Asger Jorn

Letter to my Son


Not on display

Asger Jorn 1914–1973
Original title
Lettre à mon fils
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1300 × 1955 mm
frame: 1352 × 2007 × 59 mm
Purchased 1984

Display caption

Letter to my Son is one of Jorn’s most ambitious paintings of the late 1950s, the period in which his international reputation was established. The title refers to his son, Ole, who was born in 1950. It is one of a number of works by Jorn that refer to families and childhood. The layered composition includes at least a dozen frenetic figures, loosely delineated with great energy. They have a spontaneous urgency that recalls the children’s drawings that Jorn admired during his CoBrA period.

Gallery label, July 2012

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Catalogue entry

Asger Jorn 1914-1973

T03864 Letter to my Son 1956-7

Oil on canvas 1300 x 1955 (57 1/2 x 77)
Inscribed ‘Jorn | 1956-57', b.r., ‘LETTRE A MON FILS" | ASGER JORN | 130 x 195 | 120F' on back of canvas t.l.
Purchased from Galerie Van de Loo, Munich (Grant-in-Aid) 1984
Prov: Bt from the artist by Albert Neils, St. Genesius-Rode, Belgium 1964, from whom bt by Galerie Van de Loo, Munich 1974
Exh: 50 ans d'art moderne, Exposition Universelle et Internationale de Bruxelles, April-Oct. 1958 (140, repr. p.169, as ‘Lettre à mon fils'); XXXVIIme Salon: Quelques peintres du movement d'art experimental ‘COBRA', Palais des Beaux Arts, Charleroi, Belgium, Feb.-March 1964 (41); Painting and Sculpture of a Decade, 1954-64, Tate Gallery, April-June 1964 (185, repr.); Asger Jorn, Eugène Dodeigne, Kunsthalle, Basle, Oct.-Nov. 1964 (47); Jorn, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Dec. 1964-Jan. 1965 (52); Jorn, Louisiana Museum, Humlebaek, Feb. 1965 (54); Asger Jorn, Kestner Gesellschaft, Hanover, Feb.-March 1973 (36, repr. p.83 in col.); Asger Jorn, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, May-June 1973 (46, repr. in col.); Cobra, Hotel de Ville, Brussels, April 1974 (58); Westkunst: zeitgenössische Kunst seit 1939, Museen der Stadt, Cologne (497, repr. p.424); Asger Jorn, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Sept.-Nov. 1982, Barbican Art Gallery, London, Feb.-April 1983 (9, repr. p.46 in col.); Forty Years of Modern Art 1945-1985, Tate Gallery, Feb.-April 1986 (repr. p.35 in col.).
Lit: Guy Atkins, Asger Jorn: The Crucial years 1954-1964, 1977, pp.9, 11, 33, 41 and 43 fig.28 (col.); Troels Andersen, ‘Asger Jorn: The Formative Years' in Asger Jorn, exh. cat. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1982, pp.26-7; The Tate Gallery Report 1984-6, 1986, p.79 repr. (col.). Also repr: Herbert Read, A Concise History of Modern Painting, 1959, p.280 (col.); Brion, Marcel and others, Art Since 1945, 1959, fig.142; Emile Langui, ‘La Figure humaine depuis Picasso', Quadrum, 18, 1964, p.17 fig.2; Virtus Schade, Asger Jorn, Copenhagen 1965, p.63 as ‘Brev til min son'; Wieland Schmied, Jorn, St. Galen 1973, p.83 (col.) as ‘Brief an meinen Sohn'.

The title of T03864 refers to the artist's young son Ole and according to Jorn's Studio Book in the library of the Kunstmuseum in Silkeborg the original title was ‘Brev til Ole'. The reason for the change in title is unknown. Ole was born in 1950 to Jorn and Matie Constant (née van Domselaer) who had separated from her husband, the artist Constant Nieuwenhuys, in 1949 and married Jorn two years later. The family spent the following years in France, Denmark, Switzerland and Italy, their moves dictated as much by Jorn's precarious health as by the demands of his work. In 1955 Jorn bought a flat in Paris, at 28 rue du Tage, and later rented a studio in the same district. For the next few years his time was divided between Paris and Albisola where he worked in ceramics and where he was closely involved with the group of international artists working there, including Enrico Baj, Corneille, Lucio Fontana and Roberto Matta. According to Atkins these years were particularly productive for Jorn and notable for a run of magnificent paintings: ‘Letter to my Son' 1956-7, ‘The timid, proud one' 1957 (Tate Gallery), ‘Attention, danger' 1957, ‘They never came back' 1958 (Atkins 1977, p.20 repr. pp.41, 42, 110 and 333 respectively). They were certainly years of belated success, both critical and financial. The first public showing of ‘Letter to my Son' was at the exhibition ‘50 ans d'art moderne' at the Expo in Brussels in 1958 where it was displayed alongside work by Willem de Kooning. Although in the same year Jorn had one-man shows in France, Germany, Italy and Britain, the Brussels show was ‘the most important proof of his "arrival" on the international scene' (Atkins 1977, p.9).

A number of paintings and prints dating from this period refer to the theme of the family and childhood. Paintings such as ‘Enfamille' 1951, ‘You were like that' 1956 (of the artist's mother) and ‘Unwelcome visit' 1965 (repr. Atkins 1977, pp.223, 323 and 338 respectively) reveal the artist's more private concerns. ‘Letter to my Son' was a very large painting for Jorn to undertake and full use is made of the scale in the complex, detailed composition. Almost a dozen figures can be discerned and most, though not all, are shown frontally. The height variations and large disparities in scale create movement in all directions. Atkins describes this effect as a ‘whole corps de ballet of floating, zooming, slanting or pirouetting figures' (Atkins 1977, p.43). The figures reiterate facial types explored in many less complex works. Although no particular face bears any notable resemblance to the 1957 portrait of Ole (whereabouts unknown, repr. Atkins 1977, p.117) the strange, haunting face in the bottom left hand corner is very closely repeated in a lithograph of the same period (repr. without title or date in New York exhibition catalogue 1982, p.26 fig.22). Atkins also describes the lack of any perspectival organisation or central focal point and notes a diagonal axis running through the painting from top left to bottom right around which the figures are poised in ‘a fine balance of stresses'. One element which lends a touch of juvenile delight to the painting is the brilliantly coloured fire engine in the upper half of the canvas which obscures one of the large heads. Apart from this motif it is difficult to make out elements that are neither human nor animal in feel.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.186-7

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