About Asger Jorn


Originally published in Danish as ‘Hverken abstraktion eller symbol’ in the exhibition catalogue Henri Michaux, Silkeborg Museum, Denmark, 1962, pp. 7-13.

Translator’s introduction

The Danish painter Asger Jorn (1914-1973) is probably the only artist who has attempted a ‘complete revision of the existing philosophical system’ from the standpoint of an artist. The art historian T.J. Clark (in the context of Abstract Expressionism) described him as ‘the greatest painter of the 1950s’ and he was a founding member of the Cobra group (1948-51) and the Internationale Situationniste (from 1957-1961). However, all his life he was also a prolific writer on art theory, philosophy, architecture and many other subjects. At his death, the bibliography of his published works numbered 555 items, sufficient, as his cataloguer Guy Atkins put it, ‘to gain him tenure at any university looking for a “professor of things in general”’. This total has since been augmented at least threefold by re-issues and translations as well as the publication of some of the literally thousands of pages of manuscript and typescript archived at Silkeborg Art Museum in Denmark.

Jorn was brought up in a strict Puritan Christian sect and only made significant contact with the liberal Grundvigian Christianity that has given so much to Scandinavian culture and social thinking after the age of sixteen. He trained as a high school teacher, specialising in Scandinavian literature, and his political ideas were strongly influenced by local syndicalist and communist circles. Many Scandinavian artists who came to maturity in the late thirties travelled the same path, but Jorn is unique in continuing his political and philosophical journey into first a critique of communism and then a philosophical development of artistic life in a social context.

It is in Jorn’s major texts in Danish that the full complexity of his thinking becomes clear. Jorn was a wilful and willing transgressor of any accepted mode of thinking. He wrote as he thought, darting off into byways, pausing to savour an alliteration or an irony, drawing in analogies and analyses from all sides and quoting sources appositely and arbitrarily in equal measure, before shooting off in a completely new direction. He finds both logical analysis and artistic vision suited to his purposes and switches from one to another in mid-argument. His own position on all this, ‘Rather a tangled and chaotic truth than a four-square, beautiful, symmetrical and finely chiselled lie’, could just have well been a description of his paintings. However, Jorn as a writer is best known in the wider world for his articles originally written for the Internationale Situationniste in a French described by Édouard Jaguer as ‘more picaresque than painterly’. These were often severely copy-edited, probably by Guy Debord, and some of the wonderful waywardness of his style was lost, although the main drift of his thinking was preserved.

Three main strands of his thinking can be found in the following article: the superiority of non-verbal communication, the conviction that a supposed Scandinavian way of thinking contributes something new to philosophical thought, and a system of dialectics to supersede that of dialectical materialism.

The first two are self-evident but the latter needs some explanation. From a perception of ‘thinking in threes’ by prominent Scandinavians (including Kierkegaard), Jorn developed what he called ‘triolectics’, where three ‘domains’ existed in a dialectical relationship with each other, a tri-dialectic, which never resolved, in any Hegelian way, but which sparked a flux of endless creative ideas, which could then be combined in further triolectics. The most well-known triolectic in Jorn’s system is ‘liberty-equality-fraternity’, and the reader will identify at least two triple sets in this article, the three sorts of humanism and the triad player-referee-spectator.

The usefulness of this to an artist as a justification of his way of thinking was Jorn’s answer to an increasingly scientifically regulated world, an answer that avoided the rigid and limiting trap of religion. In 1961 Jorn was enrolled in the mock-serious College of ’Pataphysics, which took the name from Jarry’s Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien of 1911, and was dedicated to ‘the science of imaginary solutions’. Jorn participated in the fun, but also took this idea seriously, for what are works of art but ‘imaginary solutions’, which can be superseded by other ‘imaginary solutions’? This leads him to his triolectic of physics-metaphysics-’pataphysics which provides a comparative critique of the cultural significance of scientific, philosophical and artistic methods.

Peter Shield

Asger Jorn

My purpose here is not to give an appreciation of the Belgian-born artist and poet Henri Michaux. I am permitting myself to write about an artist in order to place him at the centre of the artistic tendency that started here in Denmark with Bjerke Petersen’s book Symbols in abstract art.1 This book was a remarkable and paradoxical misunderstanding both of what in the modern sense are called symbols and what are called abstractions, and it is precisely this misunderstanding that make its principles so fruitful, for it concerns a third notion, deeply anchored in the Nordic art tradition, which has until now evaded the attention of art theorists.

What is abstract art? Jacques Prévert said to me the other day that it is an art that is only good when it is not abstract. One could say the same thing about the symbolic. Indeed, it is the same problem that Giersing expressed in the paradox, ‘Good art is always national. National art is always poor.’2 This means that an art completely covered by a concept, and thus purely symbolic, is always poor.

