Asger Jorn the Octopus

one of the greatest Danish 20th century artists

By Stine Høholt

The master painter who became one of the greatest Danish 20th century artists. Asger Jorn was around and about – and all through life engaged in the pursuit of new artistic expression. The result was explosions of colour and form. Festive, imaginative and accessible. Jorn was tireless and relentless in his rebellion against the conformity of art.

Asger Jorn is the Danish answer to Jackson Pollock – America’s first true artist celebrity. Some years ago, the American art historian Timothy J. Clark even went as far as proclaiming Asger Jorn to be the most important painter of the 1950s. Proclamations come cheap but it’s hard to think of an artist who has had greater influence on 20th century Danish art than Asger Jorn. He has international stature – like few other Danish artists. Jorn is to art what Jørn Utzon – the Danish architect who designed the Sydney Opera House – is to architecture.

Jorn’s work has been exhibited extensively both in Denmark and abroad, and with current newfound interest in painting, he is perhaps more contemporary than ever.


New large Jorn exhibition

A retrospective exhibition of Asger Jorn’s works will be on show at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art from 14 September 2002 until 19 January 2003. The exhibition will feature both well-known and lesser-known aspects of Jorn’s extensive production. With more than 200 works of art, this Jorn exhibition is the largest ever held in Denmark. Exhibits are on loan from art museums, galleries and private collections in Denmark and abroad.

Jorn enjoyed international acclaim for the last 15 years of his life. However, he didn’t become truly famous until after his death in 1973 – a fame that is likely to grow even further. When Jorn’s painting In the Beginning was the Picture (1965) was sold at auction in New York recently, it fetched € 2.2 million, which makes it the most expensive painting ever by a Danish artist. This painting is one of the main attractions at the exhibition.


Asger Jorn the myth

The life of Asger Jorn was made of the stuff myths are created of. It was guided by a mixture of hard work, intense feats of art collaboration, poverty, a chaotic family life and explosions of spirited artistic experimentation.

Jorn was born in 1914 in the small Danish town of Vejrum in Jutland. Asger Jorn’s father died in 1926, leaving his wife with six children to fend for. Despite the small-town poverty that followed in these circumstances, Asger Jorn graduated as a teacher in 1935. However, he didn’t take up position as teacher for long. He left for Paris the year after to become a student of one of the pioneers of abstract art, Ferdnand Léger. In Paris, Asger Jorn acquired basic artistic skills and techniques. Techniques that he would spend the rest of his life rebelling against, in what proved to be an ongoing struggle against classic pictorial art.

Rebellion and non-conformity 

Asger Jorn was persistent in his quest to transgress the boundaries of art. It started with the COBRA movement (1948-1951) where he and other Dutch, Belgian and Danish artists engaged in expressionism and in the fabulous fantasizing of the juvenile mind. The COBRA movement’s central contribution to art history was to develop a spontaneous abstract style with an immanent notion of art as a living and liberating medium – ultimately relating to the notion of a benign society nurtured by imagination, humour and sincerity.

Later, Asger Jorn´s rebellion took on the form of paintings that stretched expressionism and the non-figurative style to the breaking point – far further than the other COBRA artists. He also went to the extreme with a series of paintings that reused canvases from paintings found at flee markets. Paintings that in the hands of Jorn had painterly abstractions and quirky small images added to them.


Jorn the octopus

Asger Jorn employed almost every media: sketching, collage, painting, ceramics, watercolour, graphics, weaving and writing. His work was diverse and full of contradiction. Taking in the scope of his artistic endeavour is an important aspect of seeking to understand Jorn. He was constantly reinventing himself, yet was always connected to the artistic idiom of his earlier work.

The transgression of different forms of artistic expression was already an incorporated approach with art groups, such as COBRA and Linien, where artists were preoccupied with everything but oil-on-canvas: cartoons, jazz, psychoanalysis, ethnographic art, etc. It was the declared aim of the later art group Situationnistes Internationales, which Jorn co-founded, to be as embracing as possible – in fact, to be as far removed from the realm of art as possible, engaging in political happenings and the appropriation of popular culture imagery.

On the whole, Jorn’s artistic escapades were clearly not only of colouristic nature, they transgressed different media. Jorn’s work didn’t subscribe to proverbial Danish modesty or understatement but promoted sweeping, energetic movement and sudden whim. To fathom the width of Asger Jorn’s work – not as an incoherent activity but as a coherent artistic practice – you will have to take it all in view, and that is exactly what the retrospective exhibition at ARKEN will allow you to do. The exhibition includes examples of his work in all the different media he mastered.

The exhibition ASGER JORN will be on show at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art by Ishøj Strand, south of Copenhagen, from 14 September 2002 – 19 January 2003. The exhibition, which includes about 200 exhibits, will later travel to the COBRA Museum of Modern Art in the Netherlands and to Kunsthalle zu Kiel in Germany.