About Asger Jorn

Asger Jorn

by Andersen, Troels

Andersen, Troels, in: Asger Jorn, Silkeborg Kunstmuseum, 1985 p. 25-31 (Translated from Danish by Peter Shield)

Now that Jorn's work can be seen in perspective and viewed as a whole, he stands beside Edvard Munch as a major figure in Northern European painting. He was thirty in 1944 when Munch died, and their contributions are, of course, very different. Munch painted picture after picture of the lonely individual searching for companionship with his fellow men and with nature. For Munch these were the important human considerations. Whereas Jorn, always surrounded by others, examined his situation critically and with scepticism, irony and humor. At the same time he sought to develop his Nordic vision within a long historical perspective.
Not many of the articles written on Jorn during his lifetime capture more than a fraction of his mental processes or modes of expression. But one of the statements which struck home came from Werner Haftmann, who spoke about him as a »night person«. Jorn pondered this phrase, which, he said, »Shocked me enormously because my most conscious need is my longing for light«.

He was strongly aware of the conflicting approach to life, art and culture that prevailed in Northern as against Southern Europe. For him this factor constituted a vital field of energy and tension. In his posthumous work Alpha and Omega he wrote about the burning question of the Nordic element in his own art:
»l don't know what Nordic art is worth in other people's minds... but in today's cosmopolitan art world it doesn't figure at all... Nordic art is dangerous. It compresses all its power inside ourselves. It is not a hedonistic or sensuous art. It neither claims to be objectively intelligible, nor does it deal in clear and conscious symbols. The Danish author Jakob Knudsen hit on something important when he said that Nordic art has mood and works on the mood more than on the senses or the understanding... «
Throughout his life he came up against mutually irreconcilable attitudes and alternatives, in art as well in life. He most often tended to avoid a choice, preferring to seek a solution or to free himself through the confrontation. He saw himself as the eternal wanderer and survivor, as Buttadeo, a head on legs.
»A prisoner of his time« was how an American critic labelled Jorn a few years after his death. But, it must be added, one of the few able to escape and survive.
After 1930 a new generation began to break ground in European art. These artists were born just before the First World War and they inherited a no-man's-land. On the one side were groups which had striven for novelty during the twenties. On the other were those who wanted to preserve »the traditional values« in spite of the unstable situation. This dichotomy was reflected in architecture where traditional concepts of style and craftsmanship were confronted by functionalism; or in painting where, for example, Italian metaphysicians converted to a new classicism. As regards Germany, Oskar Schlemmer's Bauhaus wall decorations were, in 1930, painted over at the request of the man who, some years later, headed the campaign against »degenerate art«. Confidence in dynamic change and progress, which had marked artistic as well as social attitudes in Europe, disappeared - even in the Scandinavian countries. But the Scandinavians, as often before, followed a different path from their Southern neighbors.
The new generation of artists in Denmark continued to practise a form of art which was to be suppressed in Germany from the time of the Nazi takeover. The young Danes mounted two large international exhibitions in Copenhagen, Cubism-Surrealism in 1935 and Linien (The Line) in 1937. These can be compared with the two important New York shows of 1936: Cubism and Abstract Art and Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism. These four exhibitions were the biggest pre-war surveys of modern European art (whose sky was soon to be blacked out). The young Danish artists had managed to bring together a selection of outstanding works by Kandinsky, Mondrian, Klee, Arp, Dali, Tanguy, Ernst, Miro and others. Their own works hung alongside those of the European masters whom they had themselves visited in studios and galleries in Paris.
The two Danish exhibitions were unique in their composition and quality (though the artistic level was in inverse ratio to the public response!). The shows were not only the result of direct contact with the most important artistic ideas of the interwar years, but they also showed that lessons had been learnt from these contacts. For instance, the new generation in Denmark did not find it necessary to choose between the opposing schools of the twenties. What had been separated into two exhibitions in New York was here, in both shows, merged. Admittedly, the 1935 exhibition was partly tracing the development from Cubism to Surrealism and partly programmatically Surrealist, but the 1937 Line show demonstrated clearly that the movements were seen as being parallel. To the young Danes, Kandinsky's abstract works and Tanguy's unreal beaches, Giacometti's figures and Miro's signs were all equally attractive.
The Line group included the painters Richard Mortensen, Ejler Bille, Carl-Henning Pedersen, Egill Jacobsen and the sculptor Sonja Ferlov Mancoba. At the 1937 exhibition they were joined by a young provincial, a couple of years younger than themselves, called Asger Jørgensen, later known as Jorn.
Jorn came from an area of Jutland that was bereft of art. Jorn's father, faced with the choice of being either a preacher or a teacher chose the latter. He married another teacher, had six children, and died early. Because the children were to receive the same education as their parents, the family moved to the town of Silkeborg in Central Jutland in 1929. Silkeborg was a town with a railway station, over 12.000 inhabitants, and in that alone quite different from the villages where the family had lived so far. In Silkeborg there were two newspapers, a good library, several schools, a teacher training college, and even a circle of artists, gathered around the painter Martin Kaalund Jørgensen. Jorn quickly attached himself to this artist and began to paint under the influence of his powerful, expressionistic style. A critic's comment on one of Kaalund's main works, a large portrait which Jorn remembered many years later, said: »The picture is the most natural, the simplest thing in the world, a happy outpouring of male strength and spirit. It is painted with palette knife and broad brush, a violent simplification of form and a high concentration of color. The remarkable thing is that this picture, so tough and direct in approach, slowly rises before one's eye, then moves away in space and time...«
From such an encounter with form and style, marked by influences from Cezanne, van Gogh and Munch, Jorn began to paint portraits and landscapes of his own.
He made his debut in Silkeborg in 1933 with two small paintings, one of which was a portrait of the syndicalist and workers' leder Christian Christensen, who was to be of lifelong significance to Jorn. In the midsixties, in gratitude for the philosophical and political insights he had received, Jorn erected a large memorial stone to Christian Christensen in Silkeborg.

