They cut the legs off the white horses

Clay is a direct and fundamental material to work with. It is not circumstantial like stone or expensive like bronze, but lively and approachable. Together with drawings, it has been the starting point of Jørgen Haugen Sørensen’s artistic career, and the material he has returned to for the past 20 years. The works in clay are continuously becoming more rough and simple in their expression. While sculpture is still the foundation of his work, with time, reliefs have been added as well.

The thumb's passage in the clay is clearly visible and, as the figurative is blurred, more room is made for interpretation.

The latest works reveal no more than vague contours of people and their shadows, but the eye instinctively recognises and connects the motifs to a situation, relevant to the individual who sees it. In Haugen Sørensen’s works room has been made for those who experience it, as the human has continuously been at the centre.

He is known for brutal and undisguised accounts of man’s barbaric and bestial features. But it is always with care for the simple man, on whose behalf he portrays and criticises society’s institutions and authorities

Ever since his debut as a self-taught sculptor at the Artists Spring exhibition in 1953, Haugen Sørensen has positioned himself as one of the most important artists to develop and rethink the language of sculpture. From brutal and realistic depictions of butchering scenes from Copenhagen´s slaughterhouses during the 1950s in clay and bronze, his language of form grew into abstract tube-sculptures, composed by industrial forms from the brickworks.

Haugen Sørensen stayed at factories and created collages of pipes, reminiscent of swollen micro-organisms and intestines which came to be an extension of the brutal scenes from the butcheries.

The sculptures were given titles such as The self-righteous and The self-centred, likewise referred to experiences and characters of society. 

Galerie Birch showed Haugen Sørensen’s works during two successful exhibitions in 1959 and 1960, for which sculptures were cast in bronze, and the exhibitions made it possible for Haugen Sørensen to travel.

As the foundries in Verona were of particular interest to Haugen Sørensen, in 1959 he moved to Paris with his family. The city was close and the artistic capital of Europe at the time. In Verona he was introduced to cire perdue, a bronze casting technique, which he used to develop egg-shaped sculptures, which extrudes and displays their interior.

After a successful exhibition at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in 1964 the Danish Arts Foundation awarded him a three-year working grant. However, the grant had the opposite effect of  paralysing Haugen Sørensen for a time, after which he decided to detach himself completely from the Danish art scene.

Disruption and partnerships

In 1964 Haugen Sørensen has what he calls ‘a case of gallery-headache’. He withdraws from all commercial commitments and focuses on redefining not only the commercial side of art, but also the traditional understanding of sculpture, and the artistic role as a whole.

During the following years he engages in film-making, as well as artistic collaborations with friends and colleagues. While use of media varies, the contact and exchange of ideas with poets and photographers becomes central. The film JHS from 1965 was made in collaboration with photographer Gregers Nielsen, and depicts the questions and thoughts which occupy Haugen Sørensen in his experimental years, as well as presenting the new abstract and fragmented pillow-sculptures, falling down on a highrise building in Paris.

Through time, poets have been particularly close to Haugen Sørensen. The experience of a kinship appeared early on during conversations with the Danish poets Inger Christensen and Birgitta Trotzig. Later on, Haugen Sørensen’s drawings have figured along poems and essays in publications in collaboration with poets such as Henrik Nordbrandt, Thomas Boberg, Merethe Pryds Helle, and Morten Søndergaard. The titles of Haugen Sørensen’s works are lyric and bear significance on their own, and through them it is possible to ‘read’ his sculptures as characters.

Like sculptures, language can be seen as a fundamental mass, which you use a craft to shape and vitalise, and it is through this perspective that his close relationship with poets can be understood.

Likewise, photographers create sculptures with their black and white depictions and representations of reality. And just as the poets, the photographers were essential in the definition of the artistic community, which arose around Haugen Sørensen in those years.

Landscape of sculptures

Time away from the galleries and the Danish art scene allowed Haugen Sørensen to break away from the existing basic structure surrounding the idiom of sculpture at the time, and which artists consciously or unconsciously positioned themselves in relation to, developed upon and lay as foundation of all new work. The sculpture's given structure – the language with which the artist speaks through his work – created the feeling that the artist would always position and relate him– or herself in extension of an already existing idiom. To create something new, the sculptor would have to rethink the fundamental structure.

The continuous work in renewing the sculpture´s structure lead to a fragmentation of the sculpture into smaller parts, which where placed directly on the floor and with a relation to the space. It was in this way that the exhibition Souvenir at Aros Museum of Art in 1968 was presented, where Haugen Sørensen was invited to exhibit together with the painter Per Arnoldi and photographer Gregers Nielsen. With unusual shapes in fabric, steel, painted papier-maché, bronze, iron, and plastic, the sculpture was no longer one whole entity, but a fragmented piece, which the viewer was able to walk in between. In this sense, a dialogue between the different fragments of the sculpture, the room, and the viewers became possible.

