nerdrum found a mentor in Bjørneboe since Johan didn’t show much

interest in the boy.  Nerdrum’s father was not encouraging of his son’s artistic inclination or

interest in philosophy and art history.  Instead, Johan encouraged his son in manly pursuits such as sports and engineering.  By denying the boy a piano. Johan refused to indulge his son’s demonstrable musical talents.  Thus, it is not surprising that Nerdrum felt a keen sense of alienation from his father.  What is particularly fascinating, though, is that Nerdrum had always sensed that Johan was not his father.

         When Nerdrum was 34 and about to become a father himself for the first time, he wrote and illustrated a short story called “The Seabird.”  In this story, a young girl who has no father feels abandoned by her hard working and promiscuous mother.  In a dream, she sees her father as the captain of a sailing ship who one day returns to rescue her from alienation.  The next morning, and every morning thereafter, the girl goes to the shore and sits, staring out to the sea.  After a considerable time has passed, many of the villagers join her and sit, staring out at the empty ocean, though none but she knows why.  One day, the fog lifts and a shipwreck is discovered to the north of the village.  After learning of this discovery, the girl races to the site and enters the wreckage with great trepidation.  Once inside, she sees the crumpled body of the captain and puts her hand on his head.  Shortly thereafter, the girl contracts a fever and dies of a jaundice-like disease.

         When Nerdrum’s father died in 1991, the family requested Odd not attend the funeral

services.  This led Nerdrum to investigate the matter of his father more deeply.  He discovered that what he believed all along was in fact true:  Johan was not his biological father.  During their resistance activities, Lillemor and Johan were separated at which time Lillemor rekindled an old flame, thereby conceiving Odd.  This secret was strictly guarded by Lillemor and not publicly known until Nerdrum confronted her forty nine years after the fact. 

         Another interesting element of this history is Nerdrum’s biological father, David Sandved, whom Nerdrum found after a student of his mentioned meeting Sandved at a lecture on architecture in a distant town.  The student reported that Sandved and Nerdrum shared a close physical likeness and similar quirky movements.  Nerdrum enlisted the help of a reporter friend who investigated the matter later sending a set of photographs of Sandved to the artist.  After reviewing the photos, Nerdrum knew he had found his father.  The similarities between the two, besides the physical, were uncanny.  Sandved was a highly

regarded intellectual, an accomplished architect who had, among other public works, designed the local art museum, and was also an Anthroposophist.  It was in response to this event that Nerdrum finished painting Father Finding His Son in 1996.  An interesting twist in this painting is the fantasy role reversal wherein the son is found by the father.  In the background of the picture, after the reunion, together the two are shown sailing off to brighter horizons.

         During many visits to local museums throughout his childhood, Nerdrum favored the

works of the Old Masters, particularly Rembrandt, over the modernist work of the time.  In 1962 during a visit to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the artist encountered Monogram by Robert Rauschenberg.  This pinnacle work of modernist “painting” featured a horizontal canvas augmented with a real stuffed goat sporting a tire around its midsection mounted upon a collage of scrap wood and photocopies.  Even as a teenager, Nerdrum felt that this work typified modern art and its lack of social welfare.  “Caught up in effete, tiresome games, [the modern artists] no longer addressed the vital thoughts and passions of their fellow citizens.” [3]   “There is a wave of senility and apathy washing over the art world today.  The painter stands there, empty-handed, before existence.  He has lost any feeling for the functional in himself or nature,” [4]   Nerdrum later remarked.

         Following his completion of secondary school, Nerdrum applied to Norway’s  National Academy of Art and was accepted.  However, he regarded this opportunity with suspicion which stemmed from the praise he received in response to his hastily compiled application portfolio.   If Nerdrum found nurturing of his individuality in the Waldorf-Steiner school, it did not follow him to the Academy, where he studied under Age Stortein.  This teacher was not pleased with Nerdrum’s interest in the style of the Northern Baroque artists and failed to see why his student returned to Rembrandt, “with Picasso still alive.”  It wasn’t far into his studies before Nerdrum was, “chased out of the Academy like a mangy dog,” [5] as he later recalled.  Nerdrum still had some faith left in art school but was again challenged by his next scholastic experience at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, where he studied under Joseph Beuys.

