Born in St Petersburg to Russian parents, she grew up near the Black Sea before commencing music studies at the age of 12 in her birth city. Her mother, who like the majority of Russian parents had great ambitions for her child, wanted Holland to become a pianist, a profession that in her eyes was safe and prestigious. Holland, however, had other ideas and convinced her mother to allow her taking on art as well as music studies, and after years of hard work and determination she left the conservatoire in St Petersburg as a graduate of art.
In 1981, at the age of 19, Holland moved to Norway with her mother who had met and married a Norwegian in Russia. Within years of arriving she had herself married a Norwegian and had a daughter. To her mother’s delight, Holland used her extensive education from Russia and worked as a music teacher for many years relegating her passion for painting to a spare time activity at home.
Mixing the old with the new
However, Holland’s life was to take a turn after meeting Norwegian art’s 'enfant terrible' Odd Nerdrum. The much celebrated, and equally controversial, painter saw some of Holland’s figurative works and asked her to come to his atelier. Her visit resulted in a two-year apprenticeship from 1990-1992 during which she got an insight into his technique as well as his unique world. “It was an interesting period and I learnt a lot from it technically,” she explains.
Like Nerdrum, Holland’s figurative paintings depict controversial, contemporary, and sometimes disturbing issues, in a detailed style comparable to that of some of the old masters. “Similarly to Nerdrum, who is influenced by old masters, I also take inspiration from paintings by the likes of Rembrandt and Velasquez. However, I don’t copy anyone. It’s like handwriting; you can be inspired by or try to copy others’ handwriting, but essentially it remains your own and you can’t really change it.”
Holland's technique on paintings, such as the above 'Airborne', has often been compared to that of the old masters. Photo: Natalie Holland
Holland says her style is “hyper-realistic” and she calls herself a storyteller. She has previously said that she’s compelled to examine people’s faces in her paintings as they are a boundless resource and a summation of a person's life. “A picture is worth more than 100 words – it can tell so many stories,” she states. Some of her paintings cover controversial topics such as self-mutilation. She has also painted a female suicide bomber sitting in a room with a child before she is presumably about to go out to blow herself up. “The painting is not political; I’m just telling a human story.”
“I’m actually a closet-symbolist,” she smiles. “I use signs and symbols in my paintings to tell stories. I’m particularly preoccupied with our contemporary society and how for instance modern technology is changing us, how it can make us lonely.”
Holland is fascinated by what people choose to do when they have an array of options open to them. “How do you choose your own happiness?” she asks. “It’s not always the most recognised route to happiness that is the best. I speak to a lot of people my age who are asking themselves this question, which they never did when they were younger. In my view, it might be an idea to introduce more philosophy studies in schools so that people ask these questions at an earlier age.”
Many of Holland's paintings, including the above which is entitled 'An Ordinary Day', tackle controversial issues, but she says they are not political: "I'm just telling human stories." Photo: Natalie Holland
Mirror, mirror on the wall…
“I also ask how we relate to happiness. For instance, in a new project I’m working on, I’m investigating how people use plastic surgery to create their own happiness. Essentially, plastic surgery is a modern technology which allows the freedom of choice – i.e. as we pursue happiness we can choose to use this technology to change our appearance. For so many, the ultimate goal is to become rich, famous and beautiful.”
Holland tells of how men working in Wall Street are using plastic surgery to create scars on their faces to generate an illusion that they’re not just a regular stockbroker. “These are not isolated cases – many of us want to recreate ourselves to fit a desired image,” she continues. “So we spend money on becoming different, but we are in fact making ourselves look the same as everyone else.”
Plastic surgery has become a bit of a passionate topic for Holland who is currently working on a project with Stephen Pollock Gallery in London on an exhibition later this year about the issue. Holland has previously painted a pair of identical twins who are both plastic surgeons, but only one has chosen to have work done on himself. It was this painting that paved the way for the new project, in which Holland and other artists will interpret plastic surgery in their own art form. Once the exhibition opens this autumn it will feature installations, photography and paintings.
The above painting 'Creation' features two plastic surgeons, identical twins in real life, and a female patient. Photo: Natalie Holland
Sourcing the canvas supermodels
Although she may have the technique of an old master, the days when people had hours and days to model for an artist are long gone. “I start out with an idea, and then I do research around it by speaking to people,” says Holland who adds that she loves meeting people. “I find the models I want to use and make an initial sketch to see what looks good. However, it’s not feasible for the models to come to my studio on a regular basis so I take photographs which give me the freedom and time to decide what I think will look best on the canvas. My technique with the brush may be classical, but I use modern technology during the painting process.”
The magic happens in a small, but light and airy studio in London’s prosperous Belsize Park. There, Holland will see a model 15 to 20 times for two hour sessions before the painting is finished. She has developed a good relationship with several of her previous models and uses them regularly. In addition she sources new models through friends and acquaintances. “I tell them what my idea is for a painting and describe what type of person I’m looking for. However, I don’t have any particular types that I go for – it all depends on the ideas for the painting.”
Like many artists, Holland paints commissioned portraits for old and new costumers and together they agree on how the painting should look. She normally takes around six commissions each year which then help her finance her other projects. She has four or five paintings on the go simultaneously and regularly has customers and collectors popping by her studio to see what she’s working on in case there’s something that would be a perfect match for their white walls. “After moving to London I’ve had to change the size of my paintings though – people have smaller living spaces here so my old paintings wouldn’t fit in their homes,” she laughs.
Natalie Holland in her studio in Belsize Park, London. Photo: Thomas Aastad / Royal Norwegian Embassy
London has in fact been a great inspiration to her after moving here recently. “I do of course miss my friends and family in Norway, but I get so much energy from this city. There is always something happening here,” she states and explains how she takes inspiration from her daily life, TV, films, books and meeting people. “I’m still establishing a network here. If I achieve success in this city, I will probably stay.”
Further success in London will probably come. A few years ago, Holland sold her painting ‘The Bride’ for $33,000 in the US which opened new doors for her. “I’ve sold other paintings for more since then,” she smiles. Surely her mother must have given up her hopes for her daughter to have a ‘safe’ career as a musician by now? “My mother is happy for me, and despite the fights we had in my teenage years, she must have known that I would end up as an artist. As a child I was quite wild, and the best way for my mum to calm me down was to give me an art book – that would always shut me up as I’d sit down quietly for hours looking at the pictures. These days my mother reflects: 'Fate can be conquered but not avoided'.”
And has she got aspirations for the future? For sure. Her former mentor Nerdrum has by many been labelled the most influential Norwegian painter of the late 20th century, so Holland laughs: “I want to become the most important Norwegian painter of the 21st century”. And even though she says this with a smile, rest assured she’s not joking…
'The Bride' was Natalie Holland's international break-through painting and was sold for $33,000 in the US. Photo: Natalie Holland