The works were all titled Souvenir and consisted of varying parts of the sculpture, which created a landscape of works placed in several ‘piles’. From show to show the pieces would be moved around and it would therefore be possible to watch the different piles of fragments change over time. The fabric and plastic sculptures are soft and movable, which gives the impression of motion, and the base is gone in favour of the sculpture's playful dialogue on the open floor. In addition to this, the visitors had the possibility of relocating and ‘curating’ the sculptures as they wished, as long as the sculptures would not be too far apart or too close together. The sculptures are moveable, but their inherent structure can not be changed: “Every individual piece is a piece in itself – an image”

Departing with the sculpture of the time was also a parting with monumentality and the authority for Haugen Sørensen. The classical function of sculptures and statues, as religious figures or tributes to national authorities and regents, had strong references, and it was not until with the deconstruction of the self-contained shape that the sculpture could become ‘new’ again.

The viewers were seen as partners and their interaction with the works were calculated as part of the work. The reason for this was to make room for as much coincidence in the works as possible, because as Haugen Sørensen argues, coincidence is the closest that one will ever come to truth.

It is not easy to govern the process of coincidence and simplicity, as it requires the artist to work against the schooling which has been required during life. Haugen Sørensen’s works from this period investigate what happens during the deconstruction process where each fragmented piece obtains equal value and meaning. The invitation to the involvement and engagement of the guests can be seen as a wish for dialogue and communication, which contributed to the accessibility and democratisation of the works.

Today, Haugen Sørensen’s works from the Souvenir exhibition would be defined as installation art, and it hardly seems like a novelty to experience fragmented pieces spread across the floor, but when the Souvenir pieces are reviewed according to their context and time, they where a radical new departure for sculpture as such.

The Italian Arte Povera artists were contemporary and worked, like American Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg, with sculptures in new materials, just as the Danish artist Willy Ørskov experimented with containers of plastic and fabric filled with air. Throughout the twentieth century the sculpture has been undergoing a transformation, but before the total deconstruction it was defined as being one whole structure, balancing between being static and closed, as for example Duchamp-Villon, or open and dynamic in its expression, as Alexander Calder’s kinetic sculptures, but always remaining one object, and with its own history independent of context and time.

The shapes of the sculpture landscapes presented at the Souvenir exhibition in 1968 were getting larger and more simple, until they culminated with the architecture in a large commission for Herning Business College in 1969 and Danish School of Media and Journalism in 1973. When Haugen Sørensen was invited to do a commission for the Danish School of Media and Journalism in 1971, his intention was to soften the typical functionalistic style by creating organic sculptures that ‘broke’ with the architecture. The tongue is one of his returning symbols, and is seen as breaking through the wall of the building and ‘speaking out’, with clear references to freedom of speech and the journalist´s responsibility.

The political

Haugen Sørensen political side developed and became visible in the collaboration with magazine and satirical illustrator Peter Lautrop. Prints and drawings formed the basis of joint works and contributed to the magazine Hætsjj, which was published frequently during the period 1968-70, through the Ex-school´s printing house in Copenhagen. The shapes of Haugen Sørensens fragmented sculptures appeared in prints and became abstract characters alongside critical caricatures of society's archetypes by Lautrop. The man with the tongue is a reoccurring figure in Lautrop’s illustrations, and was depicted in Asger Jorn’s La Langue Verte et la Cuite (The raw and the cooked tongue), which Jorn wrote in 1968 with the French author Nöel Arnaud. The artist book is a parody on Claude Levi-Strauss’ book Le cru et le cuit and structuralism in general. It responded to the weighting of language which structuralism valued over the image, as for Jorn it was essential that the image was valued on its own, independent of language.

Haugen Sørensen has been cited for saying that all his work concerns itself with the making of images. His sculptures have a core of content, an idea, which is essential and which is intensified and supported by the material and idiom, and where concept is not the only significant element. This way of thinking about art was far from the currents in time and focus at the academies, which valued the conceptual and theoretical continuously higher, and it bore closer resemblance to the views of art by the contemporary autodidactic Cobra artists.


The artistic life of Haugen Sørensen is influenced by the many travels and places he has lived and stayed throughout his life. When he in 1973 was expelled from Italy on the accusation of having offended an officer by saying that the more medals a person has, the bigger an idiot he must be, he stayd on the island of Læsø for a couple of years as well as visiting Yugoslavia and Spain. Haugen Sørensen had earlier met the Italian artist Giovanni Meloni, and their friendship and collaboration intensified during the many travels, and influenced genre-breaking and experimenting time.

The farm in Læsø becomes a rendezvous point for large groups of friends, colleagues and family, and the barns surrounding the farm are used for studios. The collaboration on the joint works with Meloni continues on the island, where pillow sculptures are tied to large canvases and painted, and the works takes shape as reliefs flowing into the space. Both artists sign the work and once again the authority surrounding the artistic subject is toned down.

