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Botch, Blotch and Splotch: The Exuberant Maelstrom of the Cobra Art Movement.
By Andrew Bay, UK
Few artistic schools from the post WWII era, turned out to be as radical as the CoBrA movement was in its heyday. Up until 1946 when CoBrA came to the fore, Minimalism was still the dominant Art movement in Europe and America. Its general trend had been to make the unnamed, the multidimensional, the insubstantial elements in a work of art, as important as the physical, raw materials of the work. The core idea was self-explanatory: the more layers you remove, the closer you get to the nucleus of the work.
The CoBrA artists were men and women, pitted against their canvases, driven by a visceral desire to change the cultural environments and societies they emerged from, and they managed to just do that, in a most interesting way. Mainstream society and conventions in the Netherlands, were not much different after the 2nd World War, to what they had been prior to the conflict. A quiet, but concerted effort to return to the traditions of the 1920s and 1930s, had been resolutely adopted by the silent majority. A conservative outlook also dominated the post War Dutch art scene, and the old fashioned, outmoded ways of a bygone era, were back in power. But behind closed doors, in the shadows and fog of restless imaginations, new styles, designs and ideas could no longer be contained.
The full impact of these societal changes wouldn’t reach its pinnacle until the beginning of the 1960s, all the way into the late 1970s. But the artists and critics at the forefront of this new movement could see that a breach with the past was already inevitable, back in the late 1940s. After the War, "new art" was still essentially understood as "Modern Art," and its two main pillars were Abstract Art and Surrealism. A few other schools remained visible and were still highly regarded: Fauvism, Abstract Expressionism, Dadaism. These were still understood to represent "modern painting." So the urge to innovate and to deviate could no longer be contained.
The first Cobra artist to stand out amongst his peers was Constant Nieuwenhuys. Born in Amsterdam in 1920, he studied art in Paris in the mid-1940s. Upon returning to Amsterdam in 1946, he single-handedly wrote the manifesto which defined the CoBrA movement with his friend, Danish painter Asger Jorn. "CoBrA" is an acronym for Copenhagen (where Asger came from), Brussels and Amsterdam, the 3 major Northern European cities from which most of the artists who took part in the movement came from. Nieuwenhuys and Jorn wanted to create a "new art of painting" and formulate a concerted reaction in opposition to the dominant political and cultural elites. They wanted to question and challenge the established hierarchies and power systems which regulated and controlled the art world and what was deemed to be artistically acceptable at the time. Nieuwenhuys and Jorn were rapidly joined by a handful of equally brave and far-seeing devotees of the new cause: Karel Appel, Guillaume Cornelis Van Beverloo, a.k.a. Corneille, andd Jan Nieuwenhuys, Constant's brother. CoBrA was truly a movement in the sense that it had a domino effect impact on the global Dutch and Scandinavian art scenes.
By 1948, many more Dutch artists were inspired to join or start their own movements and groups. The Experimental Group for example, consisted of Appel, Corneille and Constant, and the painters, Jan Nieuwenhuijs, Eugene Brands, Aton Rooskens and Aldo Van Eyck. Very quickly, Dutch poets Elburg, and Lucebert joined the group too.
The first large scale CoBrA international exhibition was held in November 1949 with galleries rented from the Stedlijk Museum. It was a small affair, somewhat like a painters' club dinner, but the artists had obtained the support of Willem Sandberg, Amsterdam's most prominent gallery owner: opening night was just around the corner. As it turned out, that first exhibition now holds legendary status and has become an integral part of the CoBrA movement mythology. Elburg, and Lucebert, the poets had designed an enclosed cage in which they'd displayed their works; the painters (Nieuwenhuijs , Appel, Corneille, Theo Wolvecamp and Aldo Van Eyck) had hung up and carefully arranged their canvasses. But to everyone's surprise, the opening speech and proceedings were conducted in French by Belgian painter Christian Dotremont, who was unaware of the poetry performance. The misunderstanding quickly escalated into an argument between the poets and the painters, and the opening night descended into anarchy and violence.
Much to Dotremont's delight, who still fondly remembered the night, many years later: "It was a fantastic thing to see, in the new galleries of the Stedelijk Museum" he famously quipped.
But CoBrA went on to have a much greater impact on the art world scene than any of its founding members could have ever imagined. These artists truly put an end to the old guard's worldview and practices; they worked from the spirit of "artist against canvas" and not overthinking it, but just letting go. In Karel Appel's work in particular, the last bridge that still connected CoBrA to the Conceptual Minimalists, is dismantled. It's no longer the technical workmanship that matters, it's all down to the visualization of an idea, and Appel's imagination overflows with good ideas: his "Elephant" (1950), "Flower Clown" (1978), "Petite Fete" (2006) are all remarkably good concepts. And in many ways these objects fully encapsulate the CoBrA ethos to perfection, because they are not sculptures anymore. They could've sprung out from anywhere. They don't have to be mounted on a wall, or rested on the floor, or hung down from the ceiling. They have been transformed into free architectural figures, in any given space.
CoBrA Art developed from shapes. Substantial, exhaustive shapes, made for a pre-existing location, delineated with an enduring space in mind. The large shapes which CoBrA Art positions in a given space, are the concealed shapes of an outermost structural interior. In other words, CoBrA art grapples with the spaces it inhabits and occupies. As Sol LeWitt once famously said: "All artists, I think, are mystics, to the extent that they do something that's never been done before, and I think of it as, like a leap, you know, that an artist goes off into some kind of unknown space." The CoBrA artists were indeed at the forefront of the movement which encouraged the art world to break out of the museum. In many ways, they anticipated Land Art. The museums had started to reflect a hitherto completely unforeseen problematic: was a gallery still a relevant place to exhibit art? Could there be another context in which to present art to an audience? Abandoned warehouses, factories, old buildings: these were the new locations in which CoBrA pioneered the outdoor exhibitions, thus going off into yet another "kind of unknown space." and consolidating their indelible mark on the history of modern art.
A couple of additional artists need to be briefly mentioned to complete this outline. Pierre Alechinsky is a Belgian architect who was born in 1927.
He joined the CoBrA movement at its inception under the influence of Christian Dotremont and the Niuewenhuys brothers in 1949. He is best remembered for his fantasy literature inspired, vivacious, and aesthetically pleasing paintings, which naturally reflect the flowing spirit of CoBrA. Alongside Asger Jorn, Bengt Lindstrom (b. 1927 Berg, Sweden) was another representative of the CoBrA movement Scandinavian contingent.
Determined to follow up on the leadership of Jorn and Karel Appel, Lindstrom uniquely depicted Nordic mythology in stunning, sculpturesque canvasses, populated with giant Gods, gothic figureheads and bewitching monsters. His most famous work is a colossal 'Y' shaped sculpture erected at the Midlanda airport in Sundsvall, Sweden, in 1995.