Asger Jorn
Biography and Paintings of Cobra Group Founder.

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Asger Jorn (1914-73)

One of the top 20th century painters in Denmark, the printmaker and ceramicist Asger Jorn was a founding member of the COBRA art group, along with Carl-Henning Pedersen (1913-2007), the Belgian writer Christian Dotremont (1922-79) and painters Corneille Beverloo (b.1922) and Pierre Alechinsky (b.1927), and the Dutch painters Karel Appel (1921-2006) and Constant (C.A. Nieuwenhuys) (1920-2005). Jorn first trained as a teacher but in 1936 went to Paris to study art. He studied at the academy of Cubist Fernand Leger (1881–1955) and worked with Swiss designer Le Corbusier (1887-1965) on a mural for the 1937 International Exhibition. During the Second World War he lived in Denmark, but afterwards returned to Paris where he helped to set up the progressive COBRA group in 1948. Part of the European style of Abstract Expressionism, COBRA's unifying doctrine was freedom of expression with an emphasis on brushstroke and colour. Jorn's paintings from this period are marked by violent brushstrokes, while he was also influenced by Primitivism/Primitive Art. In the next two decades, Jorn travelled widely, and experimented with a variety of mediums like drawing, tapestry, ceramics, prints and book illustration. In the last years of his life, he concentrated on sculpture. Examples of his best known works include The Timid Proud One (1957, Tate Modern, London).

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Artistic Training

Asger Oluf Jorn was born in Denmark into a family of fundamental Christians and teachers. His strict upbringing may have been the cause of his later artistic rebellion. He started to paint and draw as a teenager, but at the age of 15 entered a teacher training college in Silkeborg. On graduation in 1936, instead of seeking a teaching post, he scraped money together to buy a motorbike and headed for Paris. The plan was to study with Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), one of the founding members of the Blue Rider Group. However, he found an isolated Kandinsky whose geometric abstract paintings were still not recognised by artistic fashions, which still favoured Impressionism and Cubism. As Kandinsky was barely able to sell his own paintings, Jorn decided to join the Academy of Fernand Leger, whose star was continuing to rise. It was during those 10 months with Leger, that Jorn turned his back on figurative work and embraced abstract art. In 1937 he assisted architect Le Corbusier on a mural for the Palais des Temps Noveaux, at the International Exhibition. Le Corbusier was a Swiss architect, painter, designer and writer who was famous for being one of the pioneers of what is today known as Modern architecture or the International style. Returning to Denmark in 1937 Jorn studied at the Art Academy in Copenhagen until 1942. During the Second World War, he became very depressed during the Nazi occupation of his country. He printed a banned publication called Hellhesten.


COBRA Art Movement

After the War, Jorn returned to Paris where he helped to establish the COBRA group. This was a non-conformist avant-garde movement, founded by painters, graphic artists and sculptors from the Dutch group Reflex, Danish group Host, and the Belgian Revolutionary Surrealist Group. Like Tachisme, the COBRA group was closely related to the gesturalism wing of the broader European postwar expressionist movement known as Art Informel. The name of the movement came from the initials of the founders home cities: Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam. Outside of the founding members, other participants included Jean Dubuffet (1901-85); Hugo Claus (1929-2008); Aart Kemink (1914-2006); Lotti van der Gaag (1923-1999) and Svavar Guonason (1909-1988).


One of the few modern art movements to come out of Northern Europe, COBRA paintings are best known for their expressive brushstrokes, child-like imagery and strong primary colours. Like Dada artists before them, the members of COBRA were rebels; perhaps affected by German wartime Occupation, or by the apparent collapse of Western morality, they rejected conventional values and promoted the idea of free expression. Thus they were totally opposed to the ordered rationality and rules of geometric abstraction, and rejected traditional modern art. Instead they were interested in producing art that emphasized childish instincts such as spontaneity and impulse. So rather than reproduce the world around them, they aimed to exploit the free expression of their subconscious and go with their instincts. Jorn participated in the Group's three major exhibitions: in Copenhagen (1948), at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1949), and at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Liege (1951). COBRA was inspired from many sources including primitivism (as was Cubism), Nordic mythology, Art Brut and Outsider Art. The Group disbanded in 1951.

Mature Art Career

The same year, Jorn became very ill with TB and returned to Silkeborg where he spent 10 months in a sanatorium. After his recovery, he began to travel widely and started to explore the medium of ceramics. In 1957-61 he participated in the International Situationist movement. This was a Marxist revolutionary movement which peaked during the 1968 wildcat strikes in France. The influence of this movement came out in Jorn’s paintings: he 'modified' old paintings discovered in junk shops by painting over them with images of demons stalking placid landscapes. He also illustrated numerous books and even wrote some books including Risk and Chance (1952) which attacked the conventional views of beauty and art. Solvejg (1959, private collection) is an oil on canvas from the same period, which has violent brushwork and primary colours. Like many of his abstract paintings, it is highly expressive, and its loose brushwork conjures up great action and movement. "Tension in a work of art is negative-positive: repulsive-attractive, ugly-beautiful. If one of these poles is removed, only boredom is left", Jorn said.

Jorn constantly stressed the importance for any artist of the study of culture and aesthetics, and as a result is remembered as one of the most committed abstract painters of the postwar period, and a thoughtful artist who wanted to reshape society. Underlying his writings was a struggle to balance his belief in Communism with his belief in the artistic elite. Jorn's reputation gradually spread, and he had his first one-man show in America, at the Lefebre Gallery New York in 1962. In the last decade of his life, he focused primarily on sculpture. He died in Denmark in 1973.

Paintings by Asger Jorn can be seen in some of the best art museums in Europe. Particular holdings of his work can be seen at Louisiana (outside Copenhagen), Aalborg, and Silkeborg in Denmark, and in the Museum of 20th Century Art in Vienna.

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