Essay on Jørgen Haugen Sørensen by Peter Murray, Executive Director, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 1998

Silent Witness

Jørgen Haugen Sørensen

Jørgen Haugen Sørensen was born in Copenhagen in 1934. He entered a world of conflict and tension, which were to become the seminal influences in his growth as an artist. When he was eleven months old, his father left to work in Germany, and never returned.

Jørgen Haugen Sørensen has a great love and admiration for his mother who fought and struggled to bring up two children during the horrors of the German occupation of Denmark and the cruel austerity of post-war Europe. When his mother went to work, she would close the blinds, as she had to leave two young children at home unattended. ‘Night came early’ and the outside world became echoes of distant sounds of children playing, and noises of a different world. Out of this strange existence and using the art materials left by their mother to occupy them, Jørgen and his brother Arne made countless drawings and paintings, creating their own personal vision of sounds and memories. They were also encouraged by an uncle who was a stone carver and painter, and who when they were small drew pictures for the children. Indeed, their mother’s father was a stone carver, as well as all of their uncles who lived in Bornholm the ‘island of granite’ where Jørgen and Arne spent many of their childhood summers.

The cruelty of the war, the struggles of a one-parent family, the cluttered memories of home, the urge for survival, for some form of love and recognition in a hostile world, shaped Jørgen Haugen Sørensens development. As he grew older life continued to be hard and a disrupted school life did not provide any release or support. On leaving school he obtained a job in a ceramic factory and during his apprenticeship he mastered mould-making and other techniques which would prove helpful in his future development as sculptor. Although a commercial undertaking, the factory provided Haugen Sørensen with his first opportunity to make sculptures. These were small humorous figures which he sold to his fellow workers and to the owner of the factory. With the support of his mother, he withdrew from his apprenticeship to study ceramics at the Copenhagen School of Arts & Crafts. Here, pressures of early childhood caught up with him and the structured courses did not suit his temperament; after three months he was asked to leave. He continued to make art at home and in 1951 a sculpture of his was accepted for the Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition in Copenhagen. Later in the same year he exhibited at Den Frie artists’ autumn exhibition in Copenhagen, and here the Danish artists Svend Wiig Hansen was so impressed with his work, that he invited the young Haugen Sørensen to include more works in the exhibition. Since that time, he has supported himself as a full-time artist and in 1958 he represented Denmark in the Venice Biennial. Over the years he has received many awards, exhibited throughout the world, and has work in numerous public and private collections.

Danish contemporary art is powerfully expressive and often angst written. The claustrophobia, the frustration and the anger in Jørgen Haugen Sørensen’s early childhood created a bursting point both for him and his brother Arne, a successful painter, exploding into an expressive maturity making it inevitable that both should become artists, “it was the only thing I could have been”.

Shortly after his success at Den Frie Jørgen Haugen Sørensen won a travelling scholarship to Paris and since then he has spent most of his life travelling and living outside of Denmark. Although he spent ten years in Paris, many years in Italy, Spain and now Portugal, his restless soul demands that he finds knew environments and new locations in which to cite his work such as the recent monumental stone carving he made in Turkey for the centre of Ankara his wanderings are important to his creative spirit the clash of cultures and different environments with his Danish roots create the tension which is the spirit of existence and art therefore with yearn how concerns and more than with most artists the work is the man!

The sculpture is a product of his personal psyche; it relates to his emotional feelings past and present thoughts and his understanding of the environment rather than to the world of art. To externalise such powerfully complex internal feelings and thoughts through any medium is difficult; to imbue the intractable material of stone which such power is one of Haugen Sørensen most amazing achievements. Tension not only hold his sculpture together but is the starting point for his work: the tension between love and sorrow, hot and cold, tragedy and elation are the building blocks of his creative powerhouse.

As a result of his travels, Jørgen Haugen Sørensen began to experiment with different media and approaches to sculpture. In the 60s he started to break up forms, create soft sculpture and make installations. He became deeply involved with bronze casting and also spent several years experimenting with film. Always the emphasis was on the daring, on challenging and pushing boundaries, sometimes for the hell of it, but mostly as part of a serious quest to explore every aspect of the three-dimensional world.