         Nerdrum’s anti-modernist leanings earned him the nickname, “Zorn” by his classmates, a double entenrde.  “Zorn” is the German word for anger.  Also, the nickname might have referred to the Swedish romantic painter, Anders Zorn, who painted society portraits and outdoor scenes of young nude girls bathing in streams.  Nerdrum didn’t get along well with his classmates, though he respected Beuys who represented an anarchistic, Anthroposophist mentor much as Bjørneboe had been for him.  Beuys showed great interest in Nerdrum’s talent and intellect, though he considered Nerdrum too narrow in his interest. 

         In 1968, when Nerdrum was 24, he mounted his first solo exhibition in the American

headquarters of the Scandinavian Airservice System in New York.  It wasn’t until the opening reception that Nerdrum learned about the exclusion of three works due to themes

unsympathetic to airline travel.  One of these three, Amputation (1968) depicts a semi-clad man lying partially dismembered and disemboweled on the street.  Adjacent to the dying figure is a set of bloody tire tracks.  Nerdrum was not pleased that his submission had been culled.  Following the reception, he cancelled the exhibition and had the work returned to Norway.  While in New York, Nerdrum was escorted by his photographer friend, Robert Meyer, who was acquainted with Andy Warhol.  The two made a visit to Warhol’s studio, where one of Warhol’s assistants smirked at Nerdrum’s description of his own work.  When Nerdrum returned to Norway, he reportedly changed the identity of the dying figure in Amputation to resemble Warhol.  This painting–with a dead or dying Warhol, and its bloody tire print, reminiscent of Rauschenberg’s Automobile Tire Print made with the avant garde composer John Cage (with whom Rauschenberg reportedly had relations)–can be seen as a charged attack by Nerdrum based on his rejection of the modern artists and their ideals, as well as on modernity as a whole.

         Once free from what he considered to be the unsupportive institutions of art instruction, Nerdrum taught himself techniques used by the old masters, with emphasis on chiaroscuro.  It is through this style that Nerdrum has been able to find harmony between his craft and the despairing existential themes of man’s disconnection form nature.  For it was through chiaroscuro, the use of lights and darks and subtle shades between to render convincing, three dimensional images on a planar surface, that Caravaggio had been able to create realistic, engaging personalities.  Northern Baroque artists, Rembrandt in particular, sought to refine Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro to achieve a pan-humanistic connection to their subjects through emotional cues or pathos.  “The strictly personal turns universal through its convincing self- revelation.” [6]  Rembrandt believed that through a masterly use of highlights and shadows a painting could be infused with universal truths recognized in the primal mind as good and evil.

         Nerdrum’s 1996 painting Hepatitis is an exemplary work of chiaroscuro used to demonstrate the contradictory human experiences of euphoric elation and suffering.  In this work a stagnant, dark room is brought to life by a naked man who writhes upright, encoiling himself in his bed sheets.  The tortured figure seems to scream in agony, yet has a tearful expression of happiness.  It is a moment without time, or in the words of the eighteenth-century playwright and art critic Gotthold Lessing, “a pregnant moment.”  Nerdrum painted this scene from a recollection of a specific moment when he felt no pain, only relief after many weeks of agonized suffering from hepatitis.  It is my assertion that this work is a modern retelling of the first-century sculpture Laocoön, which depicts the Trojan priest and his two sons as they are over powered by a huge serpent.  Though the sons are not directly represented in Nerdrum’s picture, the agony of Laocoön is clearly recalled not only in the subject’s expression, but in his posture.  The serpent appears symbolically in the bed sheets that coil around the dreadful man as well as in the jaundiced color of his skin-a result of the overpowering force within him.

         Nerdrum’s oeuvre offers its audience a copious variety of perversion that includes scenes of necrophilia, hermaphroditism, coprophilia, and castration anxiety, all of which can be related to Freud’s theories of the Oedipal Complex, which attempts to explain human behaviors resulting from the infant’s disconnection from the mother and father. One component of these perversions is the unreconciled ego.  According to Freud, splitting of the ego is a psychological phenomenon in which two psychical attitudes co-exist unconsciously in the ego.  One is in touch with, and functions in relation to reality, the other is a wish. The result in art is the uncanny double image.  A major percentage of Nerdrum’s work features a double of one type or another.  Some of these pictures exclusively depict a pair, as in the iconic composition of Twins from 1987, which shows a pair of sleeping girls in identical garb as viewed from directly above.  Others feature twins in more elaborate compositions such as Dying Couple (1993), Blind Wanderer (1992), and Twins (1997).  One prime example of Freud’s theory of the split ego can be found in Old Man with Dead Maiden from 1997.  Here, we can interpret the old man as the ego rooted in the “real” and his opposite–by virtue of her gender, age and disposition–as the ego’s “idealized” self.

