Interview: Barbora Kysilkova Paints A Picture Of The Improbable Relationship Between An Artist And A Thief

Sundance favorite, “The Painter and the Thief,” is the story we’ve all been waiting for. NEON released the feature documentary May 22 on Hulu, VOD, virtual cinemas, as well as participating drive-ins, and it’s been generating some Oscar buzz. Norwegian director Benjamin Ree’s three-year journey began with a Google search about art thefts. His curiosity led him to Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova. At the time, the painter was beginning to form an unlikely friendship with Karl-Bertil Nordland, one of the men who stole two of her paintings from Gallery Nobel in Oslo, in 2015. 

“The Painter and the Thief” is a raw look at how two people from different walks of life can connect in a world that would usually pit them against each other. In the feature, we see Kysilkova reach out to Bertil with love and kindness. Bertil, who is dealing with issues of drug addiction and staring down a life of crime, opens his heart to the artist. Ree captures authentic moments of connection between the two, including one beautiful instance where the artist actually paints the thief. The documentary makes you feel as if friendship were art in and of itself.

“Imagine your life without art,” Kysilkova explains to Hollywood First Look Features. “And try to imagine it without a friendship. Good art requires skill – I still believe in that – dedication, good observation, less of one’s ego, and a responsibility. All that may count for a friendship.”

Karl-Bertil Nordland in ‘The Painter and the Thief’ courtesy of NEON
Karl-Bertil Nordland in ‘The Painter and the Thief’ courtesy of NEON

HFLF: Can you briefly describe the story of ‘The Painter and the Thief’ in your words?

Barbora Kysilkova: “Crime pays,” says one of Bertil’s T-shirts. That’s as brief description as possible. Okay, I’ll try more. Forgiveness pays. Open mind pays. Friendship pays. And sometimes, art pays. 

HFLF: What gave you the initial idea to approach Bertil and document it?

BK: It doesn’t happen every day that someone steals your paintings. So when the trial [came up], I couldn’t have possibly missed the chance of meeting the person who slightly flipped my life. Before the trial, I had long discussions about the situation with my boyfriend, Øystein Stene, who is an exquisite writer with a sharp feeling for a story. And this smelled like The Story for me as a painter. I understood the must to take this artist’s challenge and do something with it. The initial idea was to paint the whole crime scene with both of the thieves stealing the paintings. So there was a plan to approach them. As I entered the courtroom, I saw a man in a white shirt, tattoos sneaking out of a sleeve, his head hidden in his hands. That was Bertil. Because the other man didn’t show up, the judge made a break to discuss whether or not to continue the trial. Everyone left the room except for Bertil, me, and my friend Merete, who came along to translate for me. So I broke the law and approached Bertil there and then. A sound recorder was hidden in my bag to capture every word for a proper translation later on. Private use only I first thought…

HFLF: When was the moment that you realized there was a friendship there?

BK: I don’t know what defines such a moment. For me, it grew gradually. Though at the second of me approaching Bertil at the courtroom, my painter’s curiosity started to mingle with my curiosity as a person. At the moment you invite a thief of your paintings into your atelier, you should better trust your gut. 

HFLF: What do you think is the common denominator between you two that has bonded you? How are you most alike?

BK: Bertil says we share the same demons. True. We just have different ways how to beat them or filter them out. I’m beyond-words-happy that he managed to quit the drugs-addiction way and has found a new one. My way remains the good old painting-addiction one, less destructive, I guess – though one shall not underestimate turpentine and cadmium red. We are soulmates. As much as I wish to give you any rational reasoning, I don’t know how. It’s a chemistry that you can picture as two pieces of a puzzle that fit together with not much of a surprise.

HFLF: How did you feel when you saw the documentary?

BK: It’s a different feeling when you see it alone in your living room, and then when you sit in a Sundance cinema full of people who voluntarily give one hour and 42 minutes of their lives to watch what you’ve got to say. I blushed, felt smaller with each next scene, wished to be invisible. And then came standing ovations, which was a decent earthquake for me.

HFLF: What is your relationship like with Bertil today, and how do you see it evolving in the future?

BK: I like to mock these parts of our minds that are so deformed by certain kinds of Hollywood movies where life is bigger than life, and we crawl for more action, surprise, more emotions, and turnovers. This part of a mind that would love to see a romantic relationship between the painter and the thief – well, life is better than that. I keep personal closeness to Bertil as my true friend and professional distance to him as to my Muse. Here I must express my gratitude to my boyfriend Øystein, who acknowledges that and who has been there for Bertil as a friend as well.
HFLF: What’s next for you?

BK: Oscar, of course! Just kidding. Next, is me lighting up my first cigarette today while continuing to work on my new project called “Manikarnika.” A new set of paintings where I portray one of the most astonishing places on Earth, the Manikarnika Ghat in India’s city of Varanasi. There, by a bank of the Holy River Ganga, many life journeys end in flames and ashes so that they can start a new one. It is a cremation place. Now you may frown reading this. But give it a look and a thought. Very seldom have I seen a place so full of life and colors. A place where death and life go hand in hand as they should. And a place where beauty transcends death. That’s what I’m after. As well as preparing several canvases and marble plates for new paintings of Bertil. I can’t let my Muse fall asleep.

Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland from ‘The Painter and the Thief’ courtesy of NEON
Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland from ‘The Painter and the Thief’ courtesy of NEON

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