The CoBrA art collective – the last true avant-garde art movement of the 20th century
On November 8, 1948, in a café at the corner of rue Saint-Jacques in Paris, a group of artists including Constant Nieuwenhuijs, Karel Appel and Corneille — all members of the Dutch Experimentele Groep — met 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 united them at that time: “Creation before theory; that art must have roots; materialism that begins with matter; the brand as a sign of well-being, spontaneity, experimentation: it is the simultaneity of these elements that created CoBrA.’ Dotrement is the origin of the group’s nickname, derived from the cities of origin of its members: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam.
Seeking to distance themselves from the theoretical struggles of Paris, the original members of CoBrA founded a collaborative network that stretched across northern Europe, including Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, which had only recently been liberated from the Nazi regime. They were as opposed to the hard geometry of Piet Mondrian and de Stijl as they were to the Academy, seeking to break away from the rigid forms and restrained palettes that then dominated the avant-garde scene.
Inspired in part by surrealist automatism, the artists of CoBrA have produced exuberant and interdisciplinary pieces. They didn’t turn to museums or galleries for inspiration; instead they turned to ancient Norse 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 springs have brought a deep and refreshing sense of renewal.
Another key element of CoBrA’s philosophy was the rejection of the lionization of traditional Western art of solitary artistic genius, and the emphasis, instead, on the production of collaborative pieces such as murals and publications. printed, 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 Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Among the first converts was the painter Pierre Alechinsky, who first saw the work of the CoBrA movement in Brussels in 1949.
He immediately declared allegiance to its utopian and revolutionary spirit. “CoBrA, he says, means spontaneity; total opposition to the calculations of cold abstraction… and to any form of cleavage between free thought and the action of painting freely.’
It was a 1949 exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam that brought CoBrA to worldwide attention. But the coverage hasn’t been entirely positive: “Botch, Blotch and Splotch,” reads the headline of an article in a Dutch newspaper. During the exhibition itself, a reading of CoBrA poems incited the spectators to fight.
Ultimately, CoBrA would be consumed by its own furious energy: the band disbanded in 1951, just three years after its inception. Much of this was due to deep disagreement about the role politics should play in art. While Constant and Jorn supported communist movements then gaining ground across the West, Dotrement felt the group should remain completely disengaged from politics.
At the end, Dotremont remembers: “We no longer knew if we were painters or writers… Alechinsky was collapsing… Jorn left for the sanatorium, so did I. If we had continued for another month, at this rate, there would have been no survivors.
The last CoBrA exhibition, in Liège, Belgium, in November 1951, brought together all the key members and also featured works by a few famous friends – including Joan Miró and Alberto Giacometti – whom Alechinsky jokingly referred to as “a few squatters”.
Although short-lived, CoBrA undoubtedly left its mark on its members, from Jorn and Enrico Baj, who veered into new territory, to Appel and Alechinsky, who continued to develop the CoBrA idiom in their work.
CoBrA’s lifeblood can be traced through Jean Dubuffet’s primitivist Art Brut style; the performances of the Japanese group Gutai; the gestural passions of abstract expressionism in New York; and the vivid images of Jean-Michel Basquiat. In 1995 the importance of CoBrA for the development of modern art was cemented with the founding of the CoBrA Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam.
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“CoBrA had a radical influence on a whole generation of artists,” says Christie’s scholar 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 European and post-war art scene. Even after CoBrA disbanded, these artists continued to travel overseas, form new bands and explore new mediums. They were truly a maelstrom of creativity.
Bound by their fiery resistance to accepted modes of artistic creation, their aspiration to reinvent civilization by reinventing art made CoBrA perhaps the last true avant-garde movement of the 20th century.