Odd Nerdrum’s painting Dawn (1990) is emblematic of his style and aesthetic. Dawn is an example of the imaginary world the artist projects in his paintings: in this case, it is a bleak and barren landscape populated by four figures. The artist presents a surreal scene: four male figures, identical in appearance, are seated turned sideways with their mouths gaping. Even though they are a group, these figures do not relate to each other. Nerdrum repeats this scheme in other paintings such as Wanderers by the Sea (2001), Dust Lickers (2005) and Limbo (2006). In Dawn, the mysterious nature of the painting is enhanced by the strange garments. For instance, the figures upper limbs are restricted by the black cloaks that cover the top halves of their bodies.
The figures in Dawn inhabit a barren environment - the landscape is a kind of wasteland, scarce in resources. Nerdrum based it on landscape studies during his multiple trips to Iceland. While the landscape has a strong sense of realism, it is a mythical space that represents a place beyond reality. This kind of landscape is recurring in Nerdrum’s paintings like Woman Kills Injured Man (1994), The Night Guard (1986-1988), Twins by the Sea (1999) and Lunatics (2001). The artist created a world which is a far cry from modern life and society. The figures in Dawn represent human suffering: they are physically restrained and their screams are mute. They live in a world of scarce resources and are left to their own devices: there are no institutions to clothe, feed, school, house or provide for them in old age. It is a surreal scene, a synthesis of fantasy and reality that expresses feelings of isolation and alienation.
Paintings like Dawn stood out at a time when contemporary art was dominated by abstract and conceptual art. Nerdrum focused on traditional craftsmanship, drawing inspiration from Old Masters like Titian, Caravaggio and Rembrandt. Later in 1998, Nerdrum articulated his artistic point of view in his manifesto On Kitsch. Tradition is at the center of Nerdrum’s art: he embraces the craftsmanship of traditional European painting, as well as the dramatic and emotionally charged qualities of Baroque art. The artist understands kitsch in a positive light, as an artistic device that through narrative and sentiment portrays the human experience. In the contemporary and postmodern context, kitsch becomes an avant-garde form of expression.
Dawn was purchased by music legend David Bowie in the autumn of 1990. The painting intrigued the musician so much that it was reported that he especially met with Nerdrum to discuss the symbolism behind it. After Bowie’s death in 2016, the painting was auctioned at Sotheby’s. Surpassing estimates, Dawn was sold for a record price of ₤341,000. Dawn also holds a special place in popular culture: the painting was recreated in Tarsem Singh’s science fiction horror film The Cell (2000).