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Asger Jorn

Danish Painter and Sculptor

Asger Jorn Photo
Born: March 3, 1914
Vejrum, Jutland, Egtved, Denmark
Died: May 1, 1973
Aarhus, Denmark
Life is the purpose of art.
Asger Jorn Signature

Summary of Asger Jorn

Asger Jorn was one of the most talented painters of the 1950s, and one of the most talented abstract artists of any era. Training under such luminaries as Wassily Kandinsky and Fernand Léger, he went on to fundamentally influence the development of Abstraction in the post-war period as a fellow traveler of European movements such as Art Informel. He was also a cofounder of both the CoBrA and Situationist International groups, both of which were central to the emergence of a new, politically radical artistic credo during the 1960s. As such, Jorn's work represents a vital bridge between the advances of the early twentieth century and the re-emergence of avant-garde sensibilities in the later decades of the twentieth century.

Key Ideas

Biography of Asger Jorn

Asger Jorn Life and Legacy

Asger Oluf Jørgensen was born in Vejrum, in the western part of Jutland, to teacher parents. Jorn's father, Lars Peter, died suddenly in a car crash in 1926, and in 1929 his mother, Maren Jørgensen, moved with her six children to Silkeborg, to further her own education and to try to make a better living for her children. In Silkeborg, Jorn joined the boy scouts.

Important Art by Asger Jorn

The Wheel of Life: January Picture of the Seasons Cycle (1953)

The Wheel of Life: January Picture of the Seasons Cycle (1953)

This painting is composed in such a way as to invite a circular reading: not only of the canvas itself, but of the human lifecycle which it represents. The bottom quarter of the image is composed of green, brown, and red earth tones, with blue, skeletal-looking human forms buried within the bedrock. Moving clockwise toward the left-central portion of the painting, we find more small blue figures, but these ones float upwards toward a large yellow sun: as if enacting a process of growth and nourishment. To the right of the sun is a blue and white moon, above which we find slightly larger, pink figures. If the bodies below seem embryonic or childlike, these larger forms perhaps represent the adult phases of life. Moving our eyes back downwards, across the right-hand side of the painting, we find an array of disembodied smiling phases, picked out in blues, greens, and yellows: life becomes spectral, or insubstantial. The life-cycle is completed as our gaze is drawn back downwards, to the buried bodies below.

Many of Jorn's works from this period deal with the cycle of life and death, but, like the figures represented in this work, that cycle somehow seems more than merely human: instead, these works seem to present human life as one facet of a greater, Universal order. Perhaps this partly represented a sort of cosmic stoicism in the phase of suffering. Jorn created his first wheel-of-life painting in 1951, while quarantined at the Silkeborg Sanatorium undergoing treatment for tuberculosis. That first image, for Jorn, represented his own return to life after being gravely ill: just as Europe was reemerging into life after the horrors of the Second World War. The work pictured here was intended as one of a series of twelve, though the project was never completed.

The wheel of life motif was also inspired by a similar motif that commonly appears on medieval Danish churches, in which the stages of life from birth to death are arranged around a wheel. As the curator Dorthe Aagesen, explains, "[i]n the Middle Ages, the wheel of life had a moralizing objective: it served as a reminder that our luck can turn and that death is inevitable." For Jorn, the work "might look rather confused, but in actual fact it is all very carefully composed. I have included two large spectral circles in the picture; obviously, they contain all colors - as indeed they should, because this is about every aspect of life."

Le Faux Rire (Image Tragi-Comique) (1954)

Le Faux Rire (Image Tragi-Comique) (1954)

As its title might suggest - translating as "The Fake Laugh (Tragic-Comic Image)" - this painting represents laugher. An abstract, multi-colored, two-faced figure is shown in an awkward, half-reclining position, apparently holding one arm up in the air. Above this figure hovers a smiling yellow-orange face. The depiction of these forms, as with so much of Jorn's work, seems at once conspicuously crude and to allude to a nuanced ontological position of some kind. The critic Karen Kurczynski notes that this work likely bore a relationship to Jorn's famous painting Stalingrad, which he began later that same year. The original title for Stalingrad was Le Fou Rire ("Mad Laughter"), which, as Kurczynski points out, may not simply refer to "the 'mad laughter of courage' in an epic battle". As a fan of puns, Jorn probably saw a link between "Le Faux Rire" and "Le Fou Rire", "Fou being a reference to an authentic expression, faux indicating irony and inauthenticity". As such, the state of emotion depicted in both works can be seen as highly complex, with few secure inferences to be drawn about their stances on their relative subject matter.