Jorn's first graphic works also date from 1933. They were a set of strongly politico-satirical engravings which exposed the crude side of some of the traditional carols and hymns which were (and still are) an important element in the folk culture of Central and West Jutland.
With his teacher training finished in 1935 Jorn went, the following year, to Paris. He had hoped to study under Kandinsky, but this was not possible since Kandinsky had no »school«. So he went instead to Fernand Léger. There he met an attitude to painting which was in strong contrast to the Expressionism he had known up to that time. In a letter from 1952 he wrote of his impressions of Léger's teaching:
»One day Pierre Loeb said to me that the ideal picture is one which is completely clear in the artist's mind before he puts a mark on the canvas, and this was, at any rate in this period ... Léger's opinion. It is the basis on which classical art is built. Therefore the setting-down of the picture on the canvas is in itself something quite unimportant. This is connected with Léger's hatred of textural effects in painting. But I love these effects. I remember that I was once told off because I had applied a thick layer of color instead of the thin and even layer that Léger wanted. To him that was not painting but mere color. If he could have got a machine instead of a brush to apply the color, he would have done so«.

Léger got Jorn several commissions in order to help him both financially and artistically. Amongst other works Jorn, with two other pupils, was responsible for the execution of Léger's large composition Le transport des forces in 1937. Jorn painted the large soft forms which move upwards through the picture. Traces of these forms can be seen distinctly in Jorn's own compositions from the same year.
Thanks to Léger, Jorn assisted Le Corbusier on the Pavillon des temps nouveaux at the 1937 Paris World's Fair. Jorn had to enlarge a child's drawing to a big format, to be used at the entrance to the pavillon.
Rene Renne and Claude Serbanne were among the first critics to write extensively about Jorn. They noted the satirical element in many of his works from the late thirties:
»Like Miro before him he uses an uncompromising graphic line to produce a caricature image which is caustic and dry«.
Jorn, however, did not allow himself to get trapped either in satire or in the abstract movement's penchant for line and pure form. He merely toyed with these possibilities. In some of his sketchbooks from 1936-37 he practised the motifs and compositions he had found in Kandinsky, El Lissitsky and De Stijl. The sketches are drawn with a ruler and compass in India ink, and titled on the notebook covers: Essays in planes and basic forms and Tensions between straight and curved lines.
Sometimes Jorn borrowed a particular feature of Leger's technique, as when he tinted a canvas in order to work on a colored or tinted base instead of the white gesso. The component of the picture were then imposed on this background either as linear shapes or as outlines colored in. The forms could be modeled plastically or the plane could be emphasized.
Textural asceticism went against the grain and Jorn also fretted at being made to correlate line and form, but he did not yet know how to free himself from these restrictions. One method was to work with accidental shapes, and this was to become a lifelong preoccupation. But in the beginning the techniques of Surrealism were put to good use: Collage, frottage, color sprayed on paper with an airbrush or floated on the surface of a bowl of water and lifted off on paper. Another way to break the link between line and plane was by what Arp called the "square-eyed" method or alternately, with Dali, putting one drawing on top of another, using transparent paper. Jorn had availed himself of all these methods and experiments by 1940.

