From the EBSQ Archives: Scrotum and Taboo- The Reactionary, Visionary Paintings of Odd Nerdrum by John Seed

As I left the Forum Gallery in Los Angeles after viewing the exhibition “Odd Nerdrum: Current Work,” I took about two steps down Beverly Boulevard before I stepped on a steaming fresh dog turd. While I scraped my shoe on the curb, I had to laugh, since shit seemed to be a theme for the afternoon. Just ten minutes before I had been contemplating a sprawling 76 1/2″ by 106 1/2″ canvas by the Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum, titled “Shit Rock.”
Self-portrait in Golden Cape, 1998 167 x 144 cm
Self-portrait in Golden Cape, 1998 167 x 144 cm
In this dimly lit canvas, three nude female figures squat in a group, their posteriors facing the viewer. Each woman extrudes a broad, healthy turd into the brooding Icelandic world which Nerdrum’s visions typically inhabit. This world, which the painter claims is set in the future, seems to be a place where whatever Freud claimed, at the opening of the twentieth century, was repressed or hidden in Western culture, is reclaimed by Nerdrum as a vitalistic principle.Erections, pissing, shitting, fighting, are common Nerdrum subjects, while sexual acts are not. Although many might find some of his works obscene, the artist seems to avoid portrayal of sexual acts since that is the realm of common pornography, and his work avoids any imagery that might have a mundane popular appeal. The shameless display of ids and egos appeal to the artist as more truly provocative and passionate.
In Freud’s lifetime there were bordellos in Vienna where clients could pay to see women defecate into glass bowls. In Nerdrum’s vision, the coprophiliac, the necrophiliac, the scatological and the phallic are all disclosed in public. Nerdrum creates a heterosexual world where civilization and technology have wilted as a natural result of their evils against nature, and the tribal society of Nordic peoples that remains, many of them twins or clones, no longer need to keep their bodies, their desires, or their biological predispositions hidden.Fetishism no longer exists, and has been replaced by Post-Pagan rituals which retain traces of Christianity. Civilization, Nerdrum seems to say, is a set of taboos which can fall away and reveal our authentic passions and spirituality. In the setting of a gallery, a group of Nerdrum paintings also seems to serve as a litmus test which can determine who does or does not belong in the world of the cultural elite. If you like the work, you must belong.

Wanderers by the Sea, 2001 78 x 101 1/2 inches
Wanderers by the Sea, 2001 78 x 101 1/2 inches
While I was looking at the show, a gallery representative was having an animated conversation with a young potential client. The client, who was not ready for a “major” work (“Shit Rock” is priced at $265,000.00 ) was contemplating a smaller work perhaps under $100,000.00. When offered a Nerdrum that portrayed a mother and child, he responded that if he would were to buy something, it would need to be more “difficult.”I would assume that many clients for Nerdrum’s Los Angeles will come from the world of entertainment, especially television. After all, for people who go through tremendous struggles to create images that will be popular across a broad demographic, within acceptable cultural standards, Nerdrum’s “difficult” images must be a welcome relief. The violence in “The Sopranos” is graphic and edgy, but we will not be seeing shitting women on any network soon.As a cultural emblem, having a Nerdrum in your living room is a way of saying to your friends “I may live in a four million dollar house with a security system, but there is nothing I can’t handle.”

Another sense of relief that Nerdrum can offer to Hollywood’s wealthy comes from the types of bodies he displays. Every Nerdrum figure, from the babies swaddled in hides to the tribal elders appear unmodified, except by weather and nature. Nerdrum’s Arctic world is thousands of miles from the beaches of “Baywatch.”

