IMAGINARY HISTORIES – Asger Jorn’s History Memory Paintings

This is a brief report on Karen Kurczynski’s contribution to the ‘Cut and Thrust: Reconsidering Asger Jorn’ seminar workshop which took place at the Museum Jorn in March 2012. Below, you will also find her answer to my question about what she considers Jorn’s relevance today.

Art historian Karen Kurczynski walked the other seminar participants through the museum to have a look at various paintings that relate to history and memory, stating that Jorn already broke down the division between history and memory in a way that anticipated the discourse that started in the 1970’s. She also mentioned Scanian Stone Sculpture in the 12th Century, the only report of the Nordic Institute of Comparative Vandalism that was published when Jorn was still alive. Here, he also deals with history and with archaeology (the latter he considered more interesting because it is based on objects), and the problematics of categorization within archaeology was one of his most direct concerns with this project.

Asger Jorn, La Grande Victoire, 1955-56, oil on canvas, 127 x 104,5 cm, © Donation Jorn, Silkeborg

Kurczynski pointed out the different approach of history paintings from the 18th and 19th century, which are usually based on fiction and literature. In contract Jorn, who referred to these types of paintings in relation to his own Stalingrad painting, seemed more interested in captivating the ‘inner histories’.

In his own paintings dealing with war and politics, such as The Eagle’s Share he makes use of an unheroic painting style, the paintings look rough, humorous and frightening at the same time. Also, around 1955, paintings such as La Grande Victoire (The Great Victory) in fact become the histories of their own making, with Jorn returning to them for weeks or month to rework and modify.

We spend most time discussing and looking at a painting which has had three titles over the course of the twenty years of its making, and is now known as Stalingrad, le non-lieu où le fou-rire du courage. Kurczynski explained how with this painting Jorn breaks down the division between private and public, and critiqued the spectacularization of war in the media, or how it is a negation of mass media.

Asger Jorn, stalingrad, le non-lieu où le fou-rire du courage, 1957-60, 1967, 1972, oil on canvas, 296 x 492 cm, gift from the artist © Donation Jorn, Silkeborg

Kurczynski’s talk, just like those by Nicola Pezolet, Steven Harris and Helle Brøns are works in progress, and to be published in full in one of the forthcoming issues of October, edited by Hal Foster. I am very much looking forward to read these articles. It seems that there is relatively recent change of approach among some art historians which consider Jorn’s output a tangled web of paintings and other works, collaborations and texts which in fact have one and the same underlying principle: to challenge the separation of art and politics, as well as high and low art.


Question to Karen Kurczynski: Niels Jacobsen, who also attended the seminar told me that you recently participated in a debate about Asger Jorn. He said that you managed to formulate in a comprehensive way, what the importance of his practice is, and has been. For the Jorn beginners amongst us it might be interesting to hear your thoughts on this. Could you say something about that?

KK:  Yes, I came up with five major issues that make Jorn’s theory and practice relevant today. They are:

1. RADICAL POPULISM: Investigation of populist art and kitsch.

Jorn’s ‘Intimate Banalities’ (Helhesten 1, 1941) called for a new popular art, including pictures of tattoo designs; popular, science, and fashion illustrations; Raphael’s angels, etc. In it, Jorn calls Sunday paintings and children’s scrapbooks “the best art today.” It appeared only two years after Greenberg’s ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ (which Jorn did not know about until later) but redefined the relationship of the two terms as a dialogic one rather than a binary opposition. Then, Jorn’s Modifications, which he theorized in the Cobra period but first carried out in 1959, create a dialogue with flea market paintings by amateur or marginalized professional artists. They were a Situationist détournement, a communication made of pre-existing elements that negates their original meanings, but they also contain original elements that serve as homages to outsider art. Jorn’s idea of “popular art” was a catchall term form anything excluded by high modernism (like clichés, kitsch, folk art, and aesthetics like Jugendstil or Gothic deemed “decorative” by modern functionalism). Jorn sees cultural production anthropologically, and this is part of a broader cultural development in which the social relationship among concepts of art, mass culture, folk culture, design, and kitsch are intrinsic to the meaning of the work.