         A perfect image to segue from the double to castration anxiety is the 1991 painting Twins with Knives.  This disturbing image shows a double bust of twin, androgynous-looking men, each holding a knife in identical, threatening postures.  These figures transcend the boundaries of normal space as they partially occupy the same body, suggesting a psychic space wherein the viewer is confronted by the threatening pair.  In Art and Psychoanalysis, Laurie Schneider Adams asserts, “the double reinforces self-love as a denial of death.” [7]   In Nerdrum’s case, that death is our death–the death of modern man through his notion that the natural world is uninhabitable and must be rationally conquered.  But Nerdrum’s imagery not only laments this departure, he hopefully reconnects man with his natural god–“The old masters are my guides, Nature is my God.” [8] –through his symbolic depiction of the hermaphrodite.

         The alchemists believed that the hermaphrodite was the metaphorically perfect being, one that embodies all that is masculine–the sun (knowledge), with all that is feminine–the moon (feeling).  The Greeks also believed that the hermaphrodite, represented by the mythological Hermaphroditus–the child of Hermes, messenger of the gods, and of Aphrodite, goddess of love–was a more complete being. Nerdrum recalls this metaphor through such paintings as his self portrait from 1965 called, Hermaphrodite in which Nerdrum identifies with the perfect being.  Donald Kuspit addresses this tendency of male artists in his book Signs of Psyche in Modern and Postmodern Art:  “The whole artificial cosmos that art is–its inherent theatricality, exhibitionism–is explicable in terms of fetishism, down to the tendency of the male artist to both abuse and idealize, dispute and identify with the female figure, often simultaneously.” [9]

         Many of Nerdrum’s works feature the hermaphrodite including Initiation (1997), Hermaphrodite(1992), and Sleeping Prophet (1999).  In Hermaphrodite  a hermaphroditic figure wearing a silver cap bathes in a golden pool of water adjacent to a mineral-encrusted spring.  The symbology in this painting unquestioningly references the alchemical pursuit of creating gold through the amalgam of sulfur and mercury.  In Nerdrum’s case, the hermaphrodite is the symbiotic bridge between man and nature which is the gold that he seeks.

         In the shockingly self-revelatory portrait entitled Self Portrait In Golden Gown from 1997, we see the artist standing before us in a golden gown which he has raised to reveal a vitally poised erection.  This erection points, not only upward–toward heaven–but to his deep, dark belly button, which can be interpreted as waiting to be penetrated by the local phallus.  After an investigation of hermaphroditic legend in alchemy, I believe this portrait is more than an assertion of his potency as an artist in his waning years as is frequently posited by critics.  Considering his background of Anthroposophy, an arguable derivative of alchemy, his identification with the hermaphrodite, and his assertion that he is a prophet of painting, this image can be seen to reveal a latent megalomaniac theme.  When the phallus– the Son, or masculine–penetrates the belly button–the Holy Ghost, or feminine (in alchemy)–in the presence of the elder Nerdrum’s likeness–the Father, we have the alchemical holy trinity which in this work is represented by the compositionally unifying element of the golden gown.

         Cleanliness (or not) of the body and spirit is an age old relationship.  The scatologically themed Twilight (1981) depicts the beautifully rendered backside of a young woman squatting on her haunches to defecate in the woods.   Through this painting, Nerdrum attempts to reconcile the modern man with his naturalness.  Additionally, the work addresses the spiritual theme that man’s transcendence comes about through his impurity, or that a person can be clean and dirty, good and evil, simultaneously; images attesting to this belief have been recorded as far back as the Aztecs.  Nerdrum’s Düsseldorf instructor, Joseph Beuys, was reportedly quite impressed with the work and considered it to be the most radical painting he had ever seen.  On scatology, Gabriel P. Weisberg writes:

   When considered over the long period of time since its appearance, the use of scatological references reveals shifts in societal interests and modifications of accepted values.  Thus the development of scatological discourse and its increasingly public nature can be seen to reflect and reveal metaphorically deeper ills afflicting society. [10]

         Nerdrum might argue that a deeper ill is man’s disassociation from the natural world. 

