A guide to the CoBrA group: perhaps the last true avant-garde movement of the 20th century

Seventy-five years on from its founding, we look back on the brief, furious life of a movement opposed to ‘all forms of split between free thought and the action of painting freely.’ Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

Members of the Cobra art movement at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in preparation for the an exhibition, November 1949

CoBrA members, among them Constant, Eugène Brands, Tony Appel, Anton Rooskens, Karel Appel, Jacques Doucet, Gerrit Kouwenaar, Theo Wolvecamp, Lucebert and Jan Elburg, entering the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in preparation for the CoBrA exhibition, November 1949. Photo: Unknown photographer

On 8 November 1948, in a café on the corner of the rue Saint-Jacques in Paris, a group of artists including Constant Nieuwenhuijs, Karel Appel and Corneille — all members of the Dutch Experimentele Groep — met with their Danish counterpart Asger Jorn. Guided by the Belgian painter and poet Christian Dotremont, they wrote and signed their first manifesto, The Case Was Heard.

Dotremont would later recall the founding principles that had, in that moment, united them: ‘Creation before theory; that art must have roots; materialism which begins with the material; the mark as a sign of wellbeing, spontaneity, experimentation: it was the simultaneity of these elements which created CoBrA.’ Dotrement is credited with originating the group’s moniker, which was derived from its members’ home cities: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam.

Karel Appel (1921-2006), De boerderij (La ferme), 1950. Paper collage, gouache and wax crayons on paper laid on canvas. 96.5 x 129.5 cm. Sold for €163,800 on 21 November 2023 at Christie’s Online

Seeking to distance themselves from the theoretical in-fighting of Paris, the original CoBrA members founded a collaborative network that stretched across northern European, including Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, which had only recently been liberated from Nazi rule. They were as much opposed to the hard geometry of Piet Mondrian and de Stijl as they were to the Academy, seeking to break from the rigid forms and restricted palettes that then dominated the avant-garde scene.

Inspired in part by Surrealist automatism, the CoBrA artists made exuberant, interdisciplinary pieces. They did not turn to museums or galleries for inspiration; rather, they looked to ancient Nordic myths, children’s drawings and primitivism — all of which came together in what became known as the ‘language of CoBrA’. For Jorn and his colleagues, these sources brought a profound and refreshing sense of renewal.

Asger Jorn (1914-1973), Portrait: Signora Albissola, 1957. Oil and ripolin on paper laid on masonite. 151 x 100 cm. Sold for €113,400 on 21 November 2023 at Christie’s Online

Pierre Alechinsky (b. 1927), Les Roue, 1971. Watercolour on Japan laid on canvas. Executed in 1971. 98 x 66.5 cm. Sold for €27,720 on 21 November 2023 at Christie’s Online

Also key to the CoBrA ethos was a rejection of traditional Western art’s lionisation of the solitary, artistic genius, and a focus, instead, on producing collaborative pieces such as murals and printed publications, including the eponymous CoBrA Journals.

The movement quickly outgrew its origins, eventually involving some 60 poets, painters and sculptors from Germany, Sweden, France and England, as well as from Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. Among the early converts was painter Pierre Alechinsky, who first saw the work of the CoBrA movement in Brussels in 1949.

He instantly declared allegiance to its utopian, revolutionary spirit. ‘CoBrA,’ he said, ‘means spontaneity; total opposition to the calculations of cold abstraction... and to all forms of split between free thought and the action of painting freely.’

Corneille (1922-2010), Composition, 1949. Oil on canvas laid on wood. 39.5 x 29.5 cm. Sold for €56,700 on 21 November 2023 at Christie’s Online

It was a 1949 exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam that first brought CoBrA to wider global attention. But the coverage was hardly all positive: ‘Botch, Blotch and Splotch’, read the headline of an article in one Dutch newspaper. At the exhibition itself, a reading of CoBrA poems incited audience members to fistfights.

Ultimately, CoBrA would be consumed by its own furious energy: the group disbanded in 1951, just three years after its inception. In large part this was due to a profound disagreement over the role politics should play in art. While Constant and Jorn supported the Communist movements then gaining traction across the West, Dotrement felt that the group should remain completely disengaged from politics.

Constant (1920-2005), Vogel, 1949. Oil on canvas. 49.5 x 59.5 cm. Sold for €126,000 on 21 November 2023 at Christie’s Online

In the end, Dotremont recalled, ‘We did not know any more whether we were painters or writers... Alechinsky collapsed... Jorn departed for the sanatorium, as did I. If we had continued for another month, at that rate, there would not have been any survivors.’

The final CoBrA exhibition, in Liège, Belgium, in November 1951, brought together all the key members, and also featured work by some famous friends — including Joan Miró and Alberto Giacometti — to whom Alechinsky jokingly referred as ‘a few squatters’.

Artists Corneille and Constant in Corneille’s studio, 1949

Corneille (left) and Constant in Corneille’s studio, 1949. Photo: © Nico Koster

Although short-lived, CoBrA undoubtedly left its mark on its members, from Jorn and Enrico Baj, who veered into new territories, to Appel and Alechinsky, who went on to further develop the CoBrA idiom in their work.

The lifeblood of CoBrA can be traced through Jean Dubuffet’s primitivist, Art Brut style; the performances of the Japanese Gutai group; the gestural passions of Abstract Expressionism in New York; and the vivid images of Jean-Michel Basquiat. In 1995, CoBrA’s importance to the development of modern art was cemented with the founding of the CoBrA Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam.

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‘CoBrA was a radical influence on a whole generation of artists,’ says Christie’s specialist Victoria Gramm. ‘Their raw exuberance, which can be seen in the swirling impasto of Karel Appel and the undulating forms of Jorn and Alechinsky, was key to the post-war and European art scene. Even after CoBrA disbanded, these artists continued to travel internationally, form new groups and explore new mediums. They were truly a maelstrom of creativity.’

Bound together by their spirited resistance to accepted modes of art-making, their aspiration to reinvent civilisation through reinventing art made CoBrA perhaps the last true avant-garde movement of the 20th century.

To mark 75 years since the movement’s founding, The Cobra Museum of Modern Art in Amstelveen, the Netherlands, is hosting a series of exhibitions throughout 2023

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