2. SUBVERSIVE AESTHETICS: Painting critical of mainstream individualist expressionism

Jorn’s semi-abstract painting rejected the idea of “zero degree” in painting in Ab Ex and Informel. Jorn’s works always respond to the wider culture, with humor rather than high seriousness. Rather than claim the “death” of painting, he reconceived painting, attacking its position as the primary medium of monumental public self-expression. He advocated a new role for painting as a site of subversion and transient creative engagement. His humorous press release for the 1959 Modifications show negated avant-garde claims to progress and special social status. Lyrical paintings like Ausverkauf einer Seele approach the visceral immediacy and gestural drama of Ab Ex but include grotesque faces that introduce an element of humor, and debunk its mythic status by overtly referring to its own commodity status in the title.

3. ACTIVISM: Art related to activism and leftist politics

I just wrote a piece for the upcoming issue of October on Asger Jorn about two projects by Asger Jorn and Guy Debord that present critical investigations of history, memory, and art, the artist’s book Mémoires and the painting Stalingrad, Le non-lieu, ou la fou rire de courage. These projects indicate that contemporary public representations of history in documentary images or “authentic” memoirs written by historical figures are nothing but spectacle, replacing actual memory. They raise important political questions about who has the right to turn memory into history, and although today they are artworks they arose out of the explicit political engagements and social critique of the SI. Mass media accounts of Stalingrad showed the battle as a major victory for the Allies, but Jorn relates the traumatic battlefield as an image of total annihilation threatened by the current events of the Cold War after the signing of the NATO pact in 1949.

4. ARCHITECTURAL ENGAGEMENT: return to monumental decoration as social critique

Asger Jorn, Aarhus Mural (detail), total dimensions 3 x 27 m, 1959

Jorn’s interest in architecture began when he was a student of Léger and assistant on a mural project for Le Corbusier in the 1930s, and culminated in the 1959 Århus mural, an 80-foot-long ceramic mural installed in the Statsgymnasium, Århus, and its accompanying tapestry project Le long voyage woven by untraditional, semi-spontaneous methods in Pierre Wemaëre’s workshop in Paris. These attempted to revive traditional media such as ceramics and tapestry, devalued as outmoded by modernism. They provided populist alternatives to the celebrity culture of the art world and the impersonality of mass culture. They also came out of Jorn’s active interest in collective production, epitomized in the “Ceramics Congresses” he organized in Alba in 1954–55 and his writing on ceramics and other outsider arts as anonymous collective production that supersedes national borders.


In his book projects like Signes gravés sur les églises de l’Eure et du Calvados, 1964, and the projects relating to the Scandinavian Institute for Comparative Vandalism (1961-65), Jorn rewrites art history by investigating marginalized Scandinavian art. He defines Nordic culture as based on geography and political marginalization, not on any essential identity. Signes gravés describes the graffiti carved on church walls by Viking “vandals” in northern France, investigating a form of outsider expression that long interested the avant-garde. In the era of Conceptual art Jorn begins investigating photography as an art in the photo-book, with the help of photographer Gérard Franceschi. These projects return in some ways to his experiments in articles in the 1940s.

In conclusion, in the contemporary period where all artistic experiment is institutionalized and professionalized, Jorn’s work suggests powerfully that authentic creativity must actively reject its own institutionalization.



hildegoesasger is made possible with support of the Mondriaan Fund


This is a brief introduction to a seminar workshop that I attended in March 2012 at the Museum Jorn. Other blog entries contain brief reports and dialogues with and between the participants.

‘Cut  and Thrust: Reconsidering Asger Jorn’ was a non-public seminar with presentations by art historians, cultural theorists, and a physicist. They kindly welcomed me to listen in on presentations on social engagement, action, aesthetics, art history, science and vandalism. I have very much valued the way the organizers (Helle Anita Brøns for the Museum Jorn and the Statens Museum in Copenhagen) dealt with the constellation of guest speakers. The constellation allowed a platform to more inclusive approaches to Jorn’s ambiguous position within the various avant-garde movements and –ideologies, and the deliberate paradoxicality of most of his works (e.g. the contradiction between Jorn´s collectivist projects such as Helhesten, Cobra and the Situationists, and his role as a great male, modernist painter).

Jorn in Albisola, 1961. Photo: Bartoll.

The semimar workshop was hosted by Museum Jorn, which in a way was another one his projects – this time of a more curatorial nature. Throughout his life Asger Jorn collected art works by other artists, and around 2.000 books on prehistoric art, folk art, various civilizations around the world, philosophy, mathematics, linguistics, and all kinds of other topics. Jorn donated these art works, as well as works of his own to a museum he helped to found in his native town Silkeborg, Denmark. Today the museum (now renamed into Museum Jorn ( not only houses an impressive art collection and many many books, but also Jorn’s notebooks, his unpublished texts, and an archive of around 15.000 photographs which were made for Jorn´s ‘Nordic Institute of Comparative Vandalism’.