Defecation and urination are themes embellished upon by Nerdrum in works like Morning at  Shitrock from 2000, The Nightjumper from 1996 and Pissing Woman from 1997.

         Scatological investigations of Nerdrum’s work would be incomplete without acknowledging his references to anal fixation.  In her book, “Pornography and Fantasy”, Elizabeth Cowie reports on analytical evidence of the pre-oedipal child’s wish to be anally penetrated, thereby reviving the psychical connection between parent and child that is disrupted by the primal scene.  Considering the disruption of Nerdrum’s psychological connection to both his mother and his father, images such as Pear from 1990, Sleeping Courier from 1988, and Spring (1977) take on a psychological significance.  In particular, Spring, which depicts an adolescent boy sitting naked on a bed adjacent to a half-dressed mature man unmistakably preparing to depart from, or instigate a sexual encounter with, the adolescent, can be interpreted as longing for that connection with his father that was unquestionable missing from his life, and most significantly, his early years.

      Though Nerdrum arguably yearns to be accepted, he sets himself apart from our culture.  The imagery of the last twenty years depicts a mind filled with a cornucopia of perversions.  If it is true, as Robert Stoller suggests, that “perversion is the erotic form of hatred primarily motivated by hostility that portrays itself as an act of risk taking,” [11] then we would have to conclude that Nerdrum is filled with hostility.  Given a long history of familial and societal rejection since his birth–self-perpetuated or not–a clear connection can be drawn between his psychology of perversion and the imagery of his work.  Whereas in his early years as a painter Nerdrum did indeed experience this rejection in the art community, today the art world has accepted him as a modern master.  If there is rejection nowadays, it has been turned around:  he has rejected the modern world and consequently sets himself apart from us by his belief that he is not only revisionist painter but a prophet.  Nerdrum takes this a step further with his disassociation from the arts in his provocative statement:  “If I were an artist I would not paint.” [12]


Adams, Laurie Schneider. Art and Psychoanalysis. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.

Kramer, Hilton.  "Shock Treatment: Transgressive Art Versus the Tragic Art of Odd Nerdrum”. Art and Antiques 20 (Summer 1997): 116-17.

------.  "Odd Nerdrum: A Maverick Sets Acts of Violence in Alien Landscapes. Art and Antiques 19 (Jan. 1996): 86-8.

Kuspit, Donald B. “The Modern Fetish” in Signs of Psyche in Modern and Postmodern Art     New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Pettersson, Jan Ake.  Odd Nerdrum: Story Teller and Self Revealer.  Oslo: Aschehoug & Co., 1998.

Strachey, James, ed.  Sigmund Freud, M.D., LL.D. Collected Papers London: The Hogarth Press, 1950.

Vine, Richard.  "Nordic Anxieties: Odd Nerdrum." Art in America  78 (Sept 1990): 170-77.

------.  Odd Nerdrum:  Paintings, Sketches and Drawings.  Oslo:  Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, 2002.

Weisberg, Gabriel P. “Scatological Art”.  Art Journal 52  (Fall 1993):  18.

[1] Jens Bjørneboe quoted in Jan Ake Pettersson, Odd Nerdrum:  Story Teller and Self Revealer (Oslo:  Aschehoug & Co., 1998), 18.

[2] Ibid., 20.

3 Richard Vine, Odd Nerdrum:  Paintings, Sketches and Drawings (Oslo:  Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, 2002), 31.

[4] Pettersson, 152.

[5] Pettersson, 153.

[6] Odd Nerdrum quoted in Vine, 65.

[7] Laurie Schneider-Adams, Art and Psychoanalysis (New York:  Harper Collins, 1993), 43.

[8] Odd Nerdrum, Dagbladet, Nov. 15, 1967; quoted in Vine, 48.

[9] Donald B. Kuspit, in Signs of Psyche in Modern and Postmodern Art, “The Modern Fetish”, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993),

[10] Gabriel P. Weisberg “Scatological Art”, Art Journal  52 (Fall 1993): 18.

[11] Robert J. Stoller, Perversion:  The Erotic Form of Hatred (New York:  Dleta Books, 1975), 4.

[12] Odd Nerdrum quoted in Vine, 14.