Asger Jorn: A Challenge to the Light, Tomie Ohtake Institute

The exhibition, “A Challenge to the Light”, was taken from the preface to a book by René Renne and Claude Serbanne on Jorn’s drawings, had “a sulfuric luster”. The works were not just studies of introspection: “They were worth to the world all”.

Bringing together works that explore experimentalism, spontaneity and the unconscious, the show brings us examples of the diverse production of this artist. Composed of 48 drawings / collages and watercolors, in addition to 53 engravings, adding 101 works on paper, from the Jorn Museum, in Denmark, and three paintings from private collections. The member of the CoBrA Group (1948-1951) stood out for its production that extends from drawing, painting and graphic arts to ceramics, sculpture, tapestry etc.

The exhibition features drawings made from 1937 to 1973, from the time when the Danish artist studied with Fernand Léger, when he appropriated all the art he found in Paris, particularly surrealism, which was significant for the development of his work. According to the curator, all of the artist’s drawings seem to absorb the surrounding landscape, more than his paintings. “Each of the meetings with North Africa, Italy and Mexico can be deciphered in the choice of colors, especially in the last designs of the Danish island Læsø, where the light of the sea almost makes their designs ethereal”.

The exhibit also features a specific part of Jorn’s paper works consisting of take-offs, which he created by tearing blades from posters that used to be glued together in columns (most produced in 1964). The role that always accompanied him in the form of sketchbooks, preserved as a whole or dismembered, are also present in the exhibition.

In the graphic work of Asger Jorn, one of his most important laboratories, in partnership with graphic art printers, he explored the various techniques: linocut, engraving, lithography and woodcut, among others. “The printer has an important role for me, because I can exhaust all the possibilities of expression existing in each technique – print, dry point, etching, lithography, woodcut and so on -, take them to the limit ”, Declared the artist. According to Thage, since his youth, in the 1930s, and until his death, Jorn made a fully conscious exploration of graphic techniques. “The complete collection of graphic works, from the first slightly naive portraits of family members in cuts of linoleum, to the last woodcuts, of almost sparkling beauty, produced around 1970,

Three paintings complete the exhibition, support that qualified his work as the most important in Scandinavia after Edvard Munch. For the curator, Jorn’s most significant instrument is the image, whether in painting, drawing or graphic arts.

Asger Oluf Jorn (3 March 1914 – 1 May 1973) was a Danish painter, sculptor, ceramic artist, and author. He was a founding member of the avant-garde movement COBRA and the Situationist International. He was born in Vejrum, in the northwest corner of Jutland, Denmark, and baptized Asger Oluf Jørgensen.

The largest collection of Asger Jorn’s works—including his major work Stalingrad—can be seen in the Museum Jorn, Silkeborg, Denmark.

Asger Jorn willed his property and the works of art located inside to the Municipality of Albissola Marina (Savona), so the Italian museum called “Casa Museo Jorn” was created for displaying his works.

Asger Oluf Jørgensen (later Jorn) was born on March 3, 1914 in Vejrum in West Jutland. His parents were teachers. Jorn’s father, Lars Peter, died after a sudden illness in 1926, and his mother, Maren Jørgensen, had to raise their six children on a modest pension. In 1929, the family moved to Silkeborg, where Jorn began a five-year seminary education. Near Silkeborg lived the syndicalist Christian Christensen. His acquaintance sharpened Jorn’s political stance. At times, Jorn was a member of the Communist Party of Denmark, but he maintained a highly independent political stance throughout his life.

Jorn’s first encounter with modern painting was a walking exhibition of Danish painters in Silkeborg in 1932. Jorn got in touch with the painter Martin Kaalund-Jørgensen, who encouraged him to draw and paint. At Kaalund-Jørgensen’s request, he was invited to participate with three paintings at the group Frie Jyske Painters in Silkeborg in 1933.

After the seminar, Jorn realized that he wanted to live and work as an artist, and he went to Paris in 1936. Here he became a student at Fernand Léger. The impetus from Léger and the artistic environment in Paris became the determining factor for Jorn’s later development. In the following years he returned to Paris for a shorter stay, but he spent the winter season at the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.

Jorn had a separate exhibition in Copenhagen together with the French artist Pierre Wemaëre, whom he had met at Léger. In Paris, Jorn swung between the rigorous style of the Léger school – with nature studies and established compositions – and the direction of surrealism represented by Joan Miró, Max Ernst and Jean Arp. The Museum of Overseas Primitive Art was also a source of inspiration. Shortly before the war, he became aware of Franz Kafka through Léger, and he translated as the first Kafka into Danish.

Together with Egill Jacobsen, Ejler Bille, Carl-Henning Pedersen and the archaeologist PV Glob et al. Jorn planned in 1940 to publish a journal. It was named Helhesten, the beast that announces death. The whole horse reflected what was going on in the field of new music, poetry and art. Jorn’s works from these years range from single figures to rich landscapes populated by animal-like figures, using a color scale that was indebted to early Danish expressionism. He sought to combine the inspiration of modern European art with a Danish tradition. Jorn made use of all traditional techniques and expressed himself in painting, drawing, graphics and ceramic sculptures.