On a more personal note I would like to say that I have been writing the report on the seminar, while plunging into Jorn’s universe for the first time. I thought that if I get lost in that universe, I will remember to think of my situation as a knot, which, to loosely quote McKenzie Wark, might appear to be a mess of intersecting bits, but in fact always stays the ‘same’ rope, no matter how its angle varies, or which other parts of itself it is in contact with. (McKenzie Wark. 50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International. Princeton University Press and the Trustees of the Columbia University, New York,  2008, p. 20.)



“The artistic impuls is the central locus of our imagination and intuition. It is this which unites our realities with our potential; the existential with that which does not exist; the thing that was but is no longer; that which is to come but has not yet arrived; the possible with the impossible. It is the thing which enables us, as it were, to lift ourselves above questions of time and place. This is something existentially fundamental in our nature, because it strengthens our will to live and create.” Asger Jorn, ‘On the Artistic Potential Inherent in Architecture’, 1943.

Asger Jorn (3 March 1914–1 May 1973) was born Asger Oluf Jørgensen in Vejrum, in the northwest corner of Jutland, Denmark. He was a painter, sculptor, ceramic artist, and author/thinker, and is well-known for being a founding member of the avant-garde movement Cobra and the Situationist International. What I wasn’t aware of, is that throughout his career Jorn wrote over 700 articles and books in which, or through which, he attempted no less then to undertake ‘the first revision of the existing philosophical system’.  Jorn himself read a lot, and by the time of his death he possessed a considerable amount of books, of which around 1600 are archived in a modest-sized room in the Museum Jorn in Silkeborg.

In March 2012 I had the opportunity to walk into that room, which felt a little bit like walking into Jorn’s head, and I spent a great couple of hours browsing through books on aesthetics/art theory, philosophy, mathematics, structuralism, religion, folks art, medieval art, archeology and more.

Jorn regularly underlined passages, and seemed engaged in an intense (internal) dialogue with some authors. While reading Claude Levi-Strauss’s structuralist theories in the book Le Cru et le cuit (1964), he must have particularly wound himself up, and I had a great laugh taking this picture:

It was in the Summer of 2011 that I became more aware of the extend of Jorn’s philosophical output. More or less simultaneously I came across a text on Jorn’s Nordic Institute of Comparative Vandalism, and a compilation of his texts on art and architecture, recently published by 010 Publishers, Rotterdam (Fraternité Avant-Tout, Ed. Ruth Baumeister). Here, Baumeister lists a few of Jorn’s interests and undertakings, ranging from “a reinterpretation of Marxism as a cultural-political theory, critiquing the concept of unitary urbanism, advocating an immediate life experience based on human life and passion instead of capitalist order, safety and comfort, and the dominance of the image in mass media…” .  What struck me most reading those texts is the organic way Jorn dealt with everything, and how he eventually integrated his thinking in an all-encompassing theory on art and life, based on a very outspoken position in the philosophical debate about the position of the artist in society. His various attempts to co-operate across boundaries of culture and thought in order to expand our field of visual knowledge are fascinating, and believe it might very inspirational to revisit some of these projects.

There have been a few issues in particular that I have been especially interested in from the outset. For instance, I am already thinking for a while about a project in which the notion of decoration and the ornament (so heavily influenced by classic modernist, functionalist ideas) would be revisited. Could Jorn’s description of “the tragic history of the ornament in art” and “the economy of ornamentation” (where he proposes a link between economic and artistic crises) be informative in that? What could we say about the status of the ornament in a time where populist politics is on the rise, and we clearly did leave it “to the reactionary forces in our midst to respond to our irrational needs …” (Jorn)? And how do his ideas on vandalism as a potential creative force, and the clear distinction he made between the subjective and the personal built a starting point for any kind of creative thinking and making in current artistic and discursive practices? How can we contextualize his ideas on history and history making to the current interest in revisiting modernist practices?  This blog is a platform for exchange and dialogue between professionals from various disciplines, on these and other questions, and will hopefully lead to more in-depth analysis and creative responses throughout the coming period.



