Much theft is committed with the aim of enriching someone’s personal treasure chest, usually that of the thief. And that also applies to art theft; paintings or sculptures are stolen so that they can be sold on the black market or used as a bargaining chip.
But sometimes art disappears for reasons that are difficult to understand. On April 20, 2015, thieves left with two paintings by the young Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova, which exhibited in Galleri Nobel in Oslo, Norway. Kysilkova is a talented painter, usually of people in emotionally charged moments, but she was not very well known at the time. And the way the paintings were stolen was strange: instead of just cutting the canvases from their frames, the two thieves removed each staple, in a way that, as the news broadcasts pointed out, indicated that one or both were professionals .
Kysilkova, who had moved to Oslo to be with her partner, was discouraged by the theft, especially since one of the paintings was personally important to her. But she was also interested in why everyone would steal those two paintings, and she wanted to to meet the thieves.
She tracked down one of them, Karl-Bertil Nordland, an intelligent and tattooed Norwegian who was so tall at the time, he told her, he couldn’t remember why he did it – or what he did with the paintings. Extremely empathetic and stubborn, Kysilkova found her interest from the stolen paintings to the thief and asked Nordland to paint his portrait. When he saw it, he exploded in tears. And their friendship and creative partnership started to grow.
It sounds like the set-up for a finely realized fictional drama, but it is the true story that unfolds The painter and the thief, a documentary that feels like an elegant fairytale. The film, directed by Benjamin Ree, follows Kysilkova and Nordland for several years when they meet, start working together and develop a relationship both as a painter and muse and as friends.
Nordland is a petty criminal who is addicted to drugs when he meets Kysilkova. But his life was not always like that, he tells us; he was an elite BMX cyclist and a talented carpenter ever in his life. Kysilkova finds him fascinating as a muse, but is frustrated by his habit of disappearing for days and his refusal to get help for his addiction – a refusal that eventually also drives his girlfriend away. After a terrible car accident, he ends up in hospital and then in prison. Meanwhile, Kysilkova struggles to earn enough money to pay her studio rent and bickers with her partner, who asks how healthy her interest in Nordland can be.
Ree follows quietly, invisible enough to his subjects to often disappoint their guards. We hear what Kysilkova and Nordland think not only of themselves, but of each other; the story returns several times to give us a different perspective and to show what it is like to be Barbora the painter or Bertil the thief.
And that is what makes The painter and the thief so very intimate and moving: through two different sets of eyes we are asked to learn to look. A painter like Kysilkova trains himself to notice and see the world in a different way than most people. During the movie, Nordland says several times that he marvels at how she see him. But he also sees her – sharper than she would think – and begins to understand what motivates her, what hurts her and why she paints the world.
The painter and the thief won an award at Sundance for creative stories, and no wonder: it actively challenges what we think we understand about the characters based on their looks, class markings or behavior. It highlights the way in which all kinds of artists, from painters to filmmakers, transform reality into something at least a little fictionalized to make their work – and how everyone hides the truth a bit.
It also trains the audience a bit on how to become people see. Whether it’s the way Ree’s camera moves across a painting or the perspective from which he portrays and photographs the relationship between Kysilkova and Nordland, The painter and the thief seduces its viewers to stop and pay attention to the world to learn to love it. By the time the breathtaking last moment arrives, we have learned, a little better, how to really do it look in the world, as a lover of both beauty and the strange bits of ourselves that really make us human.
The painter and the thief opens on May 22 virtual cinemas and digital platforms, including iTunes, Fandango now, and Google Play. Some virtual screenings during opening weekend also involve Q & As with filmmakers and subjects (one moderated by me). See the film’s website for full details.