“You could try to get a job making Romance Novel covers”

“You could try to get a job making Romance Novel covers,” my Art professor told me during our midterm critique. I sat in the middle of the class in front of my painting, “Traveling Lovers.” In it, two figures looked out to an idyllic sunset and one had a walking stick. Their clothes were similar to those I knew from a fantasy video game because I wanted them to feel timeless. I was shamelessly sincere. I had not read a romance novel, but I thought that could be a good job!

I could sense some students’ growing embarrassment for me. Some giggled at the perceived slight from the teacher. It is a common story for painters to be pressured away from sentimentality in Art School. But I continued making romantic paintings on my own. 

Later, I found the paintings of Odd Nerdrum, Jan-Ove Tuv and Helene Knoop. The Kitsch idea they promoted encouraged free expression. They had no moralistic attitude against sentimentality. In addition, unlike Art School, their advice helped me improve my paintings! 

When I visit a museum, I spend the most time in front of the paintings with the strongest sentiment. The core issue here for painters is that it takes a lot of skill to create a human expression that feels convincing. Even if the smallest facial muscle is off, an emotion feels faked. This is the lower kitsch that makes Art students giggle uncomfortably. Still many of us need years to work through this stage before we can reach anything that grips an audience – anything approaching High-Kitsch. 

Luke Hillestad is a kitsch painter in the tradition of the Ancient Greek painter Apelles. He is a student of Odd Nerdrum and lives in St Paul, Minnesota. His work aims towards the primal beauty of humans at their most noble, with narratives that revolve around archetypal themes.

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Kitsch is a symbol of the chain of generations, covering the raptures between past and present.

— Thomas Elsaesser, film historian