Interview with Richard Niessen, from Niessen&DeVries

HdB: Around two months ago I invited you to make a design for this blog. How would you like to introduce your practice to the readers of this blog?

RN: We are Richard Niessen and Esther de Vries, and we officially collaborate as graphic designers from 2008. We both studied graphic design and live and work in Amsterdam. Even though our individual work is visually quite different, we share a strong interest in close collaborations with commissioners – as a way to challenge ourselves to explore new paths. Our work varies from printed matter, exhibitions, textile, and ceramics to other objects, such as coins. Apart from creating commissioned work for (mainly) cultural entrepreneurs we also initiate our own projects, and Esther also runs a small publishing house.
In my own work I go against the grain of the dogma of unambiguity in concept which is prevalent in ‘Dutch Design’. Instead, I am trying to search for multiple layers, I would call it ‘lyrical design’: expressive and fantastic, making use of a rich visual language to address the senses and the intellect. My work is engaged, subjective and personal. It is also spontaneous, I would even say interactive and the meaning is usually ‘sedimented’ in layers. Just like in the assignment fort his blog, where also many layers add up, not in an immediate transparent way, but still clear. In my work it is always possible to find some hidden secrets.

HdB: What was the starting point for the design?

RN: The starting point for the design was built by the idea of the postmark, the ones that you find on air mail. These postmarks often include wave and circle shapes, which connected perfectly well to the text you send to us, ‘What is an ornament?’, written by Asger Jorn, where he speaks about waves and interference. As you were going to post, to send us messages from the land of Jorn, and considering the fact that this land mainly consists of texts, it was a very obvious starting point. After all, in a postmark text is often being used in a decorative way, readability is not the first priority – the text can take a circular shape, could be placed vertically, or in wave lines. Besides, in postmarks lines are being used, lines that could be the arabesques that Jorn is talking about in his text. The first idea was to superimpose the postmarks on the standard design of the blog in order to create a distinct identity. It seemed suitable to take some characteristic quotes from Jorn in order to create the postmarks.

HdB: Has Jorn’s text on the ornament been of any other influence?

RN: My work is less arabesque then Jorn’s ideal, it is often based on geometry and grids, resembling ‘solid building’ rather than ‘smooth curves’. In search of lines that could built the shapes of the postmarks I restricted myself to a ‘set’ of existing forms. I knew it could not be just any set of lines, in order to be able to build a system there had to be a reason to choose a particular set of lines… . This is when I thought of knots. Not only is the knot an ancient decorative motive, it also is a mathematical and natural (physical) phenomenon – and also Jorn’s sentences seem to be intertwined like knots. A knot has no beginning and no end. It seemed an exciting concept to create a typography in which Jorn’s statements would start to become ornamental, even if they don’t appear to be ornaments at first sight.

HdB: I remember being in Denmark when you told me about the knots, and phoning you slightly worried, because suddenly I realized that one of the later Situationist Times, one in which Jorn was not directly involved, but still, is entirely devoted to knots. For a moment I thought the blog design would maybe resemble this too much. But of course you were planning to move away a little bit from the knot as well. How did you do that?

HdB: Well, quite a few experiments followed: various type faces, very thick knots with integrated diapositive text, only letters …. I was trying to figure out what would happen when the lines (which are words) cross each other… And how to utilize the ornaments to create an optimum interplay? Eventually I decided to cut the knots open, creating a beginning and end after all. This way they became less hermetic, more readable and fluent, and could even be connected to each other. All quotations can now become one uninterrupted line, or a labyrinth.

HdB: And then you were still not done …

RN: The texts worked quite well on the blog but I had also decided to design a poster that you can take with you on your travels. And for the poster the design was visually too meagre, and too technical. By putting the texts on paper scraps suddenly also the brutal and manual, or physical, aspect of Jorn’s work was addressed, and the design became more dynamic and spatial: scraps lie on top and through one another. I opted for red, blue and black as a remainder to the idea of stamps and the idea of (air) mail.

HdB: What was the biggest challenge with this assignment?

RN: You approached us for our interest in playing out the tension between the decorative and the functional, and provided us with the text by Jorn, which also deals specifically with the ornament. It was an interesting challenge to not come up with something obvious, I really wanted to avoid that. So I mainly looked at Jorn’s visual work, collages of torn up paper, his series of modifications in which he paints over existing works, the Situationist work with Debord (détournement)… I am pleased that we managed to find a visual language for the project which is playful, yet clear.