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The CoBrA Group

Started: 1948

Ended: 1951

The CoBrA Group Timeline

Quotes

"A painting is not a structure of colours and lines, but an animal, a night, a cry, a man, or all of these together."
Constant
"Today's individualist culture has replaced creation with artistic production, which has produced nothing but signs of a tragic impotence and cries of despair from the individual, enslaved by aesthetic prohibitions."
Constant
"We were poor but enthusiastic, and we didn't care if the public laughed at us."
Corneille
"Salvation is in art and...Cobra will defy all the conformists of the time
Cobra will reveal a dead time
Cobra will make a hole in the curtain of illusions."
Corneille
"Cobra appeared because it was urgent, necessary; as necessary as bread which fortifies the tummy, the rain which opens the leaves and the sun which awakens the animals of the forest."
Corneille

KEY ARTISTS

"Anonymity is the great hygiene."

Synopsis

The CoBrA group was a short-lived but highly influential artist collective formed in Paris. Named for the three northern European cities that its founders originated from - Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam - its approximately thirty members became known for their vigorously spontaneous, rebellious style of painting that was heavily inspired by the art of children and the mentally ill. With their intuitive methods, loose, gestural marks and strong colors, CoBrA artists have used of some of the techniques of New York School style of the same era. Yet CoBrA art is more political, and is more sensitive to the huge devastation of the European cities and people after World War II. Their democratic approach to viewing and making was inspired and further expanded what we now call Outsider Art (work made by untrained artists, especially children and the mentally ill) as a serious movement in its own right.

Key Ideas

As citizens of three cities that were formerly under Nazi occupation, one of the group's main driving forces was their desire to confront and provide a strong counterpoint to predominant western ideologies that they felt were stuck in a traumatic past - what they called "a world of decors and hollow facades." They thought post-war art movements (especially abstraction and naturalism) were far too sterile and conservative and called for an unencumbered, expressive approach that rebelled against them.
Rather than looking to artworks in galleries or museums for inspiration, CoBrA artists were heavily influenced by what they called 'uncivilized' creations - embodied in children's art, works by the mentally ill, and "primitivism" (a now-outdated term that refers to the art of ancient societies in Africa and Asia).
The one preceding movement that the group did consider worthy of attention was Surrealism. As enthusiastic advocates of spontaneity in the art making process, CoBrA artists were especially interested in pushing the boundaries of the Surrealist idea of 'automatism', a technique that required a maker to surrender all command over their art making by allowing the unconscious mind to control their hand as they worked.
In many ways CoBrA can be defined by what it opposed: the ongoing legacy of classical art on the work of their contemporaries, geometric abstraction and its intense rationality, the dictatorial approach of the Social Realists, and what they saw as the limiting, bourgeois attitude of the conservative French institution, the Ecole de Paris.
CoBrA artists were very keen on producing collaborative artworks - including murals, prints and publications - as a way of expressing their disdain for individualism and, by extension, the notion of the solo, genius artist (one of the many aspects of the traditional western art canon that they objected to). This in turn was connected to their strong Marxist beliefs, though none of the group shared the political left's fondness for theorizing.

Most Important Art

The CoBrA Group Famous Art

Questioning Children (1949)

Artist: Karel Appel
As with many of his fellow CoBrA members, Karel Appel took deep inspiration from the violent events of the Second World War. As part of a series of works Appel called his Objets Poubelles (trash objects), he made a relief painting from pieces of discarded wood and a found window shutter that portrays the smiling yet grief-stricken faces of a group of children abandoned after the war. The title has two meanings in its original Dutch - it can alternatively be translated as 'begging children'. The piece's emotive content, its use of found objects and loose, childlike feel offered a distinctive counterbalance to the perceived sterility of conventional Western art shown in the vast majority of museums at the time. As a declared Marxist, one of Appel's missions was to confront national discomfort about recent events head on.

Questioning Children was actually the title given to two artworks by Appel, the other was a highly controversial mural painted in Amsterdam's town hall. The mural version was heavily criticized for making the civil servants who saw it every day uncomfortable by brutally reminding them of a war they had no desire to remember, and was thus covered with wallpaper for ten years after its creation.

Appel's distinctive use of found objects in what he called a 'primitivist' style had a strong influence on artists working later in the century, from the Ameri-Indian inspired sculptures of Jimmie Durham to the neo-expressionist paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Read More ...

The CoBrA Group Artworks in Focus:

Beginnings

Officially formed in a Parisian café on November 8th, 1948 in a meeting organized by Asger Jorn, CoBrA artists came from three countries - Denmark, Belgium, and Holland - that had been isolated from each other for years under Nazi rule. The group of painters, sculptors, and poets had an unusually large number of founding members, generally agreed to be: Asger Jorn, Carl-Henning Pedersen, Karel Appel, Cornelius Guillaume Van Beverloo (known as Corneille), Christian Dotrement, Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys (Constant) and Henry Heerup.