A major strength of the artist’s work is his virtuoso technique. Nerdrum grinds and mixes his own oil colors, and has a Rembrandtian range of textures, glazes and effects. In one of his skies, the lower edge of oil-laden brushstrokes, when dried, becomes the suggestion of relief that forms the shadow for the bottom of a cloud. In the faces of his figures, eyes water, lips crack and drool, and skin reflects the Northern light. On the strength of his technique alone, Nerdrum has joined a small group of living painters who seem to have the alchemy of turning paint into flesh: Lucien Freud would be one of the few working at this level. Few young artists seem to have the training to have a painterly dialogue with Nerdrum at his level.
Summer Nights , 2001 71 1/2 x 75 1/2 inches
Summer Nights , 2001 71 1/2 x 75 1/2 inches
When Goya retired to Bordeaux, he created his most “difficult” works, including an image of Chronos (time) devouring his own child. Goya had lived through revolution, illness and war, and his dark vision was personal and deeply embedded. In contrast, Nerdrum himself, and his clients live in societies where their wealth, access to modern medicine, and the protection provided by modern defense give them an easy real world exit from the painter’s spare, imagined world. Whether the purchasers of Odd Nerdrum’s paintings will really be able to live with the punishing gap between their own protected lives, and that of Nerdrum’s Post-Modern Vikings remains to be seen.Imagine if the owner of a Nerdrum could invite peasants from any third world nation into his home (I suspect male collectors will dominate the Nerdrum market) and let them see what he had collected. How would he explain that he had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a painting that depicting women shitting on a rock, or a man with a rifle leaving bed to protect his family on an ominous summer night?Wouldn’t these things just be too familiar if you lived in the Sudan, or in Mexico? Or in Afghanistan?


From the EBSQ Archives: Thomas Hart Benton’s connection to the Modern Art Synchromists Movement by Diane D Barton

In the world of Art History, the name ‘Thomas Hart Benton’ is synonymous with Regionalist art. But those same roots that are bound to images of the Regionalists are intertwined to Synchromism, are often overlooked. When one examines the work closely the clues are found within Benton’s choice of color, composition and form.

Synchromism was founded by Stanton MacDonald Wright (Fig. 1) and Morgan Russell, while they were in Paris during 1912. Together they created the first official works, produced anywhere, which were considered ‘nonrepresentational’. Simply put, Synchromism was a method of painting that set itself apart by using fractured forms and rich colors ; based on using the color theories of Tudor Hart along with the sculptural qualities of Michelangelo.

Benton initially met Wright in the winter of 1909, and immersed himself in the Synchromistic methods. Unfortunately, the only way we can now examine the influence of this time period had on his work is by drawing conclusions from his later work, as much of the work created from 1914-1917 was destroyed in a fire at his home in Neosho Missouri in 1917. (Fig. 2, 3)

Eventually Benton’s work with the Synchromists was shown in the highly selective New York, ‘Forum Exhibit’ of 1916. His works, in his own words were…’created using the Tudor Hart’s color system’ Following the Synchromist practice at the time. I based the composition of these pictures on Michelangelo sculpture. However, as the multiple-figure composition was again occupying my thoughts. I selected Michelangelo’s early relief the ‘Battle of the Centaurs,’ rather than a single figure to serve as a model for my creations.’ (Fig 4)


Throughout Benton’s career Michelangelo’s work continued to be a major influence. Intrigued with the three dimensional form, Benton began creating sculptures and began to make dioramas (or miniature scene) of intended two dimensional works. He would begin by forming clay models, which were somewhat like a relief sculpture (projecting slightly from the surface). He would then create numerous drawings from the models, if the idea presented did not translate well to two dimensions, he would rework it until it did.

Benton’s work expresses the influence of the Synchromists in his choice of color palette and composition, particularly in his early work titled ‘Bubbles’. (Fig. 5) ‘Bubbles’ was created by Benton during 1916, during his direct involvement with the Synchromists, and is visually similar to the work of Stanton MacDonald Wright (fig. 6) This similarly can be seen by the use of the composition , and the circular shapes used to contrast the angular ones, along with the hues used throughout. The similarities can be seen in the upper and lower left corner, where the space is broken up in a similar fashion with curvilinear lines created with circular shapes that help to draw your eye throughout the composition. In many of Benton’s work there is a triad color scheme, again the physical rhythm of the human form that ties his work to Michelangelo, and the familiar color theme of red, yellow, blue. (figs. 7, 8, 9)


Finally lets reexamine a few of his abstract work to help us see the correlation between then and his later work. In ‘Constructionist Still Life’, created in 1917-1918 (fig 10) there again is a triad color scheme, geometric shapes which later would be replaced by the human form. For instance in his work ‘Rita and T.P.’ (fig 11), although the colors differ, due to the central vortex, each composition is very similar and are easily interchangeable.

Later, Benton was to claim he dropped the Synchromistic palette and focused his work on single figures and groups. Eventually the abstracted qualities become secondary and Benton would try and eliminate many of the abstract devices. In ‘Self portrait with Rita’ created in 1922, (fig 12) one can once again see the use of a triadic color scheme based on red, yellow, blue.

