Who are the Cobra artists?
The CoBrA style
Typical subject matter
The theories of CoBrA
Working together on one canvas, one sheet of paper and one wall. Possible?
Peinture-mots: word paintings
Two major collaborative projects in Denmark: the Bregner�d �congress� and Erik Nyholm�s farmhouse
The Cobra journal
Two major Cobra exhibitions: Amsterdam 1949 and Li�ge 1951
CoBrA publications and the film �CoBrA, een opstand tegen de orde� by Jan Vrijman
A cobra is indeed a dangerous snake, but here the word Cobra is derived from the French names of the cities of Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. The artists who founded the CoBrA group during a major international conference held in Paris in 1948 came from these three European capitals. A curled snake became the symbol of the movement.
It was in the Paris caf� Notre Dame that Asger Jorn (from Copenhagen), Joseph Noiret and Christian Dotremont (from Brussels) and Constant, Corneille and Karel Appel (from Amsterdam) signed the manifesto 'La Cause �tait entendue� (The Case was Heard). This manifesto, drawn up by Dotremont, was a response to a statement by the French Surrealists entitled 'La Cause est entendue' (The Case is Heard). In it Dotremont makes it clear they are no longer in agreement with the French artists. The CoBrA painters wanted to break new ground, preferring to work spontaneously and with the emphasis more on fantastic imagery. In 1951 the CoBrA movement was officially disbanded, yet during its short existence CoBrA rejuvenated Dutch modern art.
The core of the CoBrA group consisted of the aforementioned painters who had signed the manifesto. They were soon joined by many other artists and in the end over forty artists were members of the CoBrA movement or indirectly involved. Not only painters, but also sculptors, poets, photographers and filmmakers felt drawn to CoBrA�s aims. Below is an alphabetical list of the group�s leading members:
from Denemarken: Mogens Balle, Ejler Bille, Henry Heerup, Egill Jacobsen, Carl-Henning Pedersen.
from Belgi�: Pierre Alechinsky, Hugo Claus, Reinhoud d'Haese.
from Nederland: Eug�ne Brands, Lucebert, Jan Nieuwenhuys, Anton Rooskens, Theo Wolvecamp.
Artists from countries other than the original three also took part, including:
Jean Michel Atlan (Algeria), Jacques Doucet (France), William Gear and Stephen Gilbert (Scotland), Karl Otto G�tz (Germany) and Shinkichi Tajiri (America).
The CoBrA artists painted directly and spontaneously. Just like children, they wanted to work expressively without a preconceived plan, using their fantasy and much colour. They rebelled against the rules of the art academies and aimed at a form of art without constraint. They also explored working with all kinds of materials: the experimental was paramount. The Danish CoBrA artists were already experimenting well before the Second World War and Asger Jorn encouraged Constant Nieuwenhuys to do the same in the Netherlands. Subsequently, Constant, together with a band of artists that included Karel Appel and Corneille, set up the �Dutch Experimental Group� on 16 July 1948 which became the CoBrA group on 8 November 1948.
Animals like birds, cats and dogs were favourite subjects, while fantasy animals and creatures were also much loved themes (some creatures were half-human, half-beast). Masks caught the CoBrA artists� imagination and they further drew inspiration from mythology, children�s drawings, folklore, prehistory, eastern calligraphy, primitive art (non-western art from places like Africa and Oceania) and art by the mentally disabled. As Corneille once said, �We used everything and loved everything. We took from children�s drawings, folklore, drawings by the insane, negro masks...� The Danish CoBrA artists in particular were interested in mythology and some felt they even created new myths in their work. As a result they were sometimes known as myth creating artists. The Dutch artists frequently used children�s drawings as a direct source of inspiration. In Belgium, where the interest in writing was huge, several CoBrA artists studied eastern calligraphy. Dotremont and Alechinsky had a fascination for personal handwriting, seeing it as the most intimate and direct expression of a person�s psyche.
A few CoBrA artists were not only involved with making art works but also with theorising about art and the role of the artist in society. Asger Jorn, Christian Dotremont and Constant Nieuwenhuys were very much preoccupied with this. They positioned themselves according to the communist theories of Karl Marx and supplemented his ideas with views on art. Their aim was to have art made for and by everyone, irrespective of class, race, intellect and educational level. Jorn, Dotremont and Constant aspired to an art form that spontaneously evolved out of the artist�s fantasy.