Host Exhibition in Copenhagen in 1948. Carl-Henning Pedersen drew over the photograph in pen and ink

These youths had all been irredeemably impacted by the trauma of the war, and were united by a feeling of extraordinary fortune to have survived an experience that had killed so many of their contemporaries together with a desire to achieve an artistic rebirth that they hoped would lead others to self-fulfillment. "We wanted to start again, like a child," said Karel Appel of the group's foundation.

CoBra Roots

The Swiss artist Paul Klee was particularly interested in the art created by children. He gathered inspiration from his own and his son's childhood drawings and thought that these avenues opened a completely different path to artistic creativity away from the century-old traditions of high art. A number of artists in the Modernist epoch followed similar methods - for example Wassily Kandinsky and Pablo PicassoPablo Picasso in their exploration of "primitive" art. Klee in particular had a major exhibition in Amsterdam in 1948, and a number of CoBrA artists referred to him specifically.

The Manifesto: "La cause était entendue"

Soon after this initial meeting, Christian Dotrement wrote the group's manifesto, entitled La Cause Était entendue (The Case Was Decided). It set out the group's determination to reject what they saw as the "sterile abstractions" of geometric art that had been so popular in the previous two decades - particularly singling out the work and ideas of Piet Mondrian for criticism. According to Dotrement, they settled on the moniker 'CoBrA' as "...a tribute to the geographic passion which filled us in our refound freedom, giving birth to the animal myth."

The manifesto's title was actually a play on the name of an influential document, La Cause Est Entendue (The Case Is Decided), which had been produced by a breakaway group of Belgian Surrealists in 1947. It pointed to the younger group's complex relationship to Surrealism - Asger Jorn and Christian Dotrement had been key members of this earlier renegade group, and they and other CoBrA members explicitly denounced the 'traditional' Surrealist ideas of André Breton, but would end up bringing many of the movement's methods to bear in their new artistic venture. The 'organic surrealism' of Max Ernst, Joan Miró and André Masson would become highly influential on the free flowing, automatic style of painting that would be practiced by Appel, Jorn, Corneille and Pierre Alechinsky. For example. Appel's Objets Poubelles were also influenced by Surrealist 'chance objects', while Surrealism's concept of the 'planned accident' would compel Jorn to write his 1952 book Luck and Chance in 1952 and became central to many CoBrA artists' methods.

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The CoBrA Group Overview Continues

Exhibition at the Stedelijk (1949)

CoRrA members in front of exhibition at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam - 1949

Although CoBrA artists exhibited prolifically, holding their first show in Brussels only a few months after the group's inception, it was their 1949 exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam that would bring them broader attention. Championed by the museum's director Willem Sandberg, the intentionally provocative show was met with a level of outrage comparable to the reception of the first Dada activities after the First World War. The Dutch paper Het Vrije Volk led its report with the headline 'Botch, Blotch and Splotch', and fistfights broke out in the audience during a reading of CoBrA poems - held in a room lit by a single bulb and adorned with vandalized copies of classical poetry volumes accompanied with angry slogans by the group's artists.

The cover of the exhibition catalogue was a provocative photomontage of a tongue sticking straight out at the viewer, and the show's installation was designed in a controversial (and eventually highly influential) style by an architect friend of CoBrA, Aldo Van Eyck. The public reaction to the Stedelijk show, though purposefully provoked and partially desired, proved too much for the group, and they all moved to Paris in late 1949 in the hope of a more generous reception there.

CoBrA The Bregnerød Murals (1949)

The CoBrA artists embarked on one of their most extensive collaborative works from mid-September to mid-October 1949 at Bregnerød near Copenhagen, a project that involved family and friends as well as the core members of the group. They had been invited to 'decorate' the interior of a house used as a retreat for architecture students, and used the opportunity to experiment freely and spontaneously all over the walls, floors, and ceilings of the property. The resulting works became known as The Bregnerød Murals, and included loose figures by Jorn, Pedersen and British associate member Stephen Gilbert, and ceiling murals featuring symbolic, mythical figures. Dotrement would later reflect on their time at Bregnerød as embodying the group's spirit of inclusivity, spontaneity and lust for experimentation, saying "...we were not organized, we were organic."

Concepts and Styles

"Desire Unbound"

Appel, Corneille and Constant in Amserdam - 1948. Appel's sculpture is in the foreground

The unifying aesthetic common to all CoBrA artists can be summed up in their notion of 'desire unbound', another idea with its origins in Surrealist thought that they had such an ambivalent relationship with. The group used the term to express the importance of pure pleasure, intuition, spontaneity and improvisation in the creative process - all qualities they associated with "primitivism", children's, and outsider art rather than that of the traditional canon.

