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About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

International group of artists founded in the Café Notre-Dame, Paris, on 8 November 1948 and active until 1951. The name was a conflation of the initial letters of the names of the capital cities of the countries of origin of the first members of the group: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. The initiators and spokesmen of the group were Asger Jorn, Christian Dotremont and Constant. All were searching, by way of experimental methods, for new paths of creative expression, and all shared similar expectations of the years following World War II: a new society and a new art. Inspired by Marxism, they saw themselves as a ‘red Internationale of artists’ that would lead to a new people’s art. They rejected Western culture and its aesthetics. They also emphatically repudiated Surrealism, as defined by André Breton, although they had found useful points of departure within the movement. Their working method was based on spontaneity and experiment, and they drew their inspiration in particular from children’s drawings, from primitive art forms and from the work of Paul Klee and Joan Miró.

The groundwork for Cobra was laid by a group of artists in Denmark who shared an interest in ancient or surviving forms of folk art. A deep love for the mythical characterized the work of Jorn, Carl-Henning Pedersen, Egill Jacobsen and Henry Heerup, for example The Gramophoneman (painted wood and iron; Ålborg, Nordjyllands Kstmus.) by Heerup; they evoked beings in paint or stone that seemed to belong to a world of folklore. This archetypal figuration is generally missing in the more abstract work of other members of the group such as Ejler Bille, the painters Else Alfelt (1910–74) and Erik Ortvad (b 1917), Svavar Guðnason, Sonja Ferlov Mancoba and the sculptor Erik Thommesen (b 1916), for example in the painting The Dream of St John (1941; Ålborg, Nordjyllands Kstmus.) by Guðnason. The group showed their work in the exhibition society Høst (Harvest) and grouped themselves around the periodical Helhesten.

The Belgian wing of Cobra originated from the Belgian/French movement Le Surréalisme Révolutionnaire, founded in 1947 in opposition to Breton and consisting mostly of somewhat older Surrealist writers. The leader of the movement in Belgium was Christian Dotremont, who later became the organizational axis of the Cobra movement. The only Belgian painter to be actively involved with Cobra was Pierre Alechinsky. The Belgian members were particularly interested in writing as a pictorial method of expression.

The Dutch contribution to Cobra was formed from De Experimentele Groep in Holland, founded in 1948 by Constant, Karel Appel, Corneille, Theo Wolvecamp (b 1925), Anton Rooskens and Jan Nieuwenhuys (1922–86). Shortly afterwards they were joined by Eugène Brands and the poets Gerrit Kouwenaar (b 1923), Jan G. Elburg (b 1919) and Lucebert.

The brief but intense alliance created by Cobra allowed many collaborative projects to be realized, including a series of publications and exhibitions. Among these were the periodical Cobra and the first Exposition Internationale d’Art Expérimental, held in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in November 1949; the show was received with hostility by both press and public. In the same month the group was officially renamed the Internationale des Artistes Expérimentaux because of the increasing number of members of widely differing nationalities. Among them were the French painters Jean-Michel Atlan and Jacques Doucet; the German painter Karl-Otto Götz; the English painters Stephen Gilbert (b 1910) and William Gear (b 1915); the Swedish painter Anders Österlin (b 1926); and the American sculptor Shinkichi Tajiri. Members also collaborated on murals, for example those by Constant, Corneille and Appel at the house of Erik Nyholm, Funder, near Silkeborg, Denmark (see 1982 Paris exh. cat., pp. 72–3), signed and dated 30 November 1949, and on single works on canvas or paper. If a painter and writer were involved in such a collaboration, the result was called a peinture-mot. Dotremont in particular enjoyed these collaborations, which he continued long after 1951 with many former members of Cobra.

Although the group emphasized versatility and diversity rather than any kind of formalism, their common influences and interests led to an almost recognizable Cobra ‘language’, characterized by their world of fantastic beings (e.g. Constant’s Fantastic Animals, 1947; Ålborg, Nordjyllands Kstmus.startend), the use of vivid colours and a spontaneous interplay of line and colour (e.g. Corneille’s Birds, gouache on paper, 1948; Amsterdam, Stedel Mus.). These traits, in the work of the painters who continued after 1951 to build on the foundations laid by Cobra, gradually developed into a single, violently agitated mass of paint, seen primarily in the work of Appel and Jorn, as in Wounded Beast II (oil on masonite, 1951; Silkeborg, Kstmus.) by Jorn. From 1958 this also applied to the work of Alechinsky, who was particularly inspired by Japanese calligraphy. These three artists were significant because of their contributions to the formulation of the Cobra language, which shared many of the visual qualities of Abstract Expressionism. The idealism of the group was also echoed in subsequent international movements. When members began to receive individual acclaim the group lost its initial impetus and dissolved.

Willemijn Stokvis
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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