Art News

Controversy Follows Conviction of Artist Odd Nerdrum for Tax Fraud

artwork: The Norwegian artist, Odd Nerdrum, was sentenced to two years in prison without bail on Wednesday August 17th, when a local court in Oslo found him guilty for tax evasion.

OSLO, NORWAY – The famous Norwegian artist, Odd Nerdrum, was sentenced to two years in prison without bail on Wednesday August 17th, when a local court in Oslo found him guilty for tax evasion. Critics claim that Nerdrum’s sentence was surprisingly more severe than the punishment recently imposed in a similar case in China concerning the artist Ai Weiwei, who was given a fine and released on house arrest after three months of detainment. Famous for his Old master-like paintings, the 67 year old artist was accused of failing to pay the full amount of taxes on $2.6 million (1.8 million euros) of taxable income from sales between 1998-2002, just before he became an Icelandic citizen.

Nerdrum has plead not guilty and will file an appeal.

Hearing the verdict, Nerdrum‘s Lawyer Tor Erling Staff told the NTB news agency “I have rarely read such a verdict that allows so little room for doubt. The essential elements [of the case] were not taken into account and we are really not happy. We will appeal.”

Nerdrum stated that he had already paid the taxes years ago, telling the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, “ I paid 50% of the $2.5 million in 1998. And then I paid another 50% on that sum in 2002, adding up to 100% of the $2.5 million. Hasn’t the goal been reached by the Norwegian government yet?”

“Nerdrum has been found guilty of aggravated fiscal fraud,” ruled the Oslo district court, defining the crime as aggravated because the artist “put significant work into hiding his assets, especially by placing a large quantity of money in a safety deposit box.”

artwork: Odd Nerdrum - "Horse Bath", nd - Oil on canvas, 65 1/4 x 81 3/4 inches Courtesy of Forum Gallery, New York

In response to this accusation Nerdrum produced in court, a contract with a U.S gallery, explaining why the money was placed in the safety deposit box. The contract describes the money as a safety fund for some 36 paintings that he created in the 80’s using an experimental medium which collectors complained began to melt when exposed to heat. Nerdrum repainted each of these compositions between 1989-2002, and offered to exchange them, yet many collectors wanted to be compensated with money. So, Nerdrum established the fund as a safety measure against future claims.

Though the problem with these damaged paintings was well known in the U.S. and had damaged Nerdrum‘s reputation, the prosecution asserted that it was merely an elaborate ruse. The court ruled “the only reason for placing cash in a bank box in Austria was to avoid this income being taxed in Norway”.

Nerdrum, who has the neurological disease tourettes syndrome, stated at the beginning of the case that the charges were “rubbish” and that he was “not good with numbers”. This is why he left the accounting to his tax accountant. He said that the 9 year tax investigation and trial were intended to drive him toward suicide.

Nerdrum began study at the Art Academy of Oslo, but became dissatisfied with the direction of modern art, and began to teach himself how to paint in a Neo Baroque style, with the guidance of Rembrandt’s technique and work as a primary influence. Nerdrum had seen Rembrandt’s painting, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis in the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm. 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,” By abandoning the accepted path of modern art, Nerdrum had placed himself in direct opposition to most aspects of the school, 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. 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.”

Nerdrum later studied with Joseph Beuys, at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.