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Gallery thief who stole a painter’s heart

Story of artist Barbora Kysilkova and a man who stood trial accused of stealing her work is a compelling narrative about friendship, attraction and forgiveness

31 October, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Karl-Bertil Nordland in The Painter and the Thief

Directed by Benjamin Ree
Certificate: 15

WHEN artist Barbora Kysilkova hung a series of eye-catching paintings in the genre of contemporary realism in a trendy Oslo gallery, she must have hoped for a few sales and the odd article in an arts magazine.

Her stunning work deserved at least that – but as the curators chose the large, impressive canvases, no one could have predicted how it was the start of a saga that would become the basis of a revealing documentary about art, friendship and redemption.

One day, two men managed to get into the gallery unseen, take two pieces from the walls, carefully unpick them from their frames and make off with them rolled up under their arms.

It was an odd art heist, in that she was not very well known (though her talent suggests she was on the cusp of becoming so) and her paintings were unlikely to have been stolen to order.

The thieves were also hardly careful – they were caught on CCTV, leading to the arrest and trial of one of the culprits, a man called Karl-Bertil Nordland.

This film reveals how the artist approached him as he waited in an Oslo courtroom for his trial. She asked him if he could let her know where the painting he took was – which he answered he had nicked it after smoking 20 grams of Crystal Meth and dropping 100 pills over a four-day period and had no idea what had happened – and then if she could perhaps make him her next subject.

It was the beginning of a new relationship, which has been captured from its early inception and flowed over a three-year period.

It creates a compelling narrative about friendship, attraction, an artist’s muse and forgiveness.

The film suffers, however, from two characters whose self-indulgent behaviour means they seem to lack awareness of how they impact on others.

While the scourge of drug addiction means that Nordland behaves occasionally in a way that is hard for those around him – his long-suffering partner, for example, has to hand him an ultimatum about his use – Barbora also appears not to realise how her behaviour impacts on her boyfriend. You can’t help but feel sorry for him as he watches her build a relationship with a stranger. At times, you feel jealous on his behalf, and makes her actions feel inexplicably selfish.

There are also questions over how this film came to be made: it almost feels too good to be true. Ree’s access to the couple, how he followed the story from the start and what transpires, is dynamite – but also slightly contrived. Scenes shot in a couple’s counselling session are particularly intrusive and hard to watch, while Nordland’s emotional responses smack of bad acting. We are also treated to ringside footage of him splitting with his partner – a deeply personal moment uncomfortable to be part of.

But these are minor gripes and do not detract from an intriguing tale of a friendship that might turn into something else.

Above all, her art is stunning. Watching its creation is a compelling portrait of an artist at work.


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