Asger Jorn Artworks
Danish Painter and Sculptor
Vejrum, Jutland, Egtved, Denmark
Progression of Art
The Wheel of Life: January Picture of the Seasons Cycle
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."
Oil on hardboard - SMK (National Gallery of Denmark)
Le Faux Rire (Image Tragi-Comique)
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."
Oil on canva - Cobra Museum of Modern Art, Amstelveen
Letter to My Son
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).
Oil on canvas - Tate Galleries, London
The Timid Proud One
A large, hazily-defined green figure, captured from the shoulders upwards, dominates the frame of this painting. Large eyes and a horizontal mouth are indicated by crude orbs and two rough slashes of white. In the lower-right corner, a smaller figure is rendered in blue, red, and yellow. Though their presence is unmistakable, these forms also seem somehow to have emerged by accident from the primordial mass of color surrounding them: as if they were the expressions of fleeting, unselfconscious thoughts and impulses passing through the artist's head during composition.
Although this painting was created some years after the CoBrA group disbanded, it exemplifies the child-like style that Jorn and other CoBrA artists embraced as a way of liberating their art from "repressive bourgeois conventions". At the same time, as in his studies of laughter and childish perception, Jorn's rawness of expression belies the complexity of the emotional and social states conveyed. Within this work, as in the title, there are several dualities present. Jorn himself explained that "[t]ension in a work of art is negative-positive: repulsive-attractive, ugly-beautiful. If one of these poles is removed, only boredom is left." It is perhaps primarily a mixture of the comic and the powerful - the gawky and imposing, friendly and fearsome - that is crystallized in image of the looming central bust.
It is worth noting the obvious connections that can be drawn between this work and the Art Brut ("Raw Art") aesthetic being championed by the artist Jean Dubuffet in France during the 1950s. For Dubuffet, as for the CoBrA artists, "academic art" represented the corrupted tastes of the cultural establishment: it was in the worldview of the "outsider" - the child, the prisoner, the mental patient - that a truly radical, liberated form of expression could be found. In The Timid Proud One, Jorn seems to be emulating this "outsider" both in form and content, the combined qualities of timidity and pride perhaps summing up the idea of the idiot savant.
Oil on board - Tate Galleries, London
Le Canard Inquiétant ("The Disquieting Duckling")
This work serves as an example of Jorn's "modifications", created by painting on pre-existing works purchased at flea markets. In this piece, the original painting remains untouched on the left-hand side, with a small country cottage visible amongst a cluster of trees. The right-hand side of the work is dominated by a comically enormous, multi-colored duckling, depicted with Jorn's usual childlike exuberance. The work and title allude to Hans Christian Andersen's well-known fairytale "The Ugly Duckling", in which a swan is raised by a family of ducks, spending its youth feeling alienated because of its obvious physical difference from the rest of its adopted family. Jorn emphasizes this out-of-placeness through the duckling's ludicrous size in relation to its environment.
It has been noted by various scholars that Jorn expressed 'vandalistic' tendencies through much of his work, and never more so than through his modifications. He also wrote extensively on the topic of artistic vandalism, praising it as a means of critiquing the inflated value placed on "high art". Through the act of vandalism, the artwork is at destroyed and created anew: its value is at once undermined and redefined (the aptness of the ugly-duckling/swan analogy is clear). Such gestures are closely related to the idea of "détournement", a lynchpin of the Situationist philosophy which Jorn helped to define. As the Situationists wrote in their 1959 publication Détournement as Negation and Prelude, detournement involves "the reuse of preexisting (artistic) elements in a new ensemble...The two fundamental laws of détournement are the loss of importance of each détourned autonomous element - which may go so far as to completely lose its original sense - and at the same time the organization of another meaningful ensemble that confers on each element its new scope and effect."
In the spirit of détournement, Jorn and the Situationists worked to demonstrate that so-called 'lower' forms of art, such as kitsch, folk-art, handicrafts, and the art of children and the insane, should be viewed as holding artistic merit equal to, if not greater than, "high" art. At an exhibition of some his modifications, Jorn pronounced that: "[i]n this exhibition I erect a monument in honor of bad painting. Personally, I like it better than good painting. But above all, this monument is indispensable, both for me and for everyone else. It is painting sacrificed. This sort of offering can be done gently the way doctors do it when they kill their patients with new medicines that they want to try out. It can also be done in barbaric fashion, in public and with splendor. This is what I like. I solemnly tip my hat and let the blood of my victims flow while intoning Baudelaire's hymn to beauty." As Jorn perhaps hoped, many viewers were outraged by what they perceived as disrespectful acts of destruction toward the original painters.
Oil on canvas - Museum Jorn, Silkeborg
In the Beginning was the Image
This highly abstracted image is dominated by primary colors: reds, yellows, blues. A sense of swirling movement is created at the center, with larger fields of single colors emerging toward the outer edges, generating the impression of a kind of primordial soup from which various distinct forms are emerging. Faces seem to emanate around the bottom of the image, with other formations suggesting the scratched animal cave-paintings of humanity's earliest ancestors. Above all else, this work seems to suggest an attempt to access a kind of thought-before-words, uncorrupted by the socialized realm of language. The titular reworking of the Biblical line "In the Beginning was the Word" obviously gestures towards this attempt.
The critic Ruth Baumeister goes further, arguing that through this image, Jorn "is claiming that the image is more important than thought...given the fact that he articulated this during the 1950s, you can also argue that he demanded to give art preference over science or, at least tried to change the relation between the two by diminishing the dominant functionalism of science." There are clear links between Jorn's (inferred) line of thinking and his friend Guy Debord's theorizing on the "Society of the Spectacle", in which, according to Debord, authentic social interactions have been replaced with mere representation.
This is an important work exemplary of the strength of Jorn's later output as a painter. Indeed, though he is often thought of as an artist of the 1950s - central to the rebirth of abstraction which that decade witnessed - many critics contend that Jorn's best work was produced in the sixties. In a co-authored article, artist Axel Heil and critic Roberto Ohrt note that: "[a]nyone familiar with Jorn's painting...would surely say it was during the period after 1960 that Jorn made pictures with an intensity, lightness, strength, and grace unequaled by any other artist. In terms of effect, these pictures were puzzling, almost dazzling, but also unbelievably direct, full of stimuli. They encountered and touched the senses with their extreme materiality."
Acrylic on canvas