Asger Jorn  

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Asger Oluf Jorn (March 3, 1914 - May 1, 1973) was a prolific Danish avant-garde artist and essayist and a founding member of the Situationist International.



He was born in Vejrum, in the northwest corner of Jutland, Denmark and baptized Asger Oluf Jørgensen. In 1946 he changed his name into Asger Oluf Jorn.

He was the second oldest of six children, an elder brother to Jørgen Nash. Both his parents were teachers. His father, Lars Peter Jørgenson, was a fundamentalist Christian who died when he was 12 years old in a car crash. His mother, Maria, née Neilsen, was more liberal but nevertheless a deeply committed Christian. This early heavy organised Christian influence had a negative effect on Asger who began progressively to inwardly rebel against it, and more generally against other forms of authority.

In 1929, aged 15, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis although he made a recovery from it after spending 3 months on the west coast of Jutland. By the age of 16 he was influenced by Nicolai Grundtvig, and although he had already started to paint, Asger enrolled in the Vinthers Seminarium, a teacher training college in Silkeborg where he paid particular attention to a course in Nineteenth Century Scandinavian thought. Also at about this time Jorn became the subject of a number of oil paintings by the painter Martin Kaalund-Jørgensen, which encouraged Jorn to try his hand in this medium.

Early career

When he graduated from college in 1935, the principal wrote a reference for him which said that he had attained 'an extraordinary rich personal development and maturity' - especially because of his wide reading in areas outside the topics required for his studies. While at College he joined the small Silkeborg branch of the Danish Communist Party and came under the direct influence of the trade unionist Christian Christensen, with whom he became close friends and who, Jorn was to later write, was to become a second father to him.

In 1936 he travelled (on a BSA motorbike he had scraped together enough money to buy) to Paris to join Fernand Léger's Académie Contemporaine; it was during this period that he turned away from figurative painting and turned to abstract art, returning again to Denmark in the summer of 1937. He again travelled to Paris in the summer of 1938, before returning to Denmark, travelling to Løkken, Silkeborg and Copenhagen.

During the period of 1937 - 1942, he also studied at the Art Academy in Copenhagen.

Jorn during World War II

The occupation of Denmark by Nazi Germany was not unnaturally a time of deep crisis for the artist Jorn, who had been deeply inculcated with pacifism, initially sinking him into deep depression. He subsequently became an active communist resistant. During the war he also co-founded with Robert Dahlmann Olsen the underground art group, Helhesten or "hell-horse," and was a contributor to its journal. In 1941, he wrote the key theoretical essay, "Intimate Banalities," published in Helhesten, which claimed that the future of art was kitsch and praised amateur landscape paintings as "the best art today." he was also the first person to translate Franz Kafka into Danish.

Post war

After the occupation was over, he complained that opportunities for critical thinking within the context of the communist arena had been curtailed by what he characterised as a centralised bourgeois political control. Finding this unacceptable, he broke with the Danish Communist Party, while nevertheless remaining a lifelong philosophical communist.

He traveled again to France where he was a founder member of COBRA, and edited monographs of the Bibliotheque Cobra.

He returned, impoverished, to Silkeborg in 1951 and resumed work in the ceramics field in 1953. The following year he traveled to Albisola in Italy where he became involved with an offshoot of COBRA, the International Movement For An Imaginist Bauhaus.

He was a prime mover of the merger of the COBRA with the Lettriste Internationale and London Psychogeographical Association to form the Situationist International (SI). Here he applied his scientific and mathematical knowledge drawn from Henri Poincaré and Niels Bohr to develop his situlogical technique.

In 1961 he left the SI, largely as a consequence of the fact that he was becoming a well-known artist which did not sit well with the SI, although his own departure was voluntary (which in itself was unusual for the SI, as it was prone to frequent purges and expulsions of members). He went on to found the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism. Later, he donated a museum for modern art to the Danish town of Silkeborg, near where he grew up.

His philosophical system Triolectics was given a practical manifestation through the development of Three sided football.

Later years

His first American solo exhibition was at the Lefebre Gallery in 1962. After 1966, Jorn continued to produce oil paintings while traveling throughout Europe collecting images with photographer Gerard Francesci for his vast archive of "10,000 Years of Nordic Folk Art." He traveled extensively, to Cuba, England, and the far east. Jorn traveled to the United States for the first and only time in 1970, for a gallery opening at Lefebre Gallery. He had earlier asserted that he refused to travel to a country that made visitors sign a statement maintaining that they were not communists.

During the course of his artistic career he produced over 2500 paintings, prints, drawings, ceramics, sculptures, artist's books, collages, décollages, and collaborative tapestries.

He died in Aarhus, Denmark on May 1, 1973. He is buried in Grötlimbo, on the island of Gotland in Sweden.

Writing by Asger Jorn

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. [1]
  • Open Creation and its Enemies (1960), article in Internationale Situationiste No. 5. [2]

Value and Economy : Critique of Political Economy and the Exploitation of the Unique (1961)

This books 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 Neils 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 pronciple for thought. (Asger Jorn)


  • Comparative Vandalism: Asger Jorn and the artistic attitude to life by Peter Shield, Borgen/Ashgate (1998)
  • The Natural Order and Other Texts by Asger Jorn (Translated by Peter Shield), Ashgate (2002)
  • Asger Jorn : en biografi Troels Andersen, Copenhagen (1994) 2 volumes.

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