By Trine Møller Madsen, art and culture writer, 2006
15 square metres of chaos
The large canvas speaks to the whole of the body. It measures almost 3 x 5 metres, and even though the colours are soft, it has a forceful effect. The brush strokes are fierce, and it is difficult to immediately see what is up and what is down. It is pure chaos.
Although a keen eye can spot almost all colours in the many layers of paint, the dominant colour is white. Underneath the white layer the spectator can faintly see dark shadows, and the eye can also catch the red tracks that have been pulled down across the surface. Perhaps an inner film has already begun to play in your head?
Bloody tracks in the snow
You can imagine a lot of things. We know that, as a point of departure, the painter had one picture in his head: the battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
Asger Jorn was one of the founders of Cobra. This world famous group of artists sought the primitive human instinct and, as a result, painted freely and in abstract, and with focus on colour and brush strokes. Normally he and the other Cobra artists painted pictures that exploded in colour. Compared to them, Stalingrad is unusually quiet. The white colour covers the picture - like the snow that fell over the city and covered the traces of war.
Jorn wanted to show the opposite. He painted the battle of Stalingrad to bring it out into light and memory. Dug out the horror from oblivion. If you look carefully, you can faintly see the bloody bodies and the bombed-out, gutted houses under the thickly layered paint.
Jorn knew Picasso’s great, monumental painting of Guernica, that described the atrocities of the Spanish civil war. Like Picasso’s masterpiece, Stalingrad is large and chaotic. Both in form and content. It takes time to experience and digest the picture.
Jorn worked on the picture for many years. The last time was just a few months before his death. While he was painting, the superpowers rearmed and the nuclear arms race was launched. Was World War III on its way? Jorn reacted to the manmade chaos with his wild brush. Facing the big canvas, it is now your turn.
Did you know?
Asger Jorn had a penchant for motorized vehicles. As a youngster, Jorn drove the long way to Paris on a motorcycle to become a pupil of Kandinsky (which did not turn out to be a thing, as Kandinsky no longer taught). Over 20 years later Jorn took advantage of a scooter as an art tool when he drove over the wet clay in the production of a relief to the State Gymnasium in Aarhus.
The committee's justification
By the Committee for Visuel Art, 2006
Asger Jorn turned his back on Denmark to work abroad, where he spent several periods, from 1957 (1956) and until a few weeks before his death in 1972 painting Stalingrad. He also painted other titles, such as No Man’s Land and Modets sindssyge latter (The Mad Laughter of Courage). Picasso’s Guernica is somewhere in the background, but the painting is mostly based on an Italian friend’s tale of his participation in the battle of Stalingrad, which was one of the most brutal single events in World War II.
The artist compiled his entire impression of the nature of war in the painting process, in which his thick colour scheme is a psychic discharge. An action rather than the portrayal of an action which insists that the war is a condition, which even then surpassed human imagination.
It was afterward, as if Stalingrad existed only as a huge battlefield, when all traces of people and civilisation became lost under the layers of snow. One senses the contours of a body, and possibly glimpses traces of a face, but behind the surface there are a lot of eruptions and states that are already on their way to oblivion.
Jorn insists that the nature of war is a tragedy involving madness and totally devoid of heroic elements. The magnificent painting is a personal document of a time when the Cold War and the atomic race began to threaten even greater destruction. Fear had become somewhat collective and therefore mentally recognisable, which meant that the artist no longer needed anything recognisable to orient himself. The content is in the expression, and the painting is like a painful eruption of colour from a culture that is inviting its own destruction.