Jorn wrote about the relationship between art and architecture, seeing both inextricably linked. He used a photograph of a primitive hut decorated by its occupants to show how beautiful the combination could be. Jorn�s ideals were realised in several collaborative projects by the CoBrA artists.
In the context of the CoBrA artists - yes. Collaboration was a special pursuit within the CoBrA group. The artists did work together on one canvas, one sheet of paper and one wall. Sometimes the adults also let their children join in. Like Anton Rooskens who made a picture book with his seven-year old daughter Marcelle in which he added colourful illustrations to his child�s verses.
Poets and painters also created joint works, combining word and image in an unrestrained manner. These works were dubbed 'peinture-mots� or word paintings.
In the summer of 1949 CoBrA members and friends, some with their wives and children, came together for a month at a weekend house for Danish architecture students at Bregner�d, near Copenhagen. The Danes were in the majority, although there were a few artists there from France and Sweden. Dotremont was the only Belgian and no Dutch were present. The house was made available to Jorn on the understanding he would decorate the entire interior. Like one large family everyone lived and worked together making paintings, poems and sculptures. The walls of the house and many of the objects present were sacrificed as part of the process. During the exercise, the ideals of CoBrA were realised: a small, free society expressing itself without any special requirements or preconceived ideas. At the same time Jorn�s ideal of combining art and architecture was also achieved in a practical sense.
The Dutch artists Appel, Constant and Corneille were received at the farmhouse of Erik Nyholm, a ceramist and trout farmer, in late November 1949. Within the shortest possible time here, too, doors, walls and ceiling as well as household objects were covered with fantastic creatures. It formed an animated integral whole. The three Dutch painters wrote their names and date above a door, while Corneille wrote above the entrance to the house the words: 'Entrez, ici c�est vivre'. After they left Jorn also visited the farm and together with Nyholm painted a left-over blank wall in the kitchen. Fortunately Jorn recorded everything on film as these paintings, apart from Constant�s ceiling, have since disappeared.
The journal of the CoBrA movement was given the same name as the group and was seen as the best means of achieving international collaboration. As well as being �secretary general� of the group, Christian Dotremont was editor of the CoBrA publication. It was mainly written in French and featured articles, reproductions of art works, stories and poems. Issue Four was a special edition as it was used as the catalogue for the first large international exhibition at Amsterdam�s Stedelijk Museum in 1949. The cover featured a sizeable tong sticking out of a wide open mouth: the artists had clearly had enough of bourgeois society.
During its brief existence two major CoBrA exhibitions took place - one in Amsterdam in 1949 and the other in Li�ge in 1951.
In Amsterdam the then director of the Stedelijk Museum, Willem Sandberg, made seven rooms available to artists from ten different countries. Sandberg was an extremely progressive man and was keen to show work of new artists. Most of the paintings were small as the artists had little money to spare, so Sandberg decided to give them an advance in order to buy materials. In the week preparing for the show Appel, Constant, Corneille and Brands found time to make a few large canvases. Appel even produced two, while Corneille made a cube instead of a painting on a flat canvas.
The exhibition was designed by Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck, who was extremely enthusiastic about the spontaneous way in which the Dutch CoBrA artists worked. He did this in a highly unconventional manner. He hung the canvases at different heights, sometimes three metres off the ground. He set up a few works against the skirting-board of a wall. For the work of the Dutch poets in the group he made a large cage of black slats and placed this against the wall of a small room painted black. Between the slats he hung word paintings, poetry anthologies and individual slogans. Poems by others not considered �good� by the exhibiting poets were stuck onto the wall and marked with a huge cross. The Dutch experimental poets wanted to scrap these altogether. Visitors to the exhibition heard African drum rolls in the background. There was an outcry in the papers about the exhibition. The art critic of Het Vrije Volk wrote about �daubs, splodges and bunkum in the Stedelijk Museum�. Appel, Constant and Corneille were branded as �messpots, daubers and charlatans�.
The Li�ge exhibition was much bigger but was to be the last CoBrA manifestation. Opinions among its members had become divided and they were not meeting each other as frequently. After the exhibition each went their separate way.
Books on CoBrA are available in the museum bookshop. The local Amstelveen library also has publications and catalogues on the CoBrA movement.
Jan Vrijman�s 50-minutes film 'Cobra, een opstand tegen de orde' (Cobra, a Revolt against the Order. In Dutch) can be seen in the museum by prior request: call 020-5475050.