The complexity of human emotion is a central theme in many of Jorn's works, including La Double Face and Le Cri ("The Scream") (both 1960). For Kurczynski, this mixture of the comic and the tragic or repulsive is exemplary of the "grotesque", a quality associated with medieval artists and writers such as Rabelais. But complicating the duality of the tragi-comic in Jorn's painting, as Kurczynski adds, is a third "dimension", "the question of 'fake' laughter. The issue of something fake destroys any notion of authenticity and cuts through any attempt to securely define something." Indeed, this quality of ambivalence is, as Kurczynski adds, central to the particular form of grotesqueness that Jorn sought to present: "[i]t is grotesque because it fails to cohere as a recognizable group of figures. Instead it conveys the process of signification. Maybe it even conveys the process of creating humor itself, and its flipside, tragedy itself, out of the neutral facts of what happens in the world. There is also a recognition implicit here (but signified by the contradictions inherent in the title) that the process of signification is always social. So what one calls greatness, another calls tragedy, and yet another calls humor."

Another key quality of this piece is its emphasis on childlike or subversive play. This connects it to Jorn's wider artistic and political stance, and to the ethos of the CoBrA artists, for whom 'play' was a key creative and critical strategy. Kurczynski notes that "the main figure is not just laughing, but sticking out his tongue, ... a gesture of childishness, defiance, as well as disgust ... referenced earlier in CoBrA and examined in Jorn's later book La langue verte et la cuite."

Letter to My Son (1956-57)

Letter to My Son (1956-57)

This painting is strongly reminiscent of children's artwork, a 'genre' with which Jorn and his fellow CoBrA members were infatuated. It was created in homage to Jorn and Matie's son Ole, born in 1950; indeed, the original title was Brev til Ole ("Letter to Ole"). As the Tate Gallery notes, "[t]he layered composition includes at least a dozen frenetic figures (rendered in various sizes and positions), loosely delineated with great energy." Or, as the writer Guy Atkins puts it, the work "[contains] a whole corps de ballet of floating, zooming, slanting or pirouetting figures." These figures are organized along a diagonal axis, with a central focal point around which they are oriented with "a fine balance of stresses". Other abstracted forms, such as the red fire truck at the top-center, allude to the childish imagination which the artist was seeking to emulate.

This is one of several works by Jorn that deal with family and childhood, including Enfamille (1951), You Were Like That (1956), and Unwelcome Visit (1965). In a gesture exemplary of his counter-cultural worldview, it is the child's rather than the adult's stance on these relationships that Jorn seems most interested in rendering. For Jorn, the adult as authority figure was perhaps exemplary of the social institutions that he sought to critique, while the perspective of the child represented a kind of revolutionary innocence or blankness, onto which visions of alternative social states could be projected. Equally important in this work is the presence of animals: as a radical materialist, Jorn did not draw a distinction between human and animal sentence; again, their presence here therefore seems to allude to the subversive potential of unsocialized states of consciousness.

This painting was first displayed in the exhibition 50 Ans d'Art Moderne ("Fifty Years of Modern Art") at the Brussels Expo in 1958, alongside work by Willem de Kooning. Jorn's inclusion in the Brussels show was, according to Atkins, "the most important proof of his 'arrival' on the international scene." His coupling with de Kooning also suggests an awareness of the links that could be drawn not only between Jorn's work and the contemporary movement of Tachisme in France, but also with North-American Abstract Expressionism, especially in its more Primitivist, figurative manifestations (as in de Kooning's Woman I, for example).

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas

"Asger Jorn Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 29 May 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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