His first involvement with stone was with the special red marble in Verona. Stone became the obvious material for him to use, a logical development of the previous years’ experimentation, enabling him to develop a uniquely personal method of working with the medium.

Haugen Sørensen has said that for him stone is simply another sculptural medium, but there is more to it than this. Through stone he has brought together an outstanding body of work. The carved and assembled sculptures of the late 70s and 80s, for example They Move, Get Heavier and Die are at times breath-taking in their audacity. Richly coloured marble, travertines and other stones are curved and assembled together; roughly hewn textures are contrasted against sensuous centres so smoothly carved they could be mistaken for plastic, such as The Green Post and works like Space for Those who Bite, Push and Suck appear to have been thrown together in hazardous arrangements on tables linked to distant floor pieces by chains.

Jørgen Haugen Sørensen has a great respect for stone and recognises it as a language that has always existed. It has a power, a ‘sacred potency’, that no other material has, and he enjoys the seriousness of it. He also recognises the ambiguity of using such an ancient material and craft process. Haugen Sørensen is very much of this world. Well read, he follows political politics, technological developments and topical concerns with great curiosity. As he puts it “we have the technology for space travel, we can travel devastatingly fast, build houses overnight and yet we stand here looking at a big lump of stone knocking bits off … so slowly”.

Many of Haugen Sørensens public sculptures have been commissioned or bought for public places. He has also placed sculpture in the landscape and in 1988 contributed to an open-air exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. In the soft light of an 18th century English parkland his work never lost its scale. His monumental Stone Upon Stone, hewn and chiselled from Sardinian granite, gleamed against the lush green background of Yorkshire Sculpture Park as the sunlight caught the carefully carved varied textures of the work. With a great sense of being and with apparent precautious balance, the two stones perched upon a massive monolith and, judiciously placed on the edge of a hill, surveyed and possessed the landscape. Sited to be viewed from the long distances, the scale never diminished, and its textured form was forever changing, appearing to shift, twist and alter as one approached.

Jørgen Haugen Sørensen is unashamedly an object maker, creating work of a figurative and organic nature. He is a superb practitioner, a builder of sculptural forms with an understanding of space, form, materials and a sense of location which enable him to create works from small intimate modelled pieces to sculptures of true monumentality. Assurance of touch allows him to move easily from one medium to another. In his graphic works he is forcefully expressive, and his ceramics and bronzes have great authority - but in stone he excels!

In August 1989 his life changed with the sudden and tragic death in Pietrasanta of his wife Jette. After her death “everything became strange for me and the sculpture became more serious”. He gradually moved his workshop from Pietrasanta to Portugal, where he established a large stone carving studio, linking the present with his early memories of Bornholm, the island of granite. The stones used are no longer coloured. The preferred Portuguese grey granite is now usually rough and rustic, and huge constructions, half sculpture half architecture, are assembled with great skill and courage. The work generally is more reflective; there has been a move back to basics and simple statements which rely upon his ability to make sculptures from large stones without losing the character of the material. This should not be confused with truth to materials -as Jørgen Haugen Sørensen has said “if the stone could speak, it would say No, leave me alone”.

Jørgen Haugen Sørensen sees a comparison between the construction of poetry and stone carving. In his opinion both share a similar thought pattern and attitude, and both are slow processes. When you make a poem, you clean up and take away so that you can return to the essential form: “they (poets) work and clean, work and clean”. Extensive reading of poetry and literature extend Sørensen’s understanding of life and enrich the quality of his sculpture. His strange titles are often a play on words and although he sees the sculpture as a 3-dimensional storyteller, they are the only literal aspects of his work.

His quest for new stimuli and forms of expression will lead him to further exotic parts of the world. But, as he explores ceramics in Turkey and stone carving in India, he will always hold on to his roots and produce work that is quintessentially Danish within an international context. It is not often that a country produces an artist who makes a contribution to the language of sculpture, a contribution that has the potency to break through cultural and national barriers. Jørgen Haugen Sørensen is such an artist.