He used collage for a set of unpublished illustrations for The Stolen Chest of Drawers, a book by the Danish poet Jens August Schade. Schade had created a glittering narrative that roamed all over the globe, in the air and on land simultaneously, in the subconcious and in realistic environments. Jorn merely had to take him literally! And if the collages resembled those of the Surrealists (especially perhaps Max Ernst's Une semaine de bonte or La femme cent tetes, which had inspired the young Danish artists from the time they were first published) they are at the same time completely compatible with Schade's lyrical prose.
Jorn used Dali's overlay technique in order to dissolve the shapes of his drawings, not to evoke clashes between the shapes. Later in the forties he was glad that he could use this method in his encounter with the Danish psychoanalyst Sigurd Næsgaard, who took it upon himself to relate various shapes he found in Danish abstract art to specific psychological »complexes«. (In this Næsgaard was partly influenced by Wilhelm Reich, who had stayed a short while in Denmark and whose lectures had been attended by some of the Line artists). Jorn had certainly been under analysis with several of Næsgaard's pupils and possibly the man himself, but he nevertheless reacted against Næsgaard's interpretation of art.
To test Næsgaard's thesis, Jorn took one of his own drawings with a complex interlaced pattern and he then asked a number of artists to pick out what they considered to be the basic pattern. The drawing had been produced almost automatically and ought therefore to contain some »basic« feature. In the event Jorn received as many different »basic patterns« as there were artists! Whatever the basic theme (if any) might be it was impossible to isolate it.
Jorn attached great importance to this experiment. Even after he had published the results in an article, he continued with his inquiries. He drew the attention of Renne and Serbanne to the matter when they were writing about his drawings in the late forties end he explained the experiment to Guy Atkins in the sixties. Jorn's basic conclusion was that a picture is essentially ambivalent. It is not susceptible to just one particular interpretation or reading. This insight carried him beyond satire and beyond the dogmatic non-figurative attitudes at the beginning of his career. Moreover, it was the principal point of view he was to develop consciously in his works of the fifties and sixties.

