Odd Nerdrum was born in Hälsingborg, Sweden in 1944. He was a student at The Academy of Art in Oslo at the time when Modernism made its delayed entry to Norway. During a study trip to Stockholm organized by the academy, he broke out from the group of students who had gathered round the works of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in the Museum of Modern Art. Nerdrum headed off to the Rembrandt Hall in The National Museum of Fine Arts and was standing spellbound in front of Claudius Civilis. Nerdrum says seeing the painting was “a shock… Pervasive. Like finding home. I can say I found a home in this picture,… The wonderful thing with Rembrandt is the confidence he inspires – like when you warm your hands on a stove. Without Rembrandt I would have been so poor.”
It was a turning point in his life and he decided to learn painting in the manner of Rembrandt. The decision immediately brought him into direct opposition to most aspects of the academy, including his primary painting instructor, his fellow students, and a curriculum designed to present Norway as a country with an up-to-date artistic culture. None of them mastered the old techniques and all of them thought his project was reactionary and obnoxious.
He, in his own words was chased from the academy after a two-year period like a “scroungy mutt“. Years later Nerdrum said, “I saw that I was in the process of making a choice that would end in defeat. By choosing those qualities that were so alien to my own time, I had to give up at the same time the art on which the art of our time rests. I had to paint in defiance of my own era without the protection of the era’s superstructure. Briefly put I would paint myself into isolation.“
He left the academy and studied with Joseph Beuys, at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. He also immersed himself in his own private study of the old masters. Nerdrum felt a particular affinity to Caravaggio as well as Rembrandt. Caravaggio, because of the realism and implacable, dramatic temperament reflected in his works, and Rembrandt for his picturesque substance and patience with man. The two extremes would later shape the elasticity in the universe of Nerdrum´s pictures.
The 1960s became the decade when Nerdum was drawn into studying the world of picturesque problems as well as being the decade when he became well known in public. In the early 1970s, his studies would come to amaze the audience where his capabilities and skill spoke for themselves through his paintings and drawings. He would soon emerge from among the group of young painters to become one of the leading figures to revolt against the dogma of Modernism. With basis in contemporary social conflicts and with sympathy for the vulnerability of the individual, he created motives that made him to the most mentioned and abused painter of Scandinavia.
It was a national happening when Nerdrum exhibited his last work at the annual Autumn Exhibition in Oslo. “What kind of motive is he going to show this year?” Among his most remarkable works from this period are “Spring”, “Back”, “The Murder of Andreas Baader” and “Refugees at Sea”.
“Refugees at Sea” appeared to be the last work relating to a contemporary social context. In the 1980s Nerdrum´s motives would go through a fundamental change. Commonly it is recognised that the development began with a painting entitled “Transfiguration”, showing a black man rising from the ground in a waste land, his face is enlightened as if he has just awaked from a deep sleep of eternity and now realized the world for the first time. He is surrounded by a group of sleeping persons who are painted in the shape of cocoons – like unborn individuals. With this painting Nerdrum was entering a new level of creation and was taking the definite step into the spiritualistic painting that has occupied him ever since.
During the following years and by the means of classic-masterly techniques he developed motives that are far away from contemporary issues as they are from traditions of the past. Nerdrum was creating a so far unseen universe of pictures. Rumours about this strange painter started to spread from Scandinavia to Europe, the USA and Japan. From the eighties and till today, Nerdrum has exhibited frequently, particularly in the USA, and mature works like Sleeping Twins, Man bitten by a Snake, Old Man with Dead Maiden, Selfportrait with Eyes Closed and The Saviour of Painting , just to mention a few, have been purchased by public museums and private collectors. Nerdrum´s works have attracted public attention and have been a matter of mention in newspapers and art-magazines. He has made several lectures at American art-academies.
In spite of this progress Nerdrum understood that he was like an alien in the art-world, working completely beside the definition of modern art. In his lecture at the opening of the retrospective exhibition in The Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in 1999, he took a definite leave with art and defined himself as a kitsch-painter and demanded to be evaluated according to the standards he established as the ruling ones in the world of kitsch. In the beginning, the distinction was considered to be a joke, but after a while the public realized that Nerdrum was being earnest. Later on he has, from his new position, published several articles and books on the subject and thus he has presented the perhaps most radical critique of the culture of today, when it comes to the field of art.
In 2002 he officially claimed that he would never again make any comments or statements to the Norwegian press.
Over the years Nerdrum has had several pupils and assistants that have wanted to learn his craft because his approach to painting is based on traditional methods that include mixing and grinding his own pigments, working on canvas he had stretched or stretched by assistants rather than on pre-stretched canvas, and working from live models often himself, and in many cases members of his own family. Several of his pupils have said that they feel like outcasts who are not respected in art circles because they aspire to paint figuratively and are inspired by renaissance and baroque artists.
In December 2003 Nerdrum left Norway and bought a house on Island, a country he had travelled to for several years. The landscape on Island, especially the volcanoes and the color of the soil has been of particular interest to the artist, and often served as backdrop for his paintings. In 2011 the artist returned to Norway, he currently resides at Rødvik farm in the Norwegian city Stavern.
In 2011, after a long ongoing dispute with the Norwegian taxation authorities, Nerdrum was tried and convicted of tax evasion. The case made international news. He denied the charges and pointed out that he had already paid all of the money request by the taxation department long before the trial. He claims it is all part of an ongoing vendetta by certain sectors of the Norwegian arts community. One of the astounding things that came to light was, that if he is imprisoned, Nerdrum will not be allowed to paint.
Nedrum was granted an appeal hearing against the conviction in 2012 with the date to be set.
Nerdum suffers from Tourettes syndrome.