Asger Jorn was innovative, controversial, and fearless. He was extraordinarily and unusually multifaceted, and very productive. He was one of Scandinavia’s most prominent artists and was recognised as being one of Europe’s most important painters of the 20th century.
“He achieved that status through working tirelessly as well as his fabulous ability to make pictures that move the viewer,” says Ellef Prestsæter, who is an art historian and the curator for the exhibition Open Creation and Its Enemies: Asger Jorn in situation which opens at IVAM (Institut Valencià d’Art Modern) on 16 February.
The exhibition shows Jorn’s work in its full breadth, from the Danish artist’s debut as a painter in 1933 and until his death in 1973. In addition to paintings, drawings, and graphic illustrations, the exhibition also features a comprehensive presentation of Jorn’s publications ranging from children’s books, via avant-garde collages, to experimental art history books. The Tangen Collection is represented at the exhibition through eight of his works.
The curator says that he wants to show a different Asger Jorn than is what is usually presented to us in exhibitions under the designation of being a ‘great painter’.
“When a painter becomes as famous as Jorn is, his or her fame is often a hindrance to viewers as they experience their art. Jorn was a fantastic painter. However, he was also much more than that and for me this makes his paintings even more interesting,” says Prestsæter. He points out that Jorn was the first person to translate Kafka into Danish, that he recorded music with Jean Dubuffet and that he worked on an archival project he called “10,000 Years of Nordic Folk Art” that was supposed to document this period in thirty volumes.
“All of this is included in the exhibition, which I want to appear monstrous and sprawling in its composition while simultaneously being inviting in its appeal to the public. Jorn’s art was complex and immediate. An exhibition of his art should embody this,” says Prestsæter.
The first part of the title of the exhibition, Open Creation and Its Enemies, is taken from an article Jorn wrote in 1960.
“I chose it because I’m interested in the way the creativity Jorn defended went hand in hand with making a commitment and taking a stand. Art should be experimental and dangerous. That will make you some enemies. It’s interesting that Jorn’s views about art encountered resistance, and this wasn’t only restricted to when they came in contact with a bourgeoisie audience. This situation also occurred with his comrades in the leftist radical Situationist movement. According to Jorn, to a large extent they viewed art as purely being a means to achieve political goals,” says Prestsæter, who has been interested in Jorn’s artistry for many years both as a researcher and art historian.
Danish artist and film director Per Kirkeby made a film that profiled Asger Jorn’s art and life and he described him as a “painter who is hard to pigeonhole”. Prestsæter believes that his ability and determination to create something new made it difficult to encapsulate his art in a general description of it.
“However, this also makes it rewarding when immersing oneself in all the art that he made. Something’s always at stake,” says Prestsæter, who states that Jorn had great faith that art could make a difference in people’s lives.
“According to Jorn’s materialist view of art, it isn’t such that there’s a divide in which the real world exists on one side and images representing something in the world are on the other. On the contrary, images are a part of the world. The act of shaping images thus fundamentally turns into the act of shaping the world, and new images of the world are connected to a new world of images,” explains Prestsæter. He says that during the student riots in Paris in 1968 Jorn made a poster in support of the students that said, “Pas de puisance d’imagination sans images puisante”.
“The French spelling was a little off, but Jorn undoubtedly stood behind its message: There’s no power of imagination without powerful images,” says Prestsæter.
Jorn was one of the founders of the COBRA and the Situationist International movements, which both had ambitions of seeing fundamental social and political changes in society. In 1961 he founded the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism, which was a kind of experimental research institution.
“The purpose behind it was, among other things, to publish around thirty volumes of what were supposed to document “10,000 Years of Nordic Folk Art”. He allied himself with Nordic archaeologists and the foremost French museum photographer Gérard Franceschi to carry this out. Jorn believed that the Nordic tradition represented something singular, and it had been wrongly assessed according to criteria that were based in southern European art. He was also interested in the idea that he as a practicing artist had a completely different view of history than what archaeologists and historians had. When the project ground to a halt in 1965, the Institute’s photo archive contained 25,000 photos that were taken from large parts of the Nordic region. For this exhibition I have been interested in, among other things, the fact that Jorn incorporated Sami and Inuit culture into the Nordic culture. Why did he do that? And under what conditions did he include the indigenous cultures in the Nordic tradition?” says Prestsæter.
The Tangen Collection is represented with key works in every section of the exhibition at IVAM. Among Prestsæter’s favourites are Tolitikuja from 1945 and Top of the World or Gay Day from 1960.
“Jorn continued to paint on kitsch paintings which he bought cheaply in Paris. Author and artist Öyvind Fahlstöm visited Jorn while he was working on these and excitedly reported home to Sweden about monstrous forms that were about to emerge as if “unleashed from another dimension within the rancid Sleeping Beauty slumber of the landscape”, says Prestsæter.
The exhibition also includes commissioned works by the Danish artist Anna Sofie Mathiasen and the Institute for Computational Vandalism. They have been invited to create works that will enter into a dialogue with Jorn’s artistry from a contemporary perspective.
“This part of the exhibition fits quite naturally since Jorn insisted on approaching history from the perspective of present-day performing arts,” says Prestsæter.
“Mathiasen has made an animated film in which the characters are taken from various parts of Jorn’s production. The Institute for Computational Vandalism, which I am a part of, works with the experimental digitalisation of the photographs for the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism.”
A book that will contain both unpublished texts by Jorn and some of his classic ones in newer translations will also be published in connection with the exhibition.
“Among the highlights here are an afterword that Jorn wrote for the planned volume in “10,000 Years of Nordic Folk Art” about Norwegian stave churches as well as an absolutely fantastic little passage written in 1946. That was the year Jorn took his family to northern Sweden, more precisely to Saxnäs, or as the Southern Sámis call it, Saadteskenjuana. The works he produced there play a central role in the exhibition. In the archive of Museum Jorn, located in Silkeborg, Denmark, I discovered a text in which Jorn relates his encounter with the Lappish mosquito that drove him crazy. It ended up that he painted a mosquito painting in which he, inspired by traditional hunting magic, kills the mosquito with his brush,” says Prestsæter.
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