COBRA was an avant-garde art movement active in Europe from 1948 until 1951. Although the movement was short-lived, it was immensely influential and productive, and many of the artists involved continued to create work throughout the 20th Century.
This post focuses on paintings by the movement’s artists from before and after the period, whose practice is linked and defined by their involvement with COBRA.
Face in a Landscape [Karel Appel, 1961]
COBRA’s origins lie in surrealism, or rather in its participants’ rejection of surrealism. On the 8th of November 1948, six delegates walked out of a conference at the International Centre for the Documentation of Avant Garde Art in Paris, in protest at what they saw as surrealism’s false doctrines and the conference’s lack of serious debate.
The dissident group convened at Café Notre-Dame on the Quai St Michel and discussed their concerns. The artists present that evening were Karel Appel (1921–2006), Constant (1920–2005), Corneille (born 1920), Christian Dotremont (1922–1979), Asger Jorn (1914-1973) and Joseph Noiret (born 1927). Dotremont wrote a short manifesto entitled ‘La Cause Était Entendue’ (The Case was Heard), which they all signed.
Untitled [Karel Appel, 1976]
Image: Diretorio de Arte
Questioning Children [Karel Appel, 1949]
Constant, Appel and Corneille represented the Dutch group Reflex; Jorn signed on behalf of Danish group Host; while Dotremont and Noiret were representatives of the Belgian Revolutionary Surrealist Group. A couple of weeks after the signing of the manifesto, Dotremont invented the name COBRA, using the first letters of the cities Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam.
Two Birds [Constant, 1949]
Image: wood s lot
COBRA was unified by a commitment to artistic freedom in colour and form, a dislike of surrealism, and a shared interest in Marxism and modernism. The group’s ambition was “to maintain international activity…through experimental and organic collaboration, which avoids sterile theory and dogmatism.”
New Babylon Nord [Constant, 1971]
Image: Juan y Susana
One of the endeavours of COBRA was the development of ‘unitary urbanism’, a concept created by the painter Constant. COBRA members envisaged a new urban environment, in which buildings would “commune with each other, integrate with the environment to create synthesised ‘cities’ for a new socialist world’. After the disbanding of COBRA, Constant continued his urban project with his involvement with Situationist International.
Untitled [Corneille, 1991]
Image: DJT Fine Art
The main focus of COBRA was semi-abstract painting with vibrant colours, vigorous marks and wild brushwork. The more figurative of these pictures are populated with distorted human figures and animals. Primitive art, folk art, Art Brut and American action painting were important influences for COBRA artists.
China Suite V [Corneille, 2004]
COBRA was initially formed by six individuals, but rapidly grew to about fifty painters, poets, architects, ethnologists and theorists from ten countries. There might have been many more artists involved if the Iron Curtain had not divided Europe’s political, cultural and geographical landscape. There were early connections with the Czech group Ra, and Prague-based artist Joseph Istler provided work for COBRA’s 1949 exhibition in Amsterdam. These connections were severed by the Soviet clampdown on cultural life in Czechoslovakia.
Je lève, tu lèves, nous rêvons [Christian Dotremont and Asger Jorn, 1948]
Image: International Art Treasures
Although COBRA was only in existence for a few years, it achieved many of its aims with activities including meetings, exhibitions, exchanges and the publication of ‘COBRA’ magazine. While Constant, Dotremont and Jorn directed most of the action; different groups published the eponymous periodical, using French as the common language.
Landscape Structure [William Gear, 1948]
Image: Tate Gallery
The movement was founded through criticism of surrealism. In the first issue of ‘COBRA’ magazine Jorn wrote an article analyzing and deconstructing Andre Breton’s definition of surrealism as “pure psychic automatism”. In a letter to Jorn, Dotremont outlined what he saw as the three threats to COBRA: surrealism, abstract art and surrealism.
Verlorener Liebhaber [Asger Jorn, 1962]
Various COBRA members worked together on a series of collaborations called Peintures-Mot, and along with numerous small shows there were two large-scale exhibitions. The Stedelijk Museum hosted the first of these exhibitions in 1949, while the second was held at Palais des Beaux-Arts in Liege in 1951.
Tristesse blanche [Asger Jorn, 1958]
The collectivism of COBRA was not without tension and scandal. In the summer of 1949, Constant, Jorn and their respective wives took a holiday together on the Danish island of Bornholm. It was during this trip that Jorn began an affair with Constant’s wife, who he would later marry. Jorn’s behaviour met with disapproval in the group, and even outrage amongst Danish COBRA members who considered it disrespectful to take up with another painter’s wife while a guest in their country.
Sérénité Aubaine [Asger Jorn, 1970]
Image: Den Store Danske
Uautoriseret Mane [Svavar Gudnason, 1943]
Along with interpersonal frictions, some COBRA members faced political difficulties. Dotremont, Jacobsen and a few other practioners were forced to leave the Communist Party when the party leadership insisted in social realism in the arts. The movement did, however, maintain its political convictions, with many members committed to Marxism.
Abstract Landscape [Eugène Brands, 1979]
De Kleine Roker [Lucebert, 1959]
Image: Henriette Faas
Geluid en Licht [Lucebert, 1994]
As membership spread across Europe and North America, the group changed its name to ‘Internationale des Artistes Expérimentaux’. The name never caught on, and the movement continued to be know as COBRA.
The Colour of Time Pendule [Pierre Alechinsky, 1975]
Image: Flomenhaft Gallery
Friction within the group and external pressures lead to COBRA disbanding in 1951. Many members continued to be friends and collaborators; Dotremont in particular continued to work closely with leading participants. Numerous artists involved in the movement went on to have fruitful careers, and COBRA can be seen as an important development in European art history.
Paa Livsvejen [Henry Heerup, 1960]
Figure in Magic Landscape [Ejler Bille, 1939]
Textiel ontwerp XVI [Jan Nieuwenhuys, 1960]
Image: Jan Nieuwenhuys
In an article for first issue of ‘International Situationiste’ in 1958, Jorn and Constant reflected on the legacy of COBRA: “The representatives of its most advanced tendency continued their pursuits in new forms; but others abandoned experimental activity, and now use their ‘talent’ to make the COBRA picture style, the only tangible result of the movement, fashionable.”