»Groupez-vous«, said Leger to Scandinavian pupils in the twenties when they left Paris to return home. Jorn did not need Leger's prompting. In The Line he had seen an example of how mutual discussion and a vigorous exchange of ideas had enlivened and transformed the Danish art scene. But already at that first exhibition in 1937 he found himself at loggerheads with the outstanding personality in the group, Richard Mortensen. Jorn's own position was much closer to one of the other leading members, Ejler Bille. In the early forties Bille developed a free allover manner of composition which made a great impact on Jorn. Bille was also a critic, and at the end of the war he published a collection of articles ranging from Oceanic art to Henri Laurens, Picasso and the Surrealists.
Jorn often joined forces with other artists in exhibitions, magazines or in sharing studios, but as one of his contemporaries said, »He was not really a 'group person'. He was an egocentric who could do everything by himself, but only after things had developed to the point where there was no longer any need for a group«.
During the war Jorn was the driving force behind the publication of the magazine Helhesten (The Hell Horse). It printed articles on art, literature, archaeology, film, ethnography, etc. When the first number came out nobody knew what would be the attitude of the German occupation forces. The number contained an obituary on Paul Klee, whose pictures had been removed from German galleries and destroyed. Moreover, the name of the magazine contained (to the initiated) a sly dig at the German Occupying power. But nobody interfered with the magazine which ran until 1944 when it ceased publication for financial reasons.
Few of the articles in The Hell Horse have any value as original research, but today they give a vivid impression of a particular circle of people and their interests. The mixture of original lithographs coupled with reproductions and the breadth of subject matter later inspired the Dutch Reflex magazine and the international Cobra review.
Five years without a chance to travel abroad, without foreign exibitions or information on art events in other countries, combined with the pressure placed on everyone by the war, produced a closeknit community of artists in Denmark. It was not only artists of the same generation who came closer together, but the bond managed to span the generation gap. In his notes from those years Jorn proposed the idea of combining features of Danish art from the twenties and thirties with the Abstract and Surrealist styles. The Danish art to which he was referring was based on simplified landscape painting with a strong emphasis on color.
It was not unnatural (in view of what has been said) that the »spontaneous abstract« group should exhibit jointly with a number of figurative artists in the Corner-Høst art association during and just after the war. At the end of the war this association received a questionnaire from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Museum was trying to piece together a picture of what had been happening in those countries with whom contact had been lost during the war. Jorn applied himself with enthusiasm to answering the questionnaire. He collected photographs as well as some original works to send off. The Danish association compiled a statement which summarized their views on the developments that had taken place.
The text which clearly bears the stamp of Jorn's ideas drew a distinction between »automatic« abstraction and »constructive« abstraction. The text ran:
»The greatest difficulty arose when transferring the spontaneous method from drawing to painting. If the picture were to be drawn on the canvas spontaneously then the color would inevitably be trapped inside the drawing and unable to expand naturally. Our most difficult and important achievement, which has given our art its special flavor, is the breakthrough to a liberation of the color element, and so to painterly spontaneity«.
Jorn was also looking for what he called an »empty creation«. In a conversation he told Pierre Loeb that his own goal was »to be completely empty of ideas at the moment of setting brush to canvas, the head being just as empty as the canvas«. Renne and Serbanne touch on the same attitude - undoubtedly with one of Jorn's examples in mind - in their text of 1947.
»A child draws and paints alongside itself, on a parallel course. In doing so it neither liberates nor deliberates; the child is not creating, the object itself is creating; it's not a matter of internal necessity (Kandinsky), but of external necessity, which may in fact be the truer of the two«.
»Alongside pure creation, i.e. empty creation (which is devoid of art), there exists a conscious creation (even if it's of an automatic order)...«.
Serbanne and Renne then quote Max Ernst who presented the problem in the opposite way. In his picture "Surrealism and painting« a mythical gargoyle traces a succession of straight lines and curves on a canvas to represent »pure design«. At this stage Jorn adheres to automatism and ambiguity as his guidelines, in preference to using motifs and figures as carriers of meaning. In 1947 Jorn wrote of modern art in Paris:
»lt seems to me that today the Surrealist crisis is the central problem in French art. It is essential for future development that this crisis should be solved... The principal error in the aesthetic program of Surrealism is that it is too literary. Painters have experimented with visions, images, dreams, but not with painting, not with color... The unpainterliness of Surrealism has inevitably produced a reaction among younger painters«.
Here he was not thinking of Danish artists, but of painters such as Bazaine, Esteve, Lapique, Singier and Le Moal. He suggests there should be reciprocity: »These artists cannot get any further unless they absorb the lessons of Surrealism into their painting, just as Surrealists can only advance if they adopt the painterly methods of the other group«.
This was Jorn's position in 1947 when he joined in the debate that was taking place within the French Surrealist movements, e.g. Surrelisme-Revolutionnaire. A year later he walked out of an art conference in Paris. With a handful of Dutchmen, Belgians and a single Frenchman the Cobra .group (COpenhague-BRuxelles-Amsterdam) was formed. Among the founders were Appel, Constant and the author Christian Dotremont. Jorn's aim in Cobra was to merge the Danish notion of »spontaneous abstraction« with the »painterly« aesthetic.
In the many thousands of pages of Jorn's writings one looks more or less in vain for any substantial reference that would explain the content or context of most of his paintings from the fifties and sixties. The problem of »empty creation« with which he had struggled during the period before Cobra now gave way to dominant »figures« and »motifs« which obtruded themselves even before the picture was born. Time after time these characters interfered in the automatic proces.