"Desire unbound" took many forms. The rapidly painted, mask-like forms of Corneille's Fête Nocturne; the mythological creature rendered in the brightest of primary colors in Carl-Henning Pedersen's The Yellow Star; Karel Appel's intentionally ill-proportioned animals sprung straight from his borderline tortured imagination, and in the highly intuitive carving techniques of Henry Heerup.

Words and Poetry

Many of the CoBrA artists were active wordsmiths as well as visual artists - the group often used words as an artistic material akin to paint or stone, while they saw poetry as another art form that needed to be released from the shackles of tradition. Founder member Carl-Henning Pedersen had started his creative career as a poet before starting to paint, while Christian Dotrement - author of CoBrA's original manifesto and notable Surrealist - was a prominent essayist and poet before he became interested in visual art.

Key examples of the ways CoBrA artists used words in their work include: Karel Appel's decorated letters to friends, in which he used typed sentences as structures for pen drawings of bizarre figures; the collaborative Peintres Mots created by Dotrement, Asger Jorn, Jean-Michel Atlan, and Pierre Alechinsky, and Pedersen's illustrated Dream Poems that reflected on ancient Norse mythology.

CoBrA Journals and Publications

As is to be expected from a group that counted gifted poets, essayists and critical writers among its members, CoBrA was prolific in its production of journals, periodicals and other publications. One of the most prominent of these offerings was Reflex, an ambitious art review with an international focus that printed poems, reproductions of members' work, articles, and lithographs with a particular focus on the art of the insane. Started in 1948 by the pre-CoBrA 'Dutch Experimental Group', which included Jorn, Appel, Constant, and Corneille, it lasted well into the CoBrA era.

The eponymous CoBrA Journals (or periodicals) are the best known of the group's published output. With their artist-designed covers featuring snakes wrapped around intricate typography and other provocative images; enthusiastic statements of the group's ideals; decorated poems and critical essays, the ten journals were put together by editor-in-chief, Christian Dotrement. They occasionally served a dual purpose, with Journal no.5 serving as catalogue for the notorious Stedelijk exhibition, for example.

Though not hugely well known in their own right, these publications were the precursors to the seminal and hugely influential Situationist International magazine published by the group of the same name, formed by key CoBrA members a few years after its dissolution.

Later Developments

Entrance to the International Exhibition of Experimental Art in Amsterdam - 1949.

The group disbanded in 1951, after three highly productive years. It was politics, namely a disagreement about whether it had a place in art, which caused key relationships in the group to break down. While Christian Dotrement and his supporters thought CoBrA should be completely disengaged from political involvement, Jorn and Constant were becoming ever more supportive of Communist movements taking off across the western world. Driving forces Asger Jorn and Christian Dotrement's health was also a major factor in the group's disintegration - they concurrently contracted tuberculosis, a disease it took both artists years to recover from.

A farewell exhibition of 35 artists at the Palais de Beaux Arts in Liege, Belgium in November 1951 featured all the major members, as well as prominent friends of the group including Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miró who Alechinsky humorously referred to as 'a few squatters.'

It was far from the end of the road for the CoBrA artists, however, with all continuing to practice with a distinctly CoBrA flavor for decades to follow. Despite his poor health in the immediate aftermath of CoBrA folding, the ever-energetic Asger Jorn also started a small, experimental group he called The International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus. From 1957 - 72, Jorn and Constant would go on to become key figures in the Situationist International movement, a highly political organization that shared many of CoBrA's ideals with an added social revolutionary bent.

The establishment of a Cobra Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam in 1995 solidified the group's importance to the art historical canon that they had once sought to disrupt. The works of prominent members have also fetched extraordinary prices, with a 2006 auction of CoBrA works in Copenhagen raising the highest amount ever in a single auction in Denmark.

The rise of what's now referred to as the Outsider Art movement - a term used to refer to any untrained artist who operates outside the mainstream art world - can be directly traced to CoBrA. Artworks in this genre have grown hugely in popularity over the last twenty years, the annual Outsider Art Fair held in Paris and New York, for example, now attracts 60 international exhibitors and work by outsider artists regularly fetches the same six figure sums at auction as many pieces from trained contemporary artists.


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Useful Resources on The CoBrA Group

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Cobra: The Last Great Avant-Garde Movement of the Twentieth Century Recomended resource

By Willemijn Stokvis

books on individual artists

Asger Jorn: Restless Rebel

By SMK

The Art and Politics of Asger Jorn

By Karen Kurczynski

More Interesting Books about The CoBrA Group
CoBrA: Marxist Expressionism of a Postwar Generation

By Ellen van Wiegand
The Culture Trip

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