Life’s Arabesque: Jorn in Djerba

August 17, 2014

The stay of the artist Asger Jorn on the island of Djerba in Tunisia over the winter of 1947-48, was crucial in his development of a theory of art as ‘the cult of life’. This was an organic aesthetic offering ‘an authentic materialist perspective’, counterposed to the ideal of objective depiction of social realism, as approved by official ‘Communism’. As Christian Dotremont, fellow dissident Marxist and Jorn’s future collaborator in the Cobra group observed, social realism was ‘the suicide of revolutionary content by means of bourgeois naturalism’, copying ‘the sad face of bourgeois society in the name of happy tomorrows‘ (Lambert 1983: 166).


Asger Jorn, Djerba (1948)

The deferment of joy to some ideal future or afterlife, in the name of austere todays, is a recurring characteristic of political and religious authority, keen to stamp, punitively, on the kind of earthly pleasure recalled in these lines:

When I finally fall asleep for eternity I desire that there be placed under my head the little pouch with earth from Kubla and the roll of Gazelle-hide, on which, among the golden cypresses, I inscribed all the names I gave to Nagiad when she smiled with closed eyes while my hand caressed her lively curving body.

This is an English rendering of the Danish text inscribed on one of a series of ink drawings produced by Asger Jorn in Djerba in 1948. The text is most likely derived from translations by Carl Kjersmeier of erotic poems by the Persian poet Hafiz (Birtwistle 1986: 143).

Paintings like the evocatively titled Le paradis retrouvé. Les yeux nostalgique. Le chateau ivre (‘Paradise regained. The nostalgic eyes. The intoxicated castle’) mark this as a fruitful period. In his article ‘Levend Ornament’ (Living Ornament), published in Dutch in 1949, Jorn fashions a principle of the arabesque, identified as the formal expression of nature itself, which expresses a ‘spontaneous’ attitude to life opposed to the classical-rationalism of European civilisation. In his argument for the unity of all life, the arabesque becomes the expression of ‘the universal movement we call matter’, realised as much in the paths of migrating birds as in the strokes of the painter’s brush; interrelating all kinds of natural and cultural phenomena (Birtwistle 1986: 100). It reiterates his conviction that the source and goal of our ‘yearning to create and form’ is ‘life’s luxuriant and free growth’ (ibid.: 101).

Asger Jorn, The Tunisian 1948

Asger Jorn, The Tunisian (1948)

A mote of love exceeds all bounds; it gives

The vital essence to whatever lives.

Farid Attar, The Conference of the Birds


Graham Birtwistle 1986 Living Art: Asger Jorn’s comprehensive theory of art between Helhesten and Cobra (1946-1949) Utrecht: Reflex.

J-C Lambert 1983 Cobra London: Sotheby Publications.

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