When Bjerke Petersen maintained that ‘symbols’ were always to be found in abstract art, he was on to something, but in a not completely correct way. For what he meant was that all so-called abstract art was a sign of something, was indicative. The notion of the symbolic character of abstract art developed in a close context with the psycho-analytical interpretation of symbols that Dr Sigurd Næsgaard made a speciality.3 We were all duped by the assurance with which this interpretation was carried out, while also being at the time somewhat sceptical. As a result I one day placed a scribble before my comrades amongst the painters, laid a sheet of tracing-paper over it, and asked them all to pick out what they found most important in the drawing. Each time this was something different. This experiment led to my article on ‘Ambiguities in artistic decipherment’ and the revelation of a rich variety in the comprehension of art.4 Each person comprehends a picture in his own way. The work of art thus speaks to the individual through a rapprochement, an intimate relationship that is neither abstract nor symbolic.

Language is the most practical set of symbols available to the human being when he wishes to communicate with others. However, it is precisely this unambiguous comprehensibility that limits the artistic freedom which is, for example, preserved in music. Michaux has created an enormously musical poetry. But that was not enough for him. He had run into one of the most intolerable problems in modern culture today, the limits of the languages that divide people, and decided to purify his art by going over to a purely pictorial poetry where the signs were not tied to concepts which only inhibited poetic emotions.

Such a book he called Mouvements and I see this not as a term for a study in plastic movement, but as a designation for the mental emotion that here directly communicates to all the peoples of the world through this new and at the same time primeval mode of expression.5 He is either going back to the time before the alphabet was discovered, or he is on the way towards an expression that is just as universally human as numbers or musical notation. His stay in China and the Orient in general links him to a thought process that has found the means to be far freer than ours in precisely this area.

It is strange to think that, in the same years as Henri Michaux was seeking to compose a new universal written language, I was sitting with a Danish student of Chinese attempting to progress along the same path. It is even more astonishing when one discovers that the American painter Jackson Pollock was at the same time in the same cul-de-sac. It is altogether strange to follow the tendency of modern youth to demand information in pictorial form. When one sees the colossal spread of the modern strip cartoon, one wonders why newspapers do not formulate their news in the same way. But perhaps that will come. All this demonstrates a general fatigue about language. It is not fit for contemporary purpose. This is not just a question of language limitations in a modern culture tending towards unity. There is a feeling that something direct, which cannot be expressed in words or find expression in the symbolism of the given language, is said in all images. One of the most disturbing examples of this is Henri Michaux who feels that his poetry flows more freely in the world of half abstract imagery.

I am fascinated by and placing the emphasis on the character of the sign in the art that Henri Michaux has created because it is in my opinion the expression of a quite special form of humanism, differing fundamentally from the two forms otherwise reckoned to be the only ones in existence. Erwin Panofsky states that the word humanitas arises from the setting up of an opposition between man and what is less than man, that is to say, the animal, or between man and what is more, that is to say, the conceptual.6 These two forms of humanism have led to the two definitions of the human being as homo sapiens and homo faber. The humanism in Michaux is of a quite different third kind, unlimited both up and down. It has abolished any rank or precedence and is supremely playful and universally ecstatic. The human being in Michaux’s humanism is artistic, Faustian, demonically divine, is homo ludens, the great player,7 a person who embraces all peoples from the dawning of time in human history, for whom nothing that is done, thought and said by human beings can be called ‘inhuman’ and who opens all doors. Michaux is an Odin.8

In this way, one can say that Michaux is the most popular artist of our period, so all-embracing that one can understand how impossible it is to find anything clear-cut in his work. Everything he does looks as if he was tired unto death while at the same time even the most fleeting stroke vibrates with vitality. Is this any wonder when one perceives his enormous perspective and scope?

With such an art, any connection with the idea of a line of development, a progress, is a complete absurdity, for time itself here slips into completely new dimensions. That the pictures here are dated9 must therefore be regarded with caution, for Michaux is not one of those who writes the year on his works and, indeed, even if he was, it would not mean that much. Here one has an impression of a time that could just as well flow backwards as forwards.

The game of life accords to the interests of three groups, divided by their perception of the holy. One can most value the player and what is ventured or one can place the rules of the game and the referee who sits in judgement the highest. Lastly one can place one’s own entertainment as spectator, and thus the result of the game, highest, demanding that the game be played for oneself in the way that entertains one most. One of the things that most surprised the Romans in their encounter with the people of the North in antiquity was the for them quite meaningless respect for the game and the player, an attitude we still carry deepest down in our soul to this day. Strangely enough this attitude could be perceived as a lack of interest in the game because we do not interrupt and shout. We feel obliged to wait until the game is over in order to shape our monument, which then becomes the only thing that means anything and which is unshakeable. In artistic evaluation this is an enormous hindrance, for no one knows what is to come that could explain or invalidate all that has hitherto been done. This impedes the fruitful evaluations that make the art of the past so vital. It would not surprise me if it was the people of the North who spread the worship of saints with the greatest intensity in Europe.

I would also say that in the North artistic evaluations are immensely slow to take shape, but once formulated they remain so incredibly fixed. This way of treating art could cause one to believe that it is just reaction and that the conclusion reached is a received evaluation. However, when one digests the weight of the final utterance of this judgement, it will be seen that the considerations have been matured rather than borrowed.