Even before the liberation, Jorn had come to believe that the development of art in Denmark was significant despite the German occupation and the forced isolation from the outside world.

In the fall of 1946, now under the name Jorn, which was more applicable abroad, he was able to return to Paris, where he met many artists. The following year he prepared his first solo exhibition in Paris.

In the summer of 1948, Jorn stayed on the small island of Hjarnø in Horsens Fjord. Together with Bille and R. Dahlmann Olsen, who had been editor of Helhesten, he wrote a program statement on cooperation with other artists in Europe. The declaration was signed by Egill Jacobsen, Ejler Bille, Asger Jorn, R. Dahlmann Olsen, Erik Thommesen, Carl-Henning Pedersen and Else Alfelt. In the fall, Jorn returned to Paris where he attended an artist conference. Unable to accept the attitude of the French, he joined forces with Belgian poet Christian Dotremont. Together they won, among other things. Dutch Karel Appel, Constant Nieuwenhuis andCorneille for a collaboration. This initiative was named COBRA: CO penhague, BR uxelles and A msterdam. The association lasted for three years, but became important for many years to come.

In conjunction with Constant, Jorn planned a conference during which the participating artists could work and discuss. It was realized in the fall of 1949, but without the Dutch group, who stayed away in protest because Constant’s wife Matie and Jorn had met.

In the early 1950s, Jorn painted a series of war visions, characterized by the fear of nuclear war, expressed in the form of biting and snarling animals. In the painting Eagle’s Court he sought to symbolize the harrowing, ever-recurring behavior of war and death.

In an apartment in the Danish artist’s house on the outskirts of Paris, Jorn, his new wife, her two daughters and their newborn child stayed in poverty for months and, as he later wrote, with a feeling of being suffocated by air deficiency. In April 1951, he physically broke down with severe tuberculosis and malnutrition. With the help of his friends he returned to Silkeborg and the large tuberculosis sanatorium. The first of the nearly eighteen months at the sanatorium were critical, but after a few months he was allowed to paint again.

The Silkeborg Museum had a foresight board that paid potter Knud Jensen in Sorring DKK 2000 to work for Jorn for a few weeks, in return for being able to select 30 of the best ceramic works for the museum. They were to become the foundation of a modern art collection, created by Jorn in Silkeborg (about 5,500 works). In September 1953 he left Denmark with his wife and their four children. He went to Switzerland on a longer recreation stay.

In 1953, Asger Jorn performed 21 light drawings at the invitation of photographer Poul Pedersen. The drawings were done in a dark studio with a flashlight as a pen in front of Poul Pedersen’s camera with open shutter.

Jorn left Switzerland and settled in Albissola near Genoa. Albissola is a city with ancient ceramic traditions. In the beginning, Jorn lived with his family in a tent on the beach, later artist Lucio Fontana lent them his summer studio. In one of the city’s ceramic factories, Jorn worked with many artists from different countries.

In early 1955, Jorn went to Paris, where can buy a 50 m 2 large loft, which can be furnished for living for himself and his whole family. The purchase was financed by an exhibition at Galerie Birch in Copenhagen. In the future, Jorn spent the summer months in Albissola, where he later bought houses, and the winters in Paris.

In 1956, he began his greatest painting ever: Stalingrad, the place that is not or the mad laughter of courage. He worked on it until December 1972.

In June 1957 he exhibited at the Galerie Rive Gauche in Paris and the following year at a newly opened German Gallery van de Loo in Munich, a place that gained great importance for him.

In the summer of 1959 he worked in Albissola on a 3 m high and 30 m long ceramic relief for the Aarhus State Gymnasium, commissioned by the National Art Foundation. At the same time, the execution of a 14-meter-long blanket began The long journey in Paris, led by Pierre Wemaëre and himself – to high school. In 1959, the first major exhibition took place at the Silkeborg Museum of a number of gifts from Jorn, performed by international artists.

In Paris, in May 1958, he exhibited a number of landscape paintings that he had found in flea markets and overpainted. They were given the joint title Modifications.

Jorn took up an old plan for a large-scale presentation of Old Nordic art in book form. The result was an archive containing over 25,000 photo shoots by French photographer Gerard Franceschi. It was Jorn’s idea that the archive should develop into a center for studies in Old Nordic art: the Scandinavian Institute for Comparative Vandalism (SISV). In 1961-62 Jorn repainted a series of pictures from the flea market, this time portraits. They were shown in Paris.

In 1964 he participated in a number of international art exhibitions, and his first retrospective exhibition took place in Basel, Amsterdam and Louisiana. Jorn declined to receive the Guggenheim Prize. In 1965 he had to give up the SISV project, but later published several books on selected topics. The English university lecturer and art collector Guy Atkins, whom Jorn had met in London in 1956, began collecting material for a complete record of Jorn’s paintings.