If one compares the work to ‘Bubbles’ created in 1916 the eye is following the same path throughout the image (fig 13), with the eye again following the curve of the letter ‘J’ up through the upper right of the image.

In 1948 two of the works created by Benton continued to carry on these same two characteristics previously shown in his work. In both ‘The Apple of Discord’ (Fig. 14) and ‘Poker Night’ (Fig. 15) the female is presented in a traditional Renaissance Michelangelo style. Once again the viewer is observing a red, yellow, blue color theme, as seen in his work while with the Sychromist. (Fig. 16 and 17)

From the EBSQ Archives: Frida Kahlo- Identity/Duality by Amie R Gillingham

The period between 1934 and 1940 was tumultuous for Frida Kahlo. Although her husband, Diego Rivera, had been unfaithful in the past, an affair with her sister Cristina was too much for her to bear. During this period she separated from twice and then divorced Rivera at his request. In addition, her various health problems continued to plague her; she required several operations at this time, including an abortion.

The Broken Column, 1944
The Broken Column, 1944

All of this wracked havoc on her delicate sense of self-esteem. Despite an excellent reception to her art both at home and abroad, she felt she was nothing without Diego.

It was during this time that Frida began a series of paintings which delved into the roots of her selfdom. As she was a mestiza, she was having something of an identity crisis, along with the rest of post-revolutionary Mexico. Her personal experience was completely analogous with the restlessness and confusion of her beloved homeland. Most of the population was a mix of Spanish and the indigenous peoples to some degree. (Frida’s husband even had a claim to a title in Spain which he sold to a cousin for funds to continue his painting in Europe.)
Most of the “mixing” had occurred several generations before, but Frida had the problem of being a first generation mestiza with of the identity problems inherent in a mixed heritage. Her father was a German Jew and her mother was an indigenous Mexican/Spanish mix. After the revolution, Mexico tried to reassert its pre-Conquest sense of self for a new, nationalistic cultural identity with Pre-Columbian society as its model. All things Eurocentric were reviled. Frida as “the patriot,” therefore, had the task of trying to reconcile her Mexican self with her European self in her search for wholeness.

My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree), 1936
My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree), 1936

This tendency was first explored in My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree) which she executed in 1936. In this painting, she illustrates busts of her Mexican maternal and German paternal grandparents connected to her parents via a blood-like red ribbon which she (as a naked child) holds at the center of the composition. Her mother and father are in their wedding garb whose formality is undercut by the anatomically-correct fetus superimposed on her mother’s portrait. A sperm cell fertilizing an egg furthers this idea of fertility and reproduction. Frida stands stoically in the middle courtyard of Casa Azul, the house in which she was born (and later died). Her home lies poised between the exotic landscape of Mexico and the sea, implying her family’s European ties. In this painting, Frida does not yet seem to be questioning her origins so much as showing herself as the culmination of them. Still, the delicate balance between her two worlds is inherent.

My Wet Nurse and I, 1937
My Wet Nurse and I, 1937

Her next candidate for the series is My Wet Nurse and I (1937). The dichotomy between her Mexican and European selves is apparent. She had always felt that weakness stemmed from her German blood. In this painting, a wet nurse with an Aztec mask nurses an infant Frida in European garb with an adult head. The landscape is lush with vegetation and the sky is raining milk upon them. Milk drips from both breasts as well (a recurrent theme of hers); the breast she is nursing from has vegetation superimposed on it, emphasizing both fertility and nourishment.

This image is fascinating for many reasons. The composition is in many ways traditional, evoking icons of the Madonna and Child. In this vein, even the adult head is not odd as medieval art often showed “Man-child” images of Christ with his Mother. Yet the traditional religious imagery is at odds with the blatant pagan aspect of the Earth as mother. Some believe the nurse is a metaphor for Frida herself, with the indigenous side of her personality lending strength and sustenance to her weaker, European self. Others feel it may be a reference to her Mexican mother. This ambiguity cropped up earlier when she painted My Birth around the time of her mother’s last illness and death. Regardless of the various biographical readings, the schism between her selves was becoming more obvious in her work.