If one only sees this side of the matter, then one has not prepared oneself for the surprises that this exaggerated respect for the game can offer, for it is here the opposite and complementary tendency lies hidden, namely the taste for the risky, for the reckless, the completely unconsidered leap out into the unknown, that dangerous characteristic of the Northerners that can be confused with foolishness and indifference. I find in many ways this characteristic again in Michaux. If Michaux believes in a god, then it is the same one as Tycho Brahe’s god, the great fellow player,10 a perception only an all-embracing Nordic humanism can control and which otherwise would fall into the principle ‘Gott mit uns’.11 An artistic religiosity irreconcilable with any form of ‘moral rearmament’ (apart from the purely poetic, as cultivated in the Salvation Army).

Michaux will not allow himself to be photographed and there is therefore no portrait of him here. As a rule, he does not sign his pictures and when he does, it is literally just an illegible dot. But however great his self-effacement is in his surroundings, then it is with just as great a sovereignty that his works develop. Indeed, one can see that here.12 I am now falling into precisely what I did not want to do. Ah well, there is nothing for it. I did not want to show with words how much and in what way I value Michaux, but I have nevertheless done something in that direction. This is an artist who is backed up by his great oeuvre, and a couple of words for or against will make little difference. I anticipate that more people will come to share my opinion.

The reason that I place great emphasis on explaining visual art’s relationship to written language is because written language arose as a particular grouping of images, of hieroglyphics given a precise symbolic character. A great deal has been said about the significance of this discovery to mankind as it created the foundation for the period of the writing of history. At the same time, visual art became liberated from a function that was the direct message, and this was seen by many as an advance, for the work of art is now perceived as pure form. When the camera replaced visual art’s function as a reproducer of portraits, popular life and nature, then this too was seen as an advance towards a purer art. In the same way, modern machine-made architecture without ornament was seen as a liberation of art from its decorative duties. Today art has no other tasks whatsoever than to be the direct expression of the human communicated through the artist’s own humanity. In this way, modern art today has perhaps become the last point from which the human being can raise himself above the external world he has more and more relinquished to the automatic self-control of mechanics. This artistic humanism has become the key to an all-embracing exchange of experiences that knows no bounds of either language or politics or convictions, to a truly cosmopolitan mental fellowship.

It therefore detaches itself from any ideas of external progress and collects itself under human originality and seeks originality in an art to which all original tasks are returned, but in a quite new and universal way. Here artists like Dubuffet, Henri Michaux, Jackson Pollock, Wols and many others have begun to construct a world of pure humanity which hopefully will not develop into an antagonism to other human beings but into a superiority over a world of things, where the new world takes the shape of a mechanism that can only be controlled by the materialisation of forms, that can be felt as a higher step, as pure humanity, that becomes an expression of pure art.

Art is inspired by human intelligence and thought, but at the same time must always fight the tendency towards being abolished by principles. Before and just after the war, it was threatened by abstraction and this led to the completely empty pictorial surface on which there was nothing to see, where everything was inner meditation. Today we will come to experience an opposing tendency that, for example, the Lettrists have already attempted to draw out into an unartistic and dead system, namely symbolism. This has also been dug up again from the religious side, especially in France and the United States. If the petrification of the perception of art into this dogmatism can be avoided, then we are perhaps standing before the most fruitful epoch of art in human history. Henri Michaux is one of those who has opened up this perspective.

Translated by Peter Shield


1 Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen, Symboler i abstrakt kunst, Copenhagen 1933. Bjerke Petersen (1909-1957) was a leading Danish Surrealist artist and theorist.

2 Harald Giersing (1881-1927), Danish painter much influenced by trends in the French painting of his time. The aphorism is collected in Harald Giersing, Om Kunst, Copenhagen, 1934, p. 34.

3 Sigurd Næsgaard (1883-1956), Danish Freudian psychiatrist who strongly influenced the group of Danish artists around Jorn in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

4 The article was actually called ‘Upon the relationship between automatism and the spontaneous vision against the background of pictorial significance’ and was published in the book Vilhelm Serber (ed.), Interessant Nutids-kunst, Copenhagen, 1948, wrongly attributed to Sigurd Næsgaard (see note 3). All the drawings derived from Jorn’s scribble were reproduced in the Danish magazine CRAS (Silkeborg), no. 37, 1984, pp. 27-45.

5 Henri Michaux, Mouvements, Paris, 1951.

6 Jorn took this theme from the first few pages of Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, New York, 1955, an annotated copy of which can still be found in his library now in the archives of Silkeborg Art Museum, Denmark.

7 The Danish word spiller can mean either a player or a gambler and it is clear that here (as in other texts) Jorn is using it in both senses.

8 Odin was ‘the father of the gods, the god of poetry, the god of the dead, of war, of magic, of runes, of ecstasy.’ Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, Cambridge, UK, 1993, p.240.

9 This refers to the exhibition catalogue in which the essay originally appeared: Henri Michaux, Silkeborg Museum, Denmark, 1962. The publication included a representative selection of illustrations by Michaux.

10 Because a nova appeared in the sky and then faded away in 1572, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) considered that God had not stopped creating after the six-day Creation, and was thus still actively changing his universe.

11 ‘God with us’: the military motto of Prussia and later Germany, also used by the soldiers of the Wehrmacht in World War II.

12 See note 9.


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