In 1952-53 Jorn painted three pictures as a »decoration« for the Library at Silkeborg. Two of them were called On the Silent Myth and the other The Wheel of Life. Many private symbols and references were incorporated in these paintings. The large number of sketches and smaller related studies point to at longstanding preoccupation with particular themes. In his speech when he pre¬sented the pictures to the Library he referred to Johannes V. Jensen, the Danish writer of novels that combined history with legend. Against the vocal myth Jorn set the silent myth, i.e. the visual image.
Around this time Jorn came under the renewed influence of Munch; In On the Silent Myth there are traces of Munch's landscapes, especially in the way in which the forms are enclosed within colored contours and in the choice of the actual colors. Other pictures from the same period, e.g. Manly Resistance, are also reminiscent of Munch, whose memorial exhibition in Copenhagen in 1946 had made a powerful impression at the time. The grouping of pictures into thematic cycles also points to Munch.
In his commentary on The Silent Myth series Jorn again rejected the idea that a picture could be explained by its content or interpreted in a single direction. Yet from this time onward a new set of figures which could be called »recognizable« begin to appear in his paintings.
In 1953 he made a small ceramic vase with four figures, which he gave to his wife. The figures can be read clearly as two adults and two children. One of the figures is haggard with a kind of gash in its chest, a reference to Jorn's recent recovery from severe tuberculosis. The mother-and-children theme also runs through several paintings and drawings. Picture titles such as En Famille, You were like that (with a portrait of the artist's mother) and Letter to my Son show that the private sphere is directly involved. In picture after picture one finds distinct and recognizable types of »the father« and »the child«. One of the figures in Letter to my Son the frequently recurrent »spectator«, is repeated in an independent lithograph.
In some versions Jorn looks at family life ironically as a source of discord and conflict, mitigated by the need for co-existence, as in the child-adult relationship. Lovers are shown as alternately hostile and affectionate, with a shifting dominance between the two partners.
Now and then ironical and satirical overtones occur as in Unwelcome Visit or Doggie to Missie, which are seen elsewhere with menace. This type of reference culminat¬ed around 1956-58.
»Portraits« of known and unknown persons (collectors, art dealers, artists and friends) contain references that are sometimes private and esoteric but more often open. An interesting case in his portrayal of the French literary historian and philosopher Gaston Bachelard. Each picture is like the memory of a person whose features one is trying to recall. The face floats before the inner eye without sharp definition yet with a convincing »likeness«. The portrait of his mother You were like that is painted in the same way.
Such factors point to Jorn's kinship with Nordic Expressionism, of which he became more aware after he left Denmark in 1953.

