As It Happens

How an artist developed an unlikely bond with the man who stole her paintings 

Before Barbora Kysilkova ever met the man who stole her paintings, she knew she wanted to paint him.

The Painter and the Thief premieres at the Hot Docs virtual festival on May 28 

A still from The Painter and the Thief shows Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova, right, painting a portrait of Karl-Bertil Nordland, left, one of the men who broke into a gallery and stole her paintings. (Elevation Pictures)


Before Barbora Kysilkova ever met the man who stole her artworks, she knew she wanted to paint him.

But the Czech artist never expected that the two of them would go on to form an intimate, life-altering friendship.

"How this story developed, no one can even think about it in the wildest fantasy," Kysilkova told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

The pair's unlikely bond is now the subject of a documentary, The Painter and the Thief, by director Benjamin Ree, streaming next week at the Hot Docs virtual film festival

How the artist met the thief 

Kysilkova is known for her larger than life, photorealistic paintings, many of which explore dark and gritty subject matter. 

In April 2015, two of her works — Chloe & Emma and Swan Song — were stolen from the Galleri Nobel in Oslo. The two men who did it were caught on film. 

When Kysilkova first learned of the theft, she remembers being blown away by how carefully the thieves extracted the large canvases from their frames, individually removing more than 200 nails and leaving the works in pristine condition. 

Almost immediately, she started plotting how she could recreate this crime scene in her art. 

"I really had a certain obligation to do something with it, not as Barbora as a person only, but as Barbora as a painter," she said.

"That was just actually the beginning of a totally new chapter that I didn't know where it would lead."

It eventually led her to the courtroom where Karl-Bertil Nordland, one of the thieves, appeared for his first hearing. 

"My first idea was ... to recreate the scenery of the thievery and to make a painting of that. But when I entered the room, I totally lost all these ideas," she said.

"I just looked at the man who only appeared to me like a pure, simple human being, going through his sorrow and his shame. And I actually got quite fascinated right away by him, not knowing why. I just did."

She approached him and asked why he stole her paintings. 

"He answered, 'Because they were beautiful,'" she said. 

"I was totally unarmed at the moment. It's like I dropped all my weapons that I possibly could have. It was such a direct, honest answer that came so suddenly."

Nordland was not available for an interview. 

After that first encounter, Kysilkova says she was no longer interested in portraying the crime or the criminal. Rather, she wanted to portray the man. 

She asked Nordland if she could paint his portrait. He agreed. 

The right place at the right time 

Benjamin Ree had no idea what a strange relationship he'd stumbled upon when he began filming. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time. 

The Olso filmmaker initially reached out to Kysilkova with the intention of making a short film about an art heist. At the time, she had only met Nordland on a handful of occasions. 

"When I had begun filming, I did not know ... where the story might end up," Ree told Off. "I did not know anything that would happen, but I just kept on filming."

Barbora Kysilkova and director Benjamin Ree pose for a portrait to promote The Painter and the Thief at the Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 27, 2020, in Park City, Utah. (Taylor Jewell/Invision/The Associated Press)

Ree filmed the portrait sessions, acting as a fly on the wall as Kysilkova and Nordland slowly got to know each other.

Nordland, they soon learned, had a difficult life and often turned to crime to feed his drug addiction. Over the course of three years during the documentary, he attends rehab, relapses, steals and crashes a car, and ends up in both hospital and prison. 

Throughout all those ups and downs, Kysilkova remains his steadfast friend.

But friendship was not her sole motivation for staying in contact with Nordland. Unbeknownst to him, she also uses the information she gleans from their conversations to try and track her stolen paintings from the black market.

That sleuthing is another integral part of the documentary. 

"I thought that that worked very well as a premise for the film," Ree said. "But of course, the film is not a true crime documentary; it's a film about an unlikely friendship and the complexity of these two beautiful people."

The film is about what we humans do in order to be seen and appreciated and what it takes of us to help others and see others."​​​​​​- Benjamin Ree, filmmmaker 

The documentary jumps back and forth in time, while simultaneously weaving between Kysilkova's and Nordland's perspectives, in what Variety reviewer Peter Debruge called the "cinematic equivalent of a cubist portrait."

But despite all the twists and turns and detective work, Ree says the climax is arguably a simple, intimate moment between Kysilkova and Nordland — when she finally unveils the first portrait she's been working on. 

"He was in one of his lower days … and he just needed some kind of words of support or just to hear something that's a bit positive," Kysilkova recalled of that scene. 

"So I told him that I don't really have it in words, but if he looks behind me, he will see that I have it in colours."

A still from The Painter and the Thief shows Barbora Kysilkova's portrait of Karl-Bertil Nordland. (Benjamin Ree/Elevation Pictures)

The camera lingers on Nordland's face for the big reveal. At first, he is at a loss for words, in awe of the painting. Then, he weeps.

"It's a kind of reaction that, of course, doesn't pay your rent. But it's one of the biggest compliments to my work ever," Kysilkova said.

Ree says that one moment encapsulates the whole film better than any other scene.

"What [Nordland] says about his reaction there is that it was maybe the first time he felt seen in this life," he said.

"The film is about what we humans do in order to be seen and appreciated and what it takes of us to help others and see others."

The Painter and the Thief will be available on demand from Elevation Pictures on May 22, and will stream on Hot Docs from May 28 to June 24. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Barbora Kysilkova and Benjamin Ree produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.

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