The CoBrA Group
Summary of The CoBrA Group
The CoBrA group was a short-lived but highly influential artist collective formed in Paris. Named for the three northern European cities that its founders originated from - Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam - its approximately thirty members became known for their vigorously spontaneous, rebellious style of painting that was heavily inspired by the art of children and the mentally ill. With their intuitive methods, loose, gestural marks and strong colors, CoBrA artists have used of some of the techniques of New York School style of the same era. Yet CoBrA art is more political, and is more sensitive to the huge devastation of the European cities and people after World War II. Their democratic approach to viewing and making was inspired and further expanded what we now call Outsider Art (work made by untrained artists, especially children and the mentally ill) as a serious movement in its own right.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- As citizens of three cities that were formerly under Nazi occupation, one of the group's main driving forces was their desire to confront and provide a strong counterpoint to predominant western ideologies that they felt were stuck in a traumatic past - what they called "a world of decors and hollow facades." They thought post-war art movements (especially abstraction and naturalism) were far too sterile and conservative and called for an unencumbered, expressive approach that rebelled against them.
- Rather than looking to artworks in galleries or museums for inspiration, CoBrA artists were heavily influenced by what they called 'uncivilized' creations - embodied in children's art, works by the mentally ill, and "primitivism" (a now-outdated term that refers to the art of ancient societies in Africa and Asia).
- The one preceding movement that the group did consider worthy of attention was Surrealism. As enthusiastic advocates of spontaneity in the art making process, CoBrA artists were especially interested in pushing the boundaries of the Surrealist idea of 'automatism', a technique that required a maker to surrender all command over their art making by allowing the unconscious mind to control their hand as they worked.
- In many ways CoBrA can be defined by what it opposed: the ongoing legacy of classical art on the work of their contemporaries, geometric abstraction and its intense rationality, the dictatorial approach of the Social Realists, and what they saw as the limiting, bourgeois attitude of the conservative French institution, the Ecole de Paris.
- CoBrA artists were very keen on producing collaborative artworks - including murals, prints and publications - as a way of expressing their disdain for individualism and, by extension, the notion of the solo, genius artist (one of the many aspects of the traditional western art canon that they objected to). This in turn was connected to their strong Marxist beliefs, though none of the group shared the political left's fondness for theorizing.
Overview of The CoBrA Group
Officially formed in a Parisian café on November 8th, 1948 in a meeting organized by Asger Jorn, CoBrA artists came from three countries - Denmark, Belgium, and Holland - that had been isolated from each other for years under Nazi rule. The group of painters, sculptors, and poets had an unusually large number of founding members, generally agreed to be: Asger Jorn, Carl-Henning Pedersen, Karel Appel, Cornelius Guillaume Van Beverloo (known as Corneille), Christian Dotremont, Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys (Constant) and Henry Heerup.
Important Art and Artists of The CoBrA Group
As with many of his fellow CoBrA members, Karel Appel took deep inspiration from the violent events of the Second World War. As part of a series of works Appel called his Objets Poubelles (trash objects), he made a relief painting from pieces of discarded wood and a found window shutter that portrays the smiling yet grief-stricken faces of a group of children abandoned after the war. The title has two meanings in its original Dutch - it can alternatively be translated as 'begging children'. The piece's emotive content, its use of found objects and loose, childlike feel offered a distinctive counterbalance to the perceived sterility of conventional Western art shown in the vast majority of museums at the time. As a declared Marxist, one of Appel's missions was to confront national discomfort about recent events head on.
Questioning Children was actually the title given to two artworks by Appel, the other was a highly controversial mural painted in Amsterdam's town hall. The mural version was heavily criticized for making the civil servants who saw it every day uncomfortable by brutally reminding them of a war they had no desire to remember, and was thus covered with wallpaper for ten years after its creation.
Appel's distinctive use of found objects in what he called a 'primitivist' style had a strong influence on artists working later in the century, from the Ameri-Indian inspired sculptures of Jimmie Durham to the neo-expressionist paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
In After Us, Liberty, Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys, widely known as Constant, worked in a style that was highly influenced by children's drawing. The mainly black canvas features the heads of bizarre creatures and human-like figures scrawled in oil paint. Constant uses arresting touches of red, white and blue to reference the French tricolor flag and his admiration for its symbolic values of liberty, equality, and brotherhood (hence the 'liberty' of the painting's title). Classical art and its legacy was a particular and enduring enemy for the Dutch artist, and he originally entitled the work To Us, Liberty as a tribute to CoBrA's ethos of creative freedom of expression that broke away from classical norms. He changed the title after becoming disillusioned with the possibility of creating genuinely free art in an unfree society, while still wanting to express his '...hopes for the freedom all men are looking for.'
After Us, Liberty is a key example of Constant's desire to express his political affiliations through his work - ideas that he later built on through his work with the highly politicized Situationist International group. It laid the foundations for contemporary artists whose paintings have a strong sense of their own politics, including the highly charged work of African American artist Nina Chanel Abney, which deals with controversies surrounding police brutality and William Powhida's drawings that reflect on the state of modern US democracy.
In The Red Ship, Carl-Henning Pedersen uses simple, childlike strokes in primary colors to depict a larger than life character in the foreground, a swaying palm and a rocking red ship - all typical Pedersen motifs inspired by symbols from folklore. The self-taught painter cultivated in an intentionally 'naive' style, and worked on his canvasses rapidly and spontaneously - a result of his close study of the distinctive techniques used by fresco painters in medieval Danish churches.
Pedersen's paintings all had an intensely close relationship with his poetry - both were solidly grounded in the mysterious world of the ancient Gods of the north and revealed the Danish artist's fascination with what he called "fantasy art."
Useful Resources on The CoBrA Group
- Cobra: The Last Great Avant-Garde Movement of the Twentieth CenturyOur PickBy Willemijn Stokvis
- Asger Jorn: Restless RebelBy SMK
- The Art and Politics of Asger JornBy Karen Kurczynski
- Karel Appel: RetrospectiveBy Michel Ragon, Franz Kalser, and Klaus Ottman