July 4, 2019
I’ve just visited Museum Jorn in the heart of Jutland, Western Denmark, and thought I would put together a few notes of a personal character. I am no expert whatsoever on Jorn – Denmark’s most important and most internationally well-known artist in modern times – but I happen to have a personal relationship to Jorn without ever having met him. So take it for what it is…
Asger Jorn (1914-1973) was, through and through, a “wild” artist, a “situationist”, experimentalist and provocateur. He believed in the working principle of taking his ideas to the extreme. He was a painter, ceramic artist, book and manifest author, printer, sculpturer, he did murals in e.g. Cuba, and more.
He was indeed A Restless Rebel – the title of the wonderful catalogue book for his centenary exhibition at the National Gallery of Denmark, SMK, (in cooperation with Museum Jorn) in 2014.
That said, he seems to have cherished dialectics; he was always working with people in various groups and movements but also defining his works in opposition to this or that “school” or fashion of his times.
The most well-known of which he was a member was, of course, CoBrA. He was very political – radical leftist, a member of the Danish Communist Party – and always applied a philosophical approach to his works as well as his role as an artist in society.
Here his book on “Value and Economy” with just a little sense of humour and published by the Scandinavian Institute for Comparative Vandalism…
Here an example of his rebellious mindset. Upon receiving the Guggenheim Prize in 1964, he wrote:
The Museum appears to me to be built to fit his down-to-earth style and integrates other artists such as his Danish contemporaries and international artists such as Dubuffet and Alechinsky.
It’s a relatively small museum, situated close to the Gudenå river – some of the most picturesque areas of Denmark – but also close to the town centre. You can see it in about an hour or two – but if you want to study and understand Jorn through his enormous spectrum of works, you’ll need unlimited time. He was multi-dimensional and multi-media, ever-changing and enigmatic
I happen to have a personal relation to Jorn – albeit not directly. I never met him but wish I had. My parents – Gudrun and Frederik Wilhelm Oberg – knew him and felt sympathy for a man who was genuinely misunderstood by people in the town of Silkeborg who, I’ve heard, considered him mentally ill presumably because of all the wild, fabulous monsters populating his abstract paintings.
From time to time, they bought works from him – paintings and ceramics, drawings and prints – to support him and his family. He even did not have the money to have his ceramic works burned in Sorring, so when they bought some work, it also enabled him to continue his creation.
One of the many works they bought at the time was “Den forhadte By – The Detested Town” painted in 1951/1952 which you can read more about here.
Enigmatically, the detested Silkeborg anyhow ended up being the town to which he donated more than 5000 works, including many of his own.
And here are some of the works I’ve grown up with. As a child I liked The Young Couple in particular and always wondered why the eye in the figure to the left looked like an animal turning its face to the right…
Another oil painting I grew up with was “Legetøjsbillede” (Toy Picture) from somewhere in the 1940s which I believe today belongs to the COBRA Museum in Amstelven – a fantastic yellow-green-red happy, light-coloured “typical” Jorn. I loved that painting but haven’t been able to find it anywhere online so here is a somewhat similar painting that I shot at the museum, playing a bit with the piano in that hall:
The Jorn collection was sold and my parents started collecting prints by contemporary European and US artists of the 1960s and 1970s. But I still have a couple of prints and water colours by Jorn. On the back of one he has written: “Dear Oberg – I wish you and your familiy a merry Christmas and a happy new year. I am broke – Paris 1954 – Asger J”.
Let me finally mention that a number of Jorn paintings dealt with war – war perhaps more than peace. As a peace researcher, I am drawn to artists who grappled with this issue.
The most famous is Stalingrad – which he worked on over 15 years and seems to have considered an impossible or failed painting because one actually could not paint what it was about: the struggle between life and death – or, as it seems, war and peace.
It goes without saying that I have much to thank Asger Jorn (and my collecting parents) for. He was the first and most significant artist I was exposed to since, literally, I was crawling around the floor next to his vases and looked up upon his works on the walls.
And today, both the art world and the larger world needs restless – and truly humanist – rebels like him.
Per Kirkeby (1938-2018) and Asger Jorn (1914-1973) are among the most internationally known Danish painters. They were both more than just painters and their works fetch high prices today. Sadly, Jorn died too young to experience the international acclaim his works so much deserved.
Naturally, Museum Jorn is mainly devoted to show its amazing collection of works by Jorn and his contemporaries. I visited it in late June 2019.
Shortly before he died, Per Kirkeby donated his personal archive to the museum which also displayed a few of his paintings from the early 1960s.
However, it is not clear to me how the Museum relates – or will relate – the two very different artists to each other.
More about Asger Jorn