Lausanne, Switzerland

Asger Jorn, The Minstrels of Meigle, 1966, oil on canvas, 35 x 45 5/8".

Asger Jorn, The Minstrels of Meigle, 1966, oil on canvas, 35 x 45 5/8".

Asger Jorn

Fondation de l’Hermitage

Asger Jorn, The Minstrels of Meigle, 1966, oil on canvas, 35 x 45 5/8".

Asger Jorn spent six months with his family in a chalet near Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1953–54, recovering from the tuberculosis that had spelled the end of the Cobra movement a few years earlier. Isolated from the culture of the region, he maintained an epistolary connection with art-world friends abroad, including Enrico Baj and Pierre Alechinsky. After moving on to divide his time between the Italian coast and Paris, Jorn returned to Switzerland regularly in the 1960s, and his first international retrospective took place in Basel in 1964.

Asger Jorn: un artiste libre” (Asger Jorn: A Free Artist) investigates the impact of the Alpine nation on Jorn’s mature work from the late 1940s onward, omitting his experiments in abstraction from his time in Paris in the ’30s and with the Danish Helhesten group, which prefigured Cobra, in the ’40s. Its primary draw is the sheer visual impact of Jorn’s works of the 1960s, which are punctuated with some highlights from the previous decade, such as Les spectateurs et l’assassin de Lurs, 1953, which illustrates the shocking murder of a British tourist family that was uncovered while Jorn was in Switzerland. The show touches on Jorn’s political engagements with several important “Modifications” (graffiti-like abstractions painted on found canvases, ca. 1959–62) and playful lithographs made in support of the Paris uprising of 1968. The exhibition bypasses some of the more challenging aspects of Jorn’s oeuvre, however, such as his experiments with ceramics and architectural decoration in the Italian period of the mid-1950s that remain provocative in their celebration of the grotesque. A single ceramic piece, Le Bouffon (The Buffoon), 1954, signifies this important aspect of Jorn’s production without challenging the overall lyrical trajectory of the exhibition. Only Dieter Schwarz’s essay in the catalogue addresses Jorn’s polemics with Max Bill, director of the New Bauhaus in Ulm, Germany, over the role of free artistic experimentation, an exchange that began in 1953 and had a significant impact on Jorn’s ongoing engagements with art as a social medium. Jorn theorized a “counter-functionalist” aesthetic of fascination and sensational excess designed to inspire the observer into action. While it remains difficult to convey such ideas in a museum setting, the sheer material exhilaration of Jorn’s work was everywhere on view here.

Even the more aggressive works seem agreeable in the luxurious spaces of the Fondation de l’Hermitage, the domestic setting reflecting the development of Jorn’s art through a series of highly personal connections. Jorn developed a canny dialogue that crossed traditions of expressive abstraction with popular art and everyday imagery, as seen in such paintings as The Minstrels of Meigle, 1966. While an acerbic mood marks key 1950s paintings such as Den forhadte by (Return to the Detested City), 1951–52, in the ’60s, Jorn continually expanded his repertoire of lighthearted monstrosities of color and brushwork, as in Image confite (Candied Image), 1969, and The Slithy Toves, 1966. The selection here includes many rarely seen works from Swiss private collections and a number of excellent drawings and prints, including a set of twenty-three etchings, Schweizer Suite (Swiss Suite), printed near Lausanne in 1961, and a dozen vivid color woodcuts from 1971–72. Strangely, the major lithographic series Jorn produced with the Erker-Presse in St. Gallen, Switzerland, in 1967, “Von Kopf bis Fuss” (From Head to Toe) is absent. A series of diminutive watercolors from the early ’60s, set apart in one room, reveals the relationship of spontaneous drawing and glowing color to a unique Jornian vocabulary of form that would constitute his late painting style. These watercolors were discovered by chance after the artist’s death when they fell out of a Jean Arp catalogue in Jorn’s library. Jorn’s ongoing engagement with his early inspirations is echoed by the continuing power to fascinate today of his own material experimentation and humorous touch.

Karen Kurczynski