Vigeland Museum

6 June - 20 October 2002

The lowest heaven, or like holding back the sea with a broom

By Per Hovdenakk - Translated by Peter Cripps

A meeting of two ages

When Jørgen Haugen Sørensen’s reliefs and sculptures in plaster and bronze are placed alongside the works of Gustav Vigeland the meeting is one of two different ages.

Vigeland was 25 years old when he arranged his first exhibition in Oslo in 1894. The main work on that occasion was the relief Helvede (Hell), which is clearly parallelled in Haugen Sørensen’s relief Den nederste himmel (The Lowest Heaven).

In its time, Helvede was perceived as an “avant-garde” rebuttal of the dominant classical tradition of the period. Established critics wrote that Vigeland’s works were unfinished and sketch-like. The young Jens Thiis praised Vigeland: “And since he finds what is ingratiating and coquettish so utterly reprehensible, he can occasionally be reckless ... he is often assiduous in choosing the ugly in preference to what is handsome and nice”. Vigeland’s works of the 1890s represent a break with both his teacher Thorvaldsen and the contemporary idol Rodin, and reflect the thoughts he shared with other artists of the period: the existential angst and depression resulting from the death of God and the demise of established values.

Vigeland’s contemporary and compatriot Edvard Munch found his own expression for the prevailing existential malaise in his iconic Skrik (The Scream) in the same year that Vigeland began work on Helvede.

Sigbjørn Obstfelder, the most sensitively perceptive of them all, wrote of Helvede: “Here he resonates profoundly with the movement, the rhythm of the world and of humankind ... It is the evil in man, – and this evil is the curious quality that stares out at us from life’s twilight.”

Helvede shows us the swarm of sinners and mourners, the doubters and the faithless, streaming in through the gates, stumbling past Satan on his elevated throne, and sinking in despair into eternal suffering.

The view of Gustav Vigeland as an artist who belongs to and is firmly anchored in his times also applies, and in an enduring sense, to Jørgen Haugen Sørensen. For him as well the theme is suffering and torment, both of which are directly and fearlessly expressed in his works in clay.

Vigeland was searching for an alternative set of values to replace those that vanished with the repudiation of God. The result was a gargantuan project that required an entire park for its realisation.

For Haugen Sørensen – and his generation – the repudiation of God is a permanent condition that requires a search for values in direct confrontation with – and reaction against – the present. I think, I see was the title of his retrospective exhibition in 2000. Steeped in the turbulent circumstances of protest and revolt in the 1960s, Haugen Sørensen responds with discernment to the period in which he lives. He is critical but has an eye for the humorous aspects of our absurdity and retains a fundamental respect for the multiplicity of the human spirit. Whereas Vigeland depicted “Hell”, Haugen Sørensen surveys his surroundings in “The Lowest Heaven” – which is where we find ourselves at present – and on the first step of the ladder to various heavens.

Haugen Sørensen made his debut in 1953 at the young age of 19. In the interim he has been a notable and distinctive figure in Danish cultural life, who has exhibited widely, received numerous commissions and is represented in many museums and private collections. He is also highly active in the art debate, where he rarely pulls his punches when it comes to criticism of art institutions and establishments.

Since 1959, Haugen Sørensen has, however, lived beyond Denmark’s borders – in the 1960s in Paris, and since then in Italy, and now also in Portugal.

Since 1972 he has worked mostly in stone, and primarily in Pietrasante, the Mecca of Italian stone sculpture. It was only a few years ago that he began working anew with plaster and clay, which were his original materials.

Paris in the 1960s was important for him. At that time it was a meeting place for artists from around the world. Influenced by contemporary political and social events, the Vietnam war, American “cultural imperialism”, the commercialisation and institutionalisation of the art world, these circles debated crucial questions concerning the social function of art and its aesthetic premises.

Haugen Sørensen burnt his bridges. He withdrew from the art trade, made films and experimented with books and graphic design.

He abandoned figuration and the classic principles of construction, decomposed the unitary whole, breaking it down into separate parts. He did away with the plinth and brought together elements of various materials in installation-like arrangements on the floor.

With his transition to stone in the 1970s he recomposed the elements (also in his bronze works), and many of his sculptures acquired a rigorous, architectonic aspect.

Yet the spirit of experimentation from the 1960s was always present and has emerged with new vigour in his works in clay of recent years.

The experiments and political engagement of the 1960s also reinforced Haugen Sørensen’s need and ability to make his sculptures communicate and open a dialogue with the viewer. This he achieves with provocative and often burlesque forms of humour, through the juxtaposition of his materials, and a perspicuous legibility.

Observation, an engaged gaze, irony and grim humour – “I think, I see”.