The serious bout of illness at the beginning of the fifties left its mark on Jorn's temperament. In a letter to Werner Haftmann in the early sixties he referred to a composition from 1951 called The Eagle's Share, to which he returned in a series of versions. This painting, he said, expressed anxiety at several levels, personal and universal.
In Alpha and Omega he said about the Nordic concept of Expressionism:
»Nordic art casts a spell on the mind which ranges from laughter to tears and from tears to violent rage. One can see how dangerous it is, we can be tyrannized by a cynical person endowed with the power of art. Much has been said about this demonic aspect. In it lies the ultimate demand that the artist must take responsibility for the states of mind that he produces, or at least he must answer for them by knowing them in his own person. This psychic demand in both the artist and the viewer has made Expressionist art so hated by devotees of aestheticism and formalism«.
Jorn had hardly come to terms with his figurative repertoire when he began to feel hostile towards it. He often returned and overpainted parts of a picture: usually only the edges or background of a canvas, but he was capable of throwing synthetic paint over parts of the figure compositions (during the fifties) in a quasidestructive gesture. A prime target was the big composition from 1956, The Retreat from Russia (La ritirata di Russia). A year later he obliterated the whole surface under a layer of white, which he applied with a roller or similar implement. From now on subject matter and style became more closely equated. After several years of work Jorn finally gave the picture its title Stalingrad.
The starting point in 1956 had been the stories told to him by an Italian friend, Umberto Gambetta, who had served with an Italian regiment in front of Stalingrad. Afterwards followed years of detention in Russian prisoner-of-war camps - experiences that few men survived. References to these events were recorded on the original canvas (now obliterated) causing Gambetta to speak of the picture as »my portrait«. Jorn thereupon blotted out the specific personal references in order to increase the universal validity of the painting. He often returned to this canvas, the last time being a few months before his death, when he added a series of black dots (representing houses) to the troubled scene.
Stalingrad is a work, perhaps Jorn's only one, which is marked by pathos. The opposite applies to the experiments he made from 1959 onwards in overpainting old pictures bought in the flea market. The first series consisted of landscapes peopled by fantastic monsters and other intruders. In his notebook Jorn called these pictures »kitsch«, and it was only later that they got their French name, Modifications. In 1962 he exhibited a new series consisting exclusively of portraits in which the amiable physiognomies of the bourgeoisie were transformed into ill-favored grotesques. The women were sor-rounded by snarling beasts which beset them or swallowed them up, transforming them into one of Jorn's favourite themes »the animal in woman«. The pictures were intended as a provocation, which gives some of them an unprecedented severity which still has a strong effect. Jorn also satirised the concept of the avant-garde: in one of the pictures a girl candidate for confirmation is given a moustache, and on the wall behind her, addressed to admirers of Duchamp, is written The avant-garde does not surrender (I'avant-garde ne se rend pas). The modifications had the curious side effect of alienating Jorn once more from figuration. This can be seen in a series from the early sixties, which he called Luxury Paintings.

In the Luxury Paintings Jorn, fully conscious of the timelag, took up features from action painting and tachisme. He used synthetic paint, which he poured or dripped over the canvas or applied with string dipped in color. Nearly all these pictures lie on the extreme borderline of figuration. Jorn is here Combining former notions of the »empty« creation and automatism with his current aesthetic. When figures were on the point of emerging, he refrained from clarifying them, so that they remained in the shadowland of the subconscious.
He also used the Luxury Paintings to explore notions .on color theory, for instance by reducing the main colors in relation to subsidiary ones. These notions were inspired partly by an essay of 1890 on the nature of color by the Danish art historian Julius Lange and partly by the theories of Philipp Otto Runge earlier in the nineteenth century. While he was working on the Luxury Paintings, he was discussing these topics in his book De divisione naturae.
Jorn's many experiments were not undertaken at random. He would deliberately return to subjects and problems which he had abandoned in an earlier phase. In the pictures of the sixties and seventies he moved freely between alternatives such as figuration and automatism, mythic figuration and improvisation, not in classical composure but in dynamic tension.
In his later mature works it is often not at all easy to identify elements that are related to actual events, but a biographical element of some sort is nevertheless seldom far away. When irony and satire are involved, they are as a rule so sensuously embedded in the color, fabric and composition that the result rises above the »occasion«. The misogynistic and misanthropic view of human relations shown in many of the works of the early fifties has later lost its bitterness and self-irony.

In the best works of the sixties until the artist's death, color has at last achieved the autonomy which he had so long sought. Now it is the surge of color that dictates the composition - color which in the late works is cleaner and stronger than ever before. Now and then broad brushstrokes appear, done with a brush the same size as that used by Japanese calligraphers. Line drawing is often introduced as a final stage, with pure color applied straight from the tube to bring out a figure. Sometimes a painting is as clearly built up as in certain litographs: the base is first tinted, then each individual color is disposed in dif¬ferent areas of the plane, as if applied on different stones. The packed, texturally aggressive canvases are rare in the last years. It is more a shift in viscosity from a thin turpentine-fluid color to a denser surface controlled by the palette knife - variations within a limited range.
In the last years, too, Jorn moved over to other media: lithography, engraving, woodcut and, in the very last year, to sculpture modeled in clay and cast in bronze or carved from marble. These figures, too, by presenting a different aspect from every new angle, demonstrated Jorn's extraordinary power of vision, that enabled him to conjure up endless fresh images.


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