Progression of Art
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 - Tate Collection, London
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 - Tate Collection, London
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