It is likewise in these barns where the canvas relief They cut the legs off the white horses is made in collaboration with Meloni. In a surreal dream Haugen Sørensen revisits the violence of a slaughterhouse, at the dream it formes the inspiration for the relief, which is created with strong references to the social and political instability of northern Italy at the time. The work was exhibited at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark in 1975 and Henie Onstad Centre of Art in Oslo, 1976.

Haugen Sørensen proceeds with the fragmented sculptures in a series called Portrait of an old appointment, which is shown at Galerie Birch in Copenhagen, 1972. The background story of the exhibition is set on Læsø, when Børge Birch, the owner of Galerie Birch, paid for Haugen Sørensen’s farm on Læsø at the premise that he would pay him back through sales of art at the gallery. Haugen Sørensen was at the time not interested in exhibiting at galleries, and the old agreement was not fulfilled until 12 years later, when Birch threatens with foreclosure, and Copenhagen is presented with the fragmented sculptures, this time cast in bronze. The fragments have gathered slightly since the Souvenir exhibition and is now characterised by rough mountings with a continuous expression of movement, and stand out as ‘personalities’ or archetypes yet again. The sculptures have been patinated in an ochre colour, and bear the look of rusty piles of metal, not the delicate bronze of which they are made, and one suspects a thinly veiled comment being the basis of this distortion.


The exchange of thoughts and inspiration between colleagues has always been essential to Haugen Sørensen, and he has said that his studio is found in the workshop with other artists. The kinship with artists, poets and photographers is essential, but the relationship with the sculptors and craftsmen, who have taught him about materials and methods, has been just as important. Nevertheless, Haugen Sørensen has never sought to be part of any artistic group or community, and his independence and rejection thereof defines him as a unique figure in his time.

He describes the precise moment, where he as a child in school had the clear experience of the teachers lying to him. That following in the footsteps of his mother’s working-class life, which his upbringing during the 1940s in Copenhagen had schooled him to accept, wasn't the only possibility and that life could be lived in a more true and real way. “Our society is a society made of slaves and there was no doubt that I was to be a slave”. It is probably from there that Haugen Sørensen’s critique of and distancing from authorities started to form.

Haugen Sørensen’s work evolves continuously and when he has the chance to move back to Italy, he settles down in the, at the time, communist region of Tuscany, in the town of Pietrasanta, which is renowned for its bronze foundries and stonemasons. In Pietrasanta he comes to master the Italian marble and travertine, before he concentrates on the hard and more weather resistant Portuguese granite. The granite occupies Haugen Sørensen for more than 25 years and is the basis of countless large commissions in Denmark and abroad, until he, with Eli Benveniste, returns to sculpturing in clay.

With the commission of ceramic reliefs and sculptures for the courthouse in Copenhagen in 2011, Haugen Sørensen's position as an observer of the state of the world becomes clearer than ever. 

The works are as if they were characters named Justitio and the witnesses and portray the position of being a witness, which all people hold, in the meeting with the cruelties of the world. Justitio is portrayed as both the state and the law. With a sublime sense of empathy Haugen Sørensen introduces humanity and tolerance to the courthouse, where the law is here portrayed with a sense of doubt, probably because the act of judging is not easy.

From his exile in Italy, Haugen Sørensen continues to have a significant presence in Danish art and society. Through continuous exhibitions and innumerable commissions in Denmark and internationally, Haugen Sørensens work and person remains a vital voice in public space.

Time in society

It has always been essential for Haugen Sørensen to portray what he sees, and he is of the opinion that one has to express and share one's experiences and accounts to and with each other.

As I speak with him in Pietrasanta in the early summer of 2017, it is the broad perspectives that fill our conversations, and especially with reference to a recent book by Yuval Noah Haharis, Homo Sapiens. The book is a compressed account of human history and reveals a parallel progression between predictability and coincidence, not unlike Haugen Sørensen’s own position.

In the chapel, which Haugen Sørensen’s studio originally was constructed as, hang and stand the latest reliefs and sculptures in clay. The earliest works have been burned and glazed in white, while the most recent ones are standing in their grey clay and drying. Currently, Haugen Sørensen is working on a large sculpture in bronze for the retrospective exhibition La Lingua Parlante in Pietrasanta, and which will then be permanently placed in the city centre. With the exception of one exhibition at Paola Raffo Arte Contemporanea in 2016, this will be Haugen Sørensen first public exhibition in the town where he has lived and worked for more than 45 years.

To make a lasting imprint has become essential for Haugen Sørensen, as he believes that we as a society need to make the present time visible. That something should be present in the public to tell about the time of which we are a part, and make the stories available. In Haugen Sørensen’s opinion, even bad sculptures should be preserved for the very reason that they are connecting our age with history and communicating about earlier experience, preventing our society from losing its history. 

About time author Clarice Lispector writes: you dont start at the beginning, you start in the middle, you begin with the instant today, and in the same sense, Haugen Sørensen can been seen as being present where he finds himself, using the materials best suited for expressing the current time. He began with clay, and has now come to face it again.

Nina Wöhlk, Pietrasanta, April 2017.