The Two Fridas, 1939
The Two Fridas, 1939

The apex of the series is The Two Fridas (1939). After returning home from an exhibit of her work in Paris, she divorced Rivera. This painting illustrating a literal split between her two selves is from this period of turmoil and self-doubt. The composition is striking. On the right is the Mexican Frida in traditional tehuana dress. On the left is European Frida in a colonial white dress, possibly intended to be wedding garb (it is similar in many ways to her mother’s wedding dress in “Family Tree”). The two women are seated on a green bench, holding hands. The anatomy of their hearts is superimposed on them both; the one belonging to the European self is seen through a hole in her dress at the breast. A blood line originates at a cameo of Diego as a child held by the Frida on the right. It twines between them both and is ultimately terminated by a medical implement held by the Frida on the left. Blood stains intermingle with the red flowers at the hem of the dress.

This is the painting for which she is best known. Certainly, it is one of the largest (27″ x 27″) which makes it all the more notable. Also, it is one of the few self-portraits she has done in which she is seen in full. The serene clouds and placid look on the two faces is juxtaposed with the graphic medical imagery to illustrate her internal conflict. The composition is so balanced that the hem of the tehuana skirt is our only cue that she is feeling vulnerabilities which she has come to symbolize with her European incarnation. The efforts of the Mexican self to nurture the second frida have been thwarted by the weaker half.

It is interesting to note that Diego loved and encouraged Frida to dress in the native style that was in en vogue at this time. In fact, Kahlo kept up the style long after it had gone out of fashion to make it uniquely her own. Yet Frida associated her indigenous self with Rivera. Hence, after their initial split, she abandoned her traditional garb and cut her hair as an act of rebellion.

After their reconciliation and remarriage in 1940, Frida again took to wearing her native costumes. It would seem that her internal war, on this matter at least, had been won, if only temporarily. Continued self-portraits in native dress coupled with Mexican landscapes and still lifes strongly support this.

Tree of Hope, Stay Stong, 1946
Tree of Hope, Stay Stong, 1946

It is only when her health seriously begins to decline again in 1946 that the topic of duality is broached again with Tree of Hope, Stay Strong. Kahlo reintroduces dual depictions of herself. Her European self is lying on a gurney, her bloody back towards the viewer. On the right is her indigenous self, long identified as her inner source of strength, dressed in a red tehuana dress. She is holding an ex-voto style banner with the title in one hand and a metal corset not unlike the one worn in The Broken Column (of two years earlier) in the other. The idea of duality is further heightened by the differentiation between day and night to divide the composition in half. In the background is the metaphoric barren Mexican landscape which is a hallmark of much of her more surrealistic work.
It is not odd that the splintering of self occurs again in this period. Although her life with Rivera had become more stable in their second marriage, her health had taken a downward swing from which she never fully recovered. All of her self-portraits at this time emphasize her pain. Kahlo was having problems with chronic recurrent depression, alcohol abuse, and addiction to many of her prescription pain killers. Much of her painting was done in a specially made easel so she could paint while confined to her bed. Rivera was spending much of his time away to work on his own art, so she was alone for much of this ordeal. Hence, much of her self-doubt and insecurities were resurfacing in her art.

Although Kahlo’s work is intensely autobiographical on the surface, it can be seen as her own patriotic metaphor. Her work was able to transcend the personal to have political and national relevance. Frida held her self up, both in her art and her life, as the ideal post-Revolutionary Mexican. She was politically active right up until her death in 1954. In her home, she surrounded herself with an ever-growing collection Pre-Columbian folk art and indigenous crafts. Frida wrote her own role as the proto-typical Mexican and she played it meticulously. Kahlo meant for her art as well as her life to serve as the example that her “split-personality syndrome” homeland so desperately needed. In exploring and attempting to heal her own schism between worlds with her paintings, she helped Mexico to heal its own.


  • lecture notes, Modern Mexican Painting, University of Pittsburgh 1996
  • Herrera, Hayden. Frida Kahlo: The PaintingsHarperCollins Publishers, Inc. New York 1991
  • Rivera, Diego. My Art, My Life: An Autobiography (with Gladys March)Dover Publications, Inc. New York 1991
  • Schrimer’s Visual Library. Frida Kahlo: Masterpieces W. W. Norton, Munich 1994

this article was originally presented in 1996 at the University of Pittsburgh without the accompanying pictures. All work shown by Frida Kahlo–ed.