This is a brief report on Helle Anita Brøns’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.

The lecture by art historian Helle Anita Brøns discussed Jorn´s ideas on gender, a strong underlying topic in Jorn’s production – especially in one of his so-called reports of the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism. This particular report – a book called Alpha and Omega –, mainly deals with creation myths, mythology and science and was published posthumously. When Peter Shield mentions Alpha and Omega briefly, he actually writes that it might have been published only after Jorn’s death: “because it also reveals (a) his current deep misogyny and a certain exasperation.” (The Natural Order and Other Texts, p. ix). Alpha and Omega so far hasn’t been translated into English, but Shield’s remark had made me extra curious to hear Brøns’ talk on Jorn and ‘Masculine Resistance’.

Asger Jorn, 'Standhaftig Maskulinitet (Valiant Resistance), 1953, oil on canvas, 98,7 x 78,2 cm, gift 1959 from the artist © Donation Jorn, Silkeborg

Brøns opened her lecture with the statement that Jorn’s perspective on the relation between men and women should not only be explained in biographical terms because it is basic to his vision on art. To me this seemed a welcome critical, as well as thorough approach to Jorn in general. The relation between men and women is also the topic of various paintings by Jorn in which according to Brøns “women are represented as omnipotent and seductive, and men have beast-like insides”. Even though I might not have necessarily seen the same characteristics in all works that Brøns showed, it is clear that the subject was not only of theoretical concern to Jorn.

Brøns’ presentation resulted in a moment of slightly embarrassed or perhaps surprised silence/laughter when she quoted Jorn saying that “women are necessary for reproduction whereas men have a surplus energy left for creative production”. This quotation was however counterbalanced with another one: “Western culture has turned itself into a masculine cliff, that will and must fall”. Eventually, Brøns sketched a nuanced image of Jorn’s perspective and struggle, also positioning him in a post war period in which masculine (and feminine) values were being redefined. Within this ‘struggle’ Jorn also challenged the gender patterns of his time, and defended concerns that were traditionally connected to femininity, although unfortunately not always with a positive outcome for what he himself considered feminine characteristics. Instead of focusing solely on Jorn’s inability or unwillingness to adopt a view on gender where the female is not being identified from the male – such as Jorn’s long-term friend, the notorious debater and ‘Amazon’ Else Grass was advocating – Brøns suggested to focus on the ironic and ambivalent aspects in Jorn work and thinking, and to explore if the critical potential of his work is still valid.

HdB: Could you expand on in what way you think the critical potential of Jorn’s work could still be valid to us today?

HB: Thank you for your nice summery of my talk. I raised the question whether the critical and political potential of Jorn’s art is still valid in cases where he ends up supporting the existing patriarchal, heterosexual power structures? Do Jorn’s sometimes reactionary views on gender in art change our conception of him as a radical artist? Personally I think his engagement in gender issues reveals on the one hand his willingness to bring the gender roles into play and redefine the gendered values in art and society; and on the other hand it shows the limits of his modernist dialectic – and eventually triolectic – thinking. Or rather, not the limits of the triolectic itself but the way he formulates it when it comes to gender, not fulfilling the non-aggressive and dynamic potential of this theory.

Jorn’s thoughts on gender could first and foremost serve to further nuance his position between spontaneous-abstract painting, critical avant-garde and philosophical theories that sometimes anticipate post-structuralist tendencies. Jorn’s own conclusions on gender issues of cause reflect the conception of gender at the time – and not the most advanced ones in that case. But it is noticeable that a new theory such as Karen Barad’s Agential Realism – which takes its vantage point in Niels Bohr’s theory of complementary just as Jorn did in his triolectics – makes specifically feminist conclusions from observations that are in many ways similar to Jorn’s (exceeding the classical contradiction between subject and object, mind and body, discursive and material). This goes to show, I think, that Jorn’s theoretical and artistic approaches generally have a lot of potential – though in the case of gender our contemporary engagement would reach different conclusions than Jorn did himself.

Finally Jorn’s way of dealing with gender in art and theory is complex and he constantly shifts between polemically provocative, theoretically inquisitive, and humorously ironic approaches – a mix that I find very stimulating.

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