Cobra will reveal a dead time
Cobra will make a hole in the curtain of illusions."
Summary of The CoBrA Group
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 & Accomplishments
- 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they called 'uncivilized' creations - embodied in children's art, works by the mentally ill, and "primitivism" (a now-outdated term that refers to the art of ancient societies in Africa and Asia).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 École 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.
Artworks and Artists of The CoBrA Group
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.
Gouache on found wooden objects - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
After Us, Liberty
In After Us, Liberty, Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys, widely known as Constant, worked in a style that was highly influenced by children's drawing. The mainly black canvas features the heads of bizarre creatures and human-like figures scrawled in oil paint. Constant uses arresting touches of red, white and blue to reference the French tricolor flag and his admiration for its symbolic values of liberty, equality, and brotherhood (hence the 'liberty' of the painting's title). Classical art and its legacy was a particular and enduring enemy for the Dutch artist, and he originally entitled the work To Us, Liberty as a tribute to CoBrA's ethos of creative freedom of expression that broke away from classical norms. He changed the title after becoming disillusioned with the possibility of creating genuinely free art in an unfree society, while still wanting to express his '...hopes for the freedom all men are looking for.'
After Us, Liberty is a key example of Constant's desire to express his political affiliations through his work - ideas that he later built on through his work with the highly politicized Situationist International group. It laid the foundations for contemporary artists whose paintings have a strong sense of their own politics, including the highly charged work of African American artist Nina Chanel Abney, which deals with controversies surrounding police brutality and William Powhida's drawings that reflect on the state of modern US democracy.
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
The Red Ship
In The Red Ship, Carl-Henning Pedersen uses simple, childlike strokes in primary colors to depict a larger than life character in the foreground, a swaying palm and a rocking red ship - all typical Pedersen motifs inspired by symbols from folklore. The self-taught painter cultivated in an intentionally 'naive' style, and worked on his canvasses rapidly and spontaneously - a result of his close study of the distinctive techniques used by fresco painters in medieval Danish churches.
Pedersen's paintings all had an intensely close relationship with his poetry - both were solidly grounded in the mysterious world of the ancient Gods of the north and revealed the Danish artist's fascination with what he called "fantasy art."
Oil on canvas - Collection of Kunsten Museum of Modern Art, Aalborg, Denmark
Le Museau Rouge (The Red Muzzle)
Carved from a block of granite and painted with a simple red 'mouth', Le Museau Rouge was heavily inspired by the ancient runic stones of the Vikings. Like many of Heerup's sculptures, this piece is intentionally ambiguous, sitting somewhere between a reclining female form and a roughly hewn, prehistoric menhir. His sculptural technique was more inspired by the ancient than the modern - his professors at the Royal Danish Academy of Art had been critical of what they viewed as his unsophisticated, outdated carving method inspired by the ancient Egyptians. The simple ornamentation lightly scrawled into the stone to emphasize the physicality of Le Museau Rouge's original granite block is also trademark Heerup, who was constantly determined to stay true to the integrity of his materials by retaining their original shapes.
The contemporary influence of Heerup's distinctive sculptural techniques that embraced the inherent qualities of natural materials is felt in the carved forms created by British land artist Andy Goldsworthy. His work also set the stage for the Environmental art movement of the late 1960s, whose members pushed his critique of traditional sculptural forms into conceptual terrain by working entirely outside the traditional gallery space.
Painted granite - Copenhagen Collection Jean Pollak, Paris
Fête Nocturne (Party at Night)
In this painting the Dutch artist known by his nickname, Corneille, depicted a nighttime celebration in a riot of color and form. One of Corneille's best-known paintings in his native Holland, Fête Nocturne was a prime example of his ability to take familiar subjects (people celebrating, a landscape) and present them in a fresh, energetic way - so achieving the CoBrA's stated desire to create art that everyone could connect with. The curved forms used to loosely depict human heads and playful, letter-like marks to render faces in Fête Nocturne were especially reminiscent of the work of Swiss Expressionist Paul Klee. Corneille, who described himself as "a painter of joy", often portrayed moments of togetherness in an intentionally childlike style. The artist spent a considerable amount of time in various regions of Africa just before and during the CoBrA years. He described experiencing a "sensation of marvelous accord with the universe" while living among indigenous people there that proved highly influential on the tone and developed symbolist forms he would later quote in paintings such as this.
There has been a marked return to this kind of symbolism and joyful freneticism by contemporary American and European painters in the last decade. Some of the most prominent include the personal iconography in the paintings of US painter Eddie Martinez and the frenetically created, semi-human forms of New York based artist Anthony Miler.
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Cobra Museum of Modern Art, Amsterdam
The drawings that make up Les Transformes collection present the forms of letters and words in a playful style that dances around the page use a broad range of colors and often involve spontaneously painted characters alongside the words. Algerian artist Jean-Michel Atlan and Belgian artist, poet, and essayist Christian Dotremont painted one of several series of these peintres mots (word paintings) in a flurry of collaborative activity in what became known as 'The CoBrA House' on the Rue de Marais in Brussels. Dotremont had particularly close ties with the Surrealists, and these works had grown out of his responses to the earlier group's Peintres-poesies. These collaborative pieces embody one of CoBrA's key precepts - their belief that the final creative product and a democratic process were more important than any one ego. "It required a rapport between artist and writer," Dotremont described, "sometimes the writer took the first step, another time the painter did...we gave each other inspiration and released each other's fantasies."
Atlan and Dotremont's use of words and poetry integrated with their visual practice was a major factor in setting the foundations for a diverse range of later artists to work in a similar vein. These include the text paintings of neo-Dada associate John Giorno and pop artist Ed Ruscha, as well as the handwritten poems on white cubes of contemporary Swedish artist Karl Holmqvist.
Mixed media on paper - Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York
On The Silent Myth: Opus 4B
The fourth in a series of seven paintings and prints completed during the CoBrA years, this lithograph print is typical of Danish artist Asger Jorn's distinctive, spontaneous style, here executed in a limited palette of green, black, blue and white. Strange, scribbled characters with multiple eyes, lizard-like creatures and his trademark 'wheel of life' in the scene's 'sky' all combine to create a heady vision of the mythical world of Jorn's construction. The techniques used to create On The Silent Myth were heavily influenced by the automatic works of the Surrealists (especially Andre Masson), which Jorn had seen while living in Paris in the 1930s, as well as by his longstanding interest in traditional folkloric art. Jorn thought that "the relation between visual art and the narration of myth must be silent", hence the series' title. He also saw the seven works as the culmination of all he had learned as an artist up to this point, calling it "the settlement with my past life".
Jorn's concerns and technique demonstrated in On The Silent Myth draw obvious comparisons with American abstract expressionist Cy Twombly, whose post-CoBrA paintings were similarly influenced by Surrealist automatic writing and ancient mythology. Both men had an impact on contemporary artists who construct their own, mythical worlds with a folkloric feel, including the magical drawings and sculptures of British artist Charles Avery and the fantastical photographs of Korean artist JeeYoung Lee.
Lithograph - Donation Jorn, Silkeborg
Beginnings of The CoBrA Group
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 Dotremont, Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys (Constant) and Henry Heerup.
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.
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 Dotremont 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 Dotremont, 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 Dotremont 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.
Exhibition at the Stedelijk (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.
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. Dotremont 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."
The CoBrA Group: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
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 Dotremont - 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 Dotremont, 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 Dotremont. 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 - After The CoBrA Group
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 Dotremont 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 Dotremont'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.