Over the New Year 1966-67, Jorn performed a number of large lithographs in Switzerland.

Jorn attended a cultural conference in Havana in Cuba, and in that connection the picture Stalingrad was exhibited. Instead of participating in the discussions, Jorn painted on the walls of a nationalized bank. He observed the youth revolt in Paris with interest, but at a distance. He regularly exhibited at galleries in Munich, Copenhagen, London, New York and Milan. In 1970, in a Paris gallery, he displayed eighteen paintings that marked a highlight of his life’s work. The late works express a new register of emotions. They lived in Colombes on the outskirts of Paris, where Jorn had bought a small house and, for the first time in his life, set up a real studio. He lived with Nanna Enzensberger. In 1971, she gave birth to their son.

In the summer of 1972, Jorn worked in Albissola on a series of clay sculptures cast in bronze. He traveled to Denmark where he prepared a two-piece work on Theoderik, the King of Goths, and Didrik, his counterpart in the Nordic sagas.

In January 1973 he was admitted to Aarhus Municipal Hospital. In early April, after marrying Nanna Enzensberger, he went to Albissola, confirming that he wanted to transfer his house to the city. At the same time, he made sure that his friend Umberto Gambetta and his wife could occupy the house for as long as they lived. Jorn died in Aarhus on May 1, 1973. He is buried at Grötlingbo cemetery in Gotland.

Luck and Chance: Dagger and Guitar (1952)
The first edition of Luck and Chance was Jorn’s first published book, issued privately to subscribers in 1952. It was written at the Silkeborg Sanatorium during his convalescence from a serious attack of tuberculosis aggravated by malnutrition and scurvy. Later in the process, it also became intended as a doctoral dissertation which was refused by a professor of philosophy at Copenhagen University. It is, amongst other things, a critique of Kierkegaard’s triad of aesthetic, ethical and religious stages, and of his definition of truth. Another powerful influence appears to be present in ghostly form: Friedrich Nietzsche. It is one of the most fundamental texts to understand Jorn’s undertaking of “a reconstruction of philosophy from the point of view of an artist”.

Internationale Situationniste (1957–1961)
Originality and Magnitude (on Isou’s System) (1960), article in Internationale Situationiste No. 4.
Open Creation and its Enemies (1960), article in Internationale Situationiste No. 5.
Pataphysics, A Religion in the Making (1961), article in Internationale Situationiste No. 6.

Value and Economy

Critique of Political Economy and the Exploitation of the Unique (1961)
This book consists of two parts. The first is a concise critique of the apparent contradictions in Marx’s Das Kapital which Jorn uses to prepare the ground for a discussion of how the work of “the creative elite” can have “value” in any future society aligned on communist principles. This was originally published in French in 1959 by the Internationale Situationniste and is the most straightforward and least discursive of all of Jorn’s texts, probably because Guy Debord had a hand in the editing. The second part is a long polemic against contemporaneous Russian revisionism and the failed attempt by Denmark and Britain to join the Common Market, before coming to Jorn’s main proposal, an economically independent international “creative elite” adopting typical Scandinavian institutions to realize “artistic value” for the greater universal good. He also attempts to reconcile the unique and individual position of the “creative elite” with his socialist principles. The second part alternates between objective and subjective modes.

The Natural Order (1962)
If this is a critique of Niels Bohr’s theory of complementarity, then it is also to just the same high degree a critique of that dialectical materialism, that I in my earliest youth took to my heart and perceived to be the only acceptable principle for thought. (Asger Jorn)

Signes gravés sur les églises de l’Eure et du Calvados (1964)
Jorn had noticed some graffiti scratched into the porch at the church in Damville during a visit in 1946. Having noticed similar scratchings in Scandinavia at the cathedrals in Ribe, Lund, and Trondheim, Jorn decided to study the phenomenon. He was able to make a trip to Normandy in 1961 with Franceschi. They were able to record a number of such markings in Eure and Calvados, but not elsewhere. The results of the study were published as a book.

Tomie Ohtake Institute
Instituto Tomie Ohtake, opened since 28 November 2001, is one of the few spaces in São Paulo to have been designed with the specific purpose of staging national and international art, architecture and design exhibitions.

Honoring the artist it was named after, the Institute is home to exhibitions that shine a light on artistic developments over the past six decades, as well as on earlier artistic movements that contribute to a better understanding of the period in which Tomie Ohtake lived and worked. Since opening its doors to the public, the Institute has staged shows previously unheard of in Brazil, including Louise Bourgeois, Josef Albers, Yayoi Kusama, Salvador Dalí, and Joan Miró, among others.

As well as its trailblazing exhibition program – amplified through a parallel program of debates, research, content production, archival work and publications – Instituto Tomie Ohtake has, since its founding, conducted significant research on approaches to teaching contemporary art. This is manifested in pioneering new training methods for teachers and students in public and private schools, a program of events open to all, and projects designed to encourage new generations of artists to develop and thrive.