Born in 1914 on the Jutland Peninsula of Denmark, Jorn is a figure whose work and ideas mirror many of the concerns articulated in the journal concerning the influence of non-western design and craft methodologies, the development of an appropriate artistic pedagogy for the contemporary world that might reflect or bring to bear a revolutionary overturning of capitalist society and, finally, a reconsideration of the intrinsic relationship between art and architecture. The second oldest of six children born to two school teachers with a fundamentalist Christian background, as a youth Jorn was influenced by the teachings of N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783–1872), the Danish writer and seminarian who revolutionized established notions of the proper role of education, taking the view that universities, rather than training learned scholars, should educate its students for active participation in society and popular life. Grundtvig’s most lasting legacy is his advocacy of the folk high school (folkhøjskole), a community-based institution where he imagined non-compulsory education would lead to heightened creativity within the society at large.1
Jorn began to paint in his teenage years, but elected to attend the Vinthers Seminarium, a teacher-training college in Silkeborg. Nicola Pezolet, the Québécois art historian who has studied Jorn’s work and the postwar Europe cultural context extensively, writes that “As early as the 1930s, Jorn’s understanding of the role of art was inextricable from his left-wing political engagement and his desire to develop collective forms of cultural creation linked to an emancipatory project of popular education.”2 While at college he came under the influence of the trade unionist Christian Christensen, with whom he became close friends, subsequently joining the Silkeborg branch of the Communist Party of Denmark and publishing expressionist-influenced woodcuts and lithographs in local leftwing journal sold to support labor struggles.
Despite Silkeborg’s relative isolation, Jorn did encounter the currents of European avant-garde thought via Bauhaus-affiliated artists and architects encountered on visits to the Danish capital—namely, the architect and Communist militant Edvard Heiberg (for a time a professor of architecture at the Bauhaus under Hannes Meyer) and the painter Vilhelm Bjerke-Petersen, a former pupil of Vassily Kandinsky at Bauhaus Dessau, founding member of the Danish modernist group Konkretion and author of Symboler i Abstrakt Kunst (Symbols in abstract art). Published in 1933, this small illustrated book modeled after the didactic “Bauhaus books” of Kandinsky and Paul Klee “examined the emergence of various cultural symbols in abstract art forms,”3 also introduced Surrealist automatism practices to a Scandinavian audience. Pezolet writes that:
“It was through his exposure to Petersen and journals like Linien (The Line) that Jorn developed his singular understanding of the Bauhaus. Based on the information available to him in Denmark, Jorn imagined this school as a community opposed to bourgeois values, dedicated simultaneously to theoretical and artistic experimentation, the development of alternative lifestyles, and political activism. Jorn also thought of the Bauhaus as an internationalist network that fostered the conditions for a vast cross-pollination of progressive artistic tendencies and pedagogical methods, as the school welcomed educators from diverse countries and backgrounds. He always focused more on the Bauhaus as a multifaceted experimental artistic center, as opposed to a market-oriented trade school that fostered collaboration among architects, abstract artists, and product designers working toward a democratic mass distribution of the amenities of consumption.”4
In 1936 Jorn abandoned his teaching job and drove his BSA motorcycle to Paris in pursuit of a more cosmopolitan art education. Hoping to study with Kandinsky, he arrived to discover that the aging artist was no longer accepting new students. Subsequently, he enrolled in Fernand Léger’s Académie d’Art Contemporain. Through Léger, Jorn met Le Corbusier, who commissioned the aspiring artist to produce a mural, Les Moissons (The harvest season), for the large-scale temporary structure he designed as part of the 1937 Paris World Exposition, the Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux, in the process becoming close friends with the young Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta, who also was employed in Le Corbusier’s atelier. He also familiarized himself with Surrealist writings (particularly on architecture) and was inspired in particular by the crepuscular 1938 International Exhibition of Surrealism at the Beaux-Arts Gallery in Paris, which allowed him to “envision the possibility of a radically nonutilitarian architecture, one that prefigured a future society liberated from the bourgeois ethos championed by Le Corbusier and his supporters.”5
Jorn returned to Denmark in 1938, and soon distances himself from both of his early mentors. He was especially critical of Le Corbusier’s elitism and theoretical rigidity, and in his critical stance towards the architect one finds the seeds of his larger critique of architecture in particular and functionalism in general. But current events delayed this articulation. During the German occupation of Denmark he participated in the Danish resistance as a member of the Helhesten group, over the course of the war developing an optimistic notion that “a vast, active, and democratic collaboration among everyday people, professional and amateur artists, and architects” would come to fruition after the war, as would a “more complete kind of socialist democracy.”6 This last hope was quickly disappointed, as it became increasingly clear that the American Marshall Plan would reinstall orthodox market capitalism on the European continent.
After the war Jorn began to chafe under the strictures of party communism and soon broke with the Communist Party of Denmark (although he did not officially renounce his membership until the mid-1960s), pursuing his interest in collective forms of art-making and developing expressive, collaborative modes of action alongside occasional architectural experimentation (mostly in the form of mural-making) outside a party context. He also returned to his interest in architecture, in 1948 publishing an article in a Danish journal titled “What is an Ornament?,” resulting from a visit he had taken to Djerba, Tunisia, a trip one might surmise was partially taken in emulation of Paul Klee. Among the illustrations to Jorn’s essay, one juxtaposes a horsetail (also known as snakegrass or puzzle grass) and a minaret, in which one can see his various architectural and artistic influences coming to fruition—Klee’s primitivism and his fascination with the Danish architectural historian Erik Lundberg’s comparative approach to architectural history. In the essay he writes: “… the nature of art is not to imitate the external forms of nature (naturalism) but to create natural art. Natural sculpture which is true to its material will be identical to nature’s forms without seeking to imitate.”7