CoBrA: a rare moment in contemporary art

Although many other and younger artists are represented by Jaski Art, the gallery concentrates in particular on the work of painters and sculptors who were involved in the famous CoBrA group. Apart from referring to a type of snake, the word CoBrA is a contraction of the names of the three cities Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. CoBrA was the brainchild of Christian Dotremont, and was formed at the end of 1948 in Paris by the merger of three experimental groups from Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands.


Corneille en Constant
Corneille (left) and Constant in 1948
The Dutch contingent, called the 'Experimental Group Holland,' was formed just after the war by a small number of innovators in art and poetry. They included the painters Karel Appel, Constant Nieuwenhuys and Corneille, and the poets Jan Elburg, Gerrit Kouwenaar and Lucebert, the last of whom also painted. These people wanted to banish the insipidness of that time.

The artistic climate in the Netherlands at that time was characterised by conservatism and isolationism. Dutch art lagged far behind developments in other European countries, and the members of Experimental Group Holland were eager to catch up. They achieved their aim with the formation of CoBrA.

The manifesto 'La Cause était entendue' (The case was heard) was signed on 8 November 1948 in the Parisian café Notre Dame by Asger Jorn (Copenhagen), Joseph Noiret and Christian Dotremont (Brussels) and Constant, Corneille and Karel Appel (Amsterdam). This document, written by Dotremont, was in fact a public repudiation of another manifesto, namely that of the French surrealists, under the title 'La Cause est entendue' (The case is heard). This signalled the birth of CoBrA.

The CoBrA artists - they published their own newsletter, also called CoBrA - wished to take a new direction, leaving behind the dogma of the art academies. They wanted to give free rein to their imagination, without preconceptions, taking their inspiration in particular from children's drawings, the artistic expressions of mentally handicapped people and primitive art, because they recognised so much in it that was spontaneous. Animals such as the bird, the cat, the dog and the snake play the leading role in innumerable CoBrA works, along with fantastic creatures and beings that are made up of a combination of human and animal elements. African masks were another source of inspiration, along with myths and expressions of folk art. The CoBrA artists favoured bright, primary colours, and frequently collaborated in their works.


Cobramodification' - 1949 - Gezamenlijke muurschildering
Jorn, Appel en Corneille op boerderij keramist Erik Nyholm
The first three years after the formation of the group were very turbulent. There was a great furore right from the opening of the CoBrA exhibition in 1949, held at the initiative of Willem Sandberg of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, who devoted no less than seven rooms to it. The newspapers, as expected, spoke about 'revolting art' and the 'provocative behaviour' of theartists. 'Blotch, botch and splotch', was the headline in the daily Het Vrije Volk, for example. An experimental poetry evening in the museumeven degenerated into fisticuffs.

There was only one more exhibition, although it was larger than the one in Amsterdam. This was held in 1951, in Liège. Not long after, in November that year, CoBrA broke up. Many of the members were no longer in agreement, and went their own way. However, these had been three very important years. It is no exaggeration to say that even today, CoBrA has a great influenceon international contemporary art.

"CoBrA.The sound of the word has obscured its original meaning. Did Christian Dotremont foresee that the name of this poisonous, hooded snake wouldbecome a key concept in the history of art? The choice of name was certainly a lucky one. The merger of the experimental groups inCopenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam in the autumn of 1948, in Paris as it happened, was an impulsive act that characterised the approaches ofthe Danish, Belgian and Dutch artists who all seemed to be on the same wavelength.


'Le chercheur des champignons'
Corneille - 1950
Chance played an essential role from the very beginning. Would there ever have been a CoBrA if Asger Jorn and Constant Nieuwenhuys hadn't run into each other in Paris in 1946? Their meeting at an exhibition by Miró in Galerie Pierre is one of the few fortunate moments in art history. The painter from Jutland was six years older and was already familiar with the Parisian art world.

After a short apprenticeship with Fernand Léger in the 1930s, he had taken to the surrealism of Klee and Miró, and along with two other pupils of Léger he painted a mural for the World Fair in 1937. In addition, he was commissioned by Le Corbusier to make an enlargement of a child's drawing, which hung in the entrance to the Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux. This was later seen to have been a symbolic gesture: the spontaneous art of the child indeed heralded a new era.

The Danish Experimentalists caught a glimpse of this during the war years. 'There were few indeed who in the struggle with conventional society managed to retain their originality and develop without losing contact with their childhood years,' wrote Ejler Bille in autumn 1942 in the newspaper Helhesten (Halberd).

It was not until after the war that Constant was able to declare in the newspaper Reflex: 'A living art does not distinguish between beautiful and ugly, because it does not set any aesthetic standards.... If we consider an expression that comprises each category of life, for example the expression of a child (that has not yet become involved in social intercourse), then we do not see this difference. The child does not know other law except its own spontaneous feeling for life, and has no other need than to express it.'


Vragend Kind
'Vragend kind' - Karel Appel - 1950

It was also a lucky accident that Karel Appel and Corneille came in contact with the marxist Constant. Because they expressed the spontaneous feeling for life without any marxist preconceptions, they were able to put the political positions of Constant and those of the surrealist Dotremont into perspective. They were supported in this by Eugène Brands, Anton Rooskens and Theo Wolvecamp, who also viewed art as an 'emotional act.'

Messing around
Despite Constant's need for what he called a change of society and 'new people's art,' the 'A' part of CoBrA brought a sense of freedom and happiness. Karel Appel's 'Freedom screech' left no doubt of this. When he went his own way after CoBrA, he commented in typical laconic Amsterdam style 'I just mess around at it.'

This often misunderstood statement expresses the essence of CoBrA art: the force of spontaneity, the surprise of chance and the mobility of material. Or as Constant termed it 'L'expérience.' The art of CoBrA owes its 'unfettered suggestion' to this experience, this experiment. As Constant declared in his manifesto, 'For this reason, we can say that after a period in which it represented NOTHING, art has now embarked on a period in which it represents EVERYTHING.'

Although the intention of CoBrA was to continue this 'experience' and so to escape the clutches of style, it failed in its attempt. CoBrA did become a style. Could this be because the adventure of the Experimentalists - an adventure that was lived out so enthusiastically and spontaneously and thanks in part to the contribution of experimental poets led to unique experiments in collaboration - lasted only three years? Was the shared climax of the 'expérience' reached in late 1951? Or was it that after its sensational presentation in Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum, the movement of experimental artists had just become too large, too international and so too incoherent?


Tunesische droom
'Tunesische droom' - Asger Jorn - 1948
The efforts of the indefatigable Jorn to keep the CoBrA experience alive, first in Albisola and then in the 'Situationist' milieu to which Constant also belonged, were not able to prevent the development of a CoBrA style. His too early death (in 1973) and the demise of Dotremont (1979), who had watched over the CoBrA heritage like a Cerberus, finally brought an end to the illusion of another society, which with Provo in Amsterdam and the student revolt in Paris had nevertheless appeared to become reality.


Constant, who had withdrawn into his atelier to build his city of the future, New Babylon, went disillusioned into the museums in search of the secret of classical painting. 'We looked to the future with enthusiasm,' he recalled dolefully in 1982 at the first 'posthumous' CoBrA exhibition, in Hamburg. 'We looked on art as an invincible weapon in the fight for freedom. We were poor but enthusiastic, and we didn't care if the public laughed at us. That sort of attitude arises only a certain rare moments.'

CoBrA seems to have been a rare moment in European art in the second half of the 20th century, one that is now over and done with. And yet the vitality of that 'expérience' still arouses astonishment. Perhaps this means that once again, there is a hunger for living art."