By Jakob Harry Hybel
As an artist, Asger Jorn’s work is well known and widely celebrated, in large part due to his close affiliation with two of the most influential artist groups of the 20th century, CoBrA and the Situationist International. Lesser known, however, is Jorn’s considerable production of theoretical writings. Ruth Baumeister’s comprehensive, well-researched book on the subject of the latter aims to change that fact.
One of the reasons why Jorn’s remarkable production of theoretical writings – unlike his artistic oeuvre, consisting of innumerous paintings, prints, ceramics and sculptures – have received so little attention from academics and scholars, might be the fact that Jorn’s positions were often wildly inconsistent, sometimes downright self-contradictory.
With L’Architecture Sauvage, recently released by nai 010 publishers, German author and teacher at Aarhus School of Architecture, Ruth Baumeister, seems to have come to the conclusion that the artistic and the theoretical were two sides of the same story for Jorn, and so, to understand one is to understand the other. Thus, Baumeister unfolds a meticulously detailed biographical reading of Jorn’s entire body of work – and in so doing, she overwhelmingly succeeds in providing the context and subtext needed to understand the logic behind the evolution of Jorn’s ideas and theories.
As sort of a leitmotif, Baumeister focuses on Jorn’s relationship with two of his renowned contemporaries – and key figures in his early career as an artist – Fernand Legér and Le Corbusier. During his formative years in Paris, Jorn trained with the artist and the architect respectively and held them both in very high regard. However, his initial infatuation gradually turned to disillusionment and eventually disdain.
At first, Jorn saw great potential in his collaboration with especially Le Corbusier, and foresaw that it would lead to a new synthesis of the arts, based on mutual recognition and respect.
However, after the World War II, Jorn felt that artists were unjustly sidetracked and marginalized, whereas architects were heralded as builders of societies. Simultaneously, the modernization processes in architecture had led to narrow-minded specialists and stubborn individualists, obsessed with visions of pure form:
|When Le Corbusier says that a machine-turned sphere is more beautiful than an apple, this is due to the fact that he does not understand that the beautiful and complete is what lives. […] He does not understand that the very same stalk that breaks the apple’s perfect spherical shape, or geometry, is also the umbilical cord that binds it to the material world, to the universe. The same principle also applies to the door of a house, the stairs and passageways.|
|/Asger Jorn, ‘Dreams and Reality, part 1’ (1948)|
The term architecture sauvage – which fittingly has been chosen for this book’s title – was coined years after Jorn’s death by his friend and fellow Situationist Guy Debord, to describe Jorn’s own home in Albissola. However, it serves as an excellent summary of Jorn’s philosophy and general view of architecture: while Le Corbusier on the one hand saw the house as a “machine for living”, Jorn on the other saw it as a “machine for expression”, sprawling, wild and uncontrollable. Architecture, Jorn believed, had to “go beyond individualism and arrive at symbols shared by everyone”, as he wrote in a letter to his CoBrA-collaborator Constant.
Overall, ‘L’Architecture Sauvage’ paints Jorn as an uncompromising idealist, whose ideas and theories were deeply rooted in his creative work. In his writings as well as in his paintings, Jorn deliberately pursued contradictions and inconsistencies, as he felt that was the best way to represent the human condition.
Jorn’s work, as it is presented here, stands as a heartfelt plea for architects to consider the merits of art in architecture. Not just any kind of art, though, but the kind imagined by the artist, without any confines and restraints – as opposed to the kind domesticated by modernist architects to fit in with their functionalist agenda. As such, it is also a plea that should resonate with today’s architects, who might be tempted to favor turnkey contracts over creative collaborations.