Art and prostitution

John Kørner's paintings of women prostitutes are filled with creative energy at the formal level. But the energy doesn't always carry across to the political level.

John Kørner, Women for sale, installation view.

For an artist like John Kørner, who sells his paintings through the exclusive Victoria Miro gallery in London and has decorated the Crown Prince couple’s residence at Amalienborg, the Danish royal castle, an exhibition at The Workers’ Museum in Copenhagen seems a contrast. It may be, but it is nonetheless what Kørner on his own initiative has set up. With a starting point in his series Brugte Kvinder (Used Women) (2009-2011), which deals with women prostitutes, he approached the museum to begin a collaboration that has now led to the exhibition Kvinder til salg (Women for sale).

In addition to Kørner’s paintings the exhibition consists of a small information room and a documentary film, from which visitors can acquire concrete knowledge about the “working” women’s lives, especially those in the prison of trafficking. The exhibition is thought of as a unit in which the presentation of facts in the information room extends into the abstract world of the paintings’ images, which in turn are anchored by the weight of social realism. That Women for sale is not simply considered an art exhibition appears also in the exhibition catalog, which contains three articles on prostitution that are not related to art. Furthermore, during the period of the exhibition the museum will present a lecture on prostitution and a showing of the Lukas Moodysson film Lilya 4-ever (2002). Thus Kørner has created a frame around his paintings, which separate themselves from the art institution’s white cube and its notion of an esthetic sphere beyond dirty reality. For all – except culturally conservative modernists – it is an obviously successful and mutually rewarding concept. The paintings, which function outside the museum as commercial products, acquire a form of real-life credit, and the museum’s dedication to creating awareness of the history and development of the working class acquires a smart, contemporary image.

John Kørner, Natascha, 2011. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

However, Kørner is not a political artist in the sense of engaging a subject from a declared ideological standpoint in hopes of achieving defined changes. He is primarily a painter, and for him the painting matters more than the subject. The exhibition is therefore not thought of as an expression of a sharply defined stance toward prostitution. As he says in an interview in the exhibition catalog, the paintings are not contributions to a debate but paintings functioning in their own right. They attempt to articulate the subject in a (pictorial) language other than the one in current use in the debate about prostitution. This is fundamentally welcome since the debate in Denmark all too often lacks nuance and an understanding of the subject’s increasingly pressing complexity—if the debate hasn’t simply come to a standstill, trapped in political and moral trench warfare.

John Kørner, Nikita, 2010. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

The paintings are portraits of individual women—Christel, Natascha, etc.—in situations where they are not at work but reveal what they come “home” to or come from, something seen at close range in the first painting of the series. There is “Simone,” who moves through the snow clad only in a pair of boots and seems about to burn up from the cold; there is “Maria,” who has been thrown out in the mud by her “owner”; and there is “Ursula,” who takes a lonely walk along the shore. These are situations in which the women, even though they are often naked, are not objects of desire for male sight, but physically exposed human souls.

The women are without faces, so even though the titles’ names indicate otherwise, the paintings are, in contrast to the material one finds in the information room, not so much concerned with telling personal stories as with describing general circumstances. In other words, as is often the case in documentary descriptions of the subject the pictures do not stimulate identification with the women as victims or compassion for them, but provoke a cooler reflection on a relatively under-examined aspect of the subject, namely the lives the women lead when they are not walking the street. Does it succeed?

The choice of motifs has an element of “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” as in Carmen (2011) and Laila (2011), but not to the degree that masculine voyeuristic lust becomes the main element. In Natascha (2011), for example, one doesn’t find lunch, greenery, or flirting company, but instead loneliness in a primitive thicket. The paintings are best, or actually really good, when Kørner’s well-known colorist style morphs together with nightmarish scenarios which can almost be reminiscent of something from a horror film, as in Simone (2011). It is violent and disturbing to look at, but also compelling, difficult to look away from. It is a picture that creates resistance, esthetically and in content, and widens the horizon of how one can see and understand women prostitutes as people who struggle with life as an effort against a brutal reality. In several of the other paintings the resistance is considerably less. It is as if the colorist style begins to overshadow the content, and the paintings do not completely find a balance between creating new, living stories and distanced reflection. The motifs are either too minimal, literal, or ornamented in their expression to create the intensity that can capture one’s vision long enough that challenged and expanded thoughts arise. You don’t genuinely get below the surface. Or more exactly, the esthetic is on the surface. The creative energy in the paintings on the formal level isn’t carried over to perspective-expanding vibrations at the level of content.

John Kørner, Laila, 2011. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Brugte Kvinder (Used Women) comes a couple of years after Kørner did a similar series of paintings on the fallen Danish soldiers in Afghanistan, and as was also the case with that series, one has doubts about the direction he is taking with the political reference—perhaps because the paintings finally attempt too little as they try to avoid debate.

When the Crown Prince couple rejected one of the paintings from the Afghanistan series Kørner
agreed to adjust it on the grounds that “it is now a commissioned work, and the customer must be satisfied.” The remark can only be taken to mean that in decision-making, the gallery artist John Kørner takes precedence over the socially engaged artist John Kørner. The schism also appears, though less glaringly, in Kvinder til salg (Women for sale). The Workers’ Museum, compared with the Danish royal castle Amalienborg, is anything but an equivalent setting: the museum offers a much more interesting context for his new works of social commentary. Even so, it is as if Brugde Kvinder (Used Women) fails to take into account that The Workers’ Museum challenges the paintings politically in another difficult way.

Translation from the Danish by Richard Simpson.

John Kørner, Paulina, 2009. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.