The members of Cobra found one another in their shared desire for a new, free art. In the three short years that Cobra flourished – from 1948 through 1951 – they created an enormous number of works of art which are enthusiastically colourful and rich in fantasy. They experimented with all kinds of techniques and materials, and they set developments in post-war art European art on a new track.
The Evolution of CoBrA
In 1948, several Danish, Dutch and Belgian artists travelled to Paris for an international conference on Surrealism. The Belgian thinker and poet Christian Dotremont found that art must bring about real social change, and he was indignant about the attitude of the Surrealists, whom he found far too theoretical. He decided to set up a new group to promote new experimental art. His ideas were shared by Joseph Noiret, also a Belgian, Asger Jorn from Denmark and the Dutch artists Karel Appel, Constant Nieuwenhuijs and Corneille. Together, in the Hôtel Notre Dame café, they signed the founding CoBrA Manifesto on 8 November, 1948. Cobra is an acronym for COpenhagen, BRussels and Amsterdam. Cobra was the first post-war collaboration of European artists, with a range of artists and writers joining the group once it was founded.
Multifaceted Primitivism and International Collaboration
The members of Cobra strove to achieve a direct and spontaneous expression. To achieve this, they found inspiration in the creative expressions of children and the mentally handicapped, naïve art, folk art, non-Western and tribal art, as well as forms of Scandinavian primitive art from the Middle Ages and prehistory. Experimenting with materials, working methods and different forms of expression were fundamental to their work. These artists were strongly averse to nationalism and rebelled against the dominant culture of the bourgeoisie. Their socialist ideals embraced a bond between the artists themselves, as well as between artists and the people and between world cultures. Their international collaboration took form in peinture-mots, or collaborative word paintings, a magazine, travel and mutual exchanges, exhibitions and collaboratively produced works, including joint works with writers and poets and the collaborative painting of murals.
Cobra was the most important international avant-garde movement in the art world of Europe directly after the Second World War.
The End Is the Beginning
Willem Sandberg, director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, recognized the new spirit of the times in the work of the Cobra artists. He gave the young artists free rein to put together their first group exhibition in 1949, at the Stedelijk Museum. The exhibition caused an uproar. The Dutch press called the experimental art of Cobra ‘scribble, claptrap and splotches’. Despite the attraction of working collaboratively across international borders, the international activities of Cobra eventually began to dissipate. Individual artists ultimately began pursuing their own directions. Following their group exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Liège, in October of 1951, Cobra was officially dissolved. Karel Appel, Corneille and
Constant moved to Paris, where each developed a personal style of his own.
In the Netherlands, Eugène Brands, Anton Rooskens and Theo Wolvecamp developed an abstract-ex-pressive style of painting. The older Danish artists cherished their interaction with the internationale Cobra artists as a highlight of their artistic development. Christian Dotremont also continued to express the ideals of Cobra. Constant and Asger Jorn again found one another in Situationist International, another new and revolutionary art movement. In the late 1950s, Constant began developing his New Babylon, a visionary architecture for homo ludens – man at play.
The Spirit of CoBrA
The art and the thinking of the Cobra group is the central focus of the Cobra Museum. The Cobra Museum collection includes paintings, works on paper, sculptures, ceramics, textile design, poems, art publications and magazines, as well as a rich archive of historic photographs, posters and other period documents. Cobra has become part of the canon of art history, but the spirit of Cobra is still alive and well. In today’s globalized and highly technical world, the importance of an alternative culture, based on international solidarity and creativity, is more relevant and important than ever. The Cobra Museum is therefore actively connecting the collection and the history of CoBrA with contemporary artists and timely subject matter, for example in Brutal Vitality , a major installation by the Danish artist duo Bank & Rau, which incorporates selected works and documents from the Cobra Museum collection.