CoBrA
European Abstract Expressionist Painting Group Associated with "Art Informel".

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The Crying Crocodile Tries to
Catch the Sun (1956)
Guggenheim Museum, Venice.
By Karel Appel.

Cobra Group (1948-1951)

The European equivalent of the gesturalism or "action painting" style of American Abstract Expressionism, COBRA was a non-conformist avant-garde movement founded by painters, sculptors and graphic artists from the Danish group Host, the Dutch group Reflex, and the Belgian Revolutionary Surrealist Group. One of the few modern art movements to come out of Northern Europe, its painting is best known for its child-like imagery, strong primary colours and expressive brushstrokes. Like Tachisme, the COBRA group was closely related to the gesturalist wing of the broader European abstract expressionist school known as Art Informel, and derives its style from the early expressionist movement in Germany.

Foundation and Membership

The name CoBrA comes from the initials of the founders' home cities: Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam.

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The group's founders included the Danish artists Asger Jorn (1914-73) and Carl-Henning Pedersen (1913-2007); the Belgian writer Christian Dotremont (1922-79) and painters Pierre Alechinsky (b.1927) and Corneille Beverloo (b.1922); and the Dutch painters Karel Appel (1921-2006) and Constant (C.A. Nieuwenhuys) (1920-2005). Other participants in COBRA included: Jean Dubuffet (1901-85), Henry Heerup (1907-1993), Svavar Guonason (1909-1988), Else Alfelt (1910-1974), Ejler Bille (1910-2004), Stephen Gilbert (1910-2007), Jean-Michel Atlan (1913-1960), Aart Kemink (1914-2006), William Gear (1915-1997), Erik Ortvad (1917-2008), Jorgen Nash (1920-2004), Pol Bury (1922-2005), Lotti van der Gaag (1923-1999), Lucebert (1924-1994), Edouard Jaguer (1924-2006), Hugo Claus (1929-2008), and Jacques Calonne (b.1930). The COBRA group was formed in November 1948 at a meeting in the Cafe Notre-Dame, Paris, following the signing of its manifesto "La Cause Était Entendue" (The Case was Heard).

 

Aims

Against the background of a continent destroyed by war, the members of COBRA rejected the conventional values of a society which had spawned Auschwitz, and promoted their vision of a new type of expressionism for the people. They were interested in producing art that emphasized childish instincts such as spontaneity and impulse. Rather than bothering to reproduce the world around them, they sought to exploit the free expression of their subconscious and go with their instincts. They demanded an "art of immediacy" capable of conveying both the inhumanity of man and the hope of happier future. They were adamantly opposed to the rationality of geometric abstraction, the dogmas of Socialist Realism and the bourgeois prettiness associated with the Ecole de Paris. Like the 1916 Dada movement, they also rejected traditional modern art, including the theoretical conventions of both figurative and abstract painting. Instead, they utilized elements from both genres with the aim of creating a universal populist art to liberate the creativity of mankind.

COBRA Manifestos, Journal, Exhibitions

To propagate their artistic visions, the group published manifestos and ten issues of the magazine CoBrA, in which they also printed a number of their "word-paintings" - collaborative efforts of artists and writers. In addition, they organized three COBRA exhibitions: in Copenhagen (1948), at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1949), and at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Liege (1951).

Influences and Style of Art

COBRA artists got their inspiration from several different sources, notably: prehistoric art, various forms of primitivism, so-called folk art, gestural and textual graffiti, Nordic mythology, and especially children's pictures, Art Brut and other types of Outsider art. They were also influenced by fantasy paintings by Joan Miro (1893-1983) and Paul Klee (1879-1940). Typical COBRA subjects included fantasy animals, birds, cats and dogs. They also got inspiration from Chinese calligraphy. COBRA paintings are typically semi-abstract, highly expressive compositions, characterized by vivid colour, violent brushwork, and distorted human figures. Its harsh style can be contrasted with the softer Lyrical Abstraction.

Idealism Fades

Like the quieter style of Tachisme, COBRA was a theoretical (if not always visible) variant of Art Informel. But as several members were Marxists, the group tended to be more political than the Tachist school. Unfortunately, with the evolution of the Cold War, the utopian idealism of the group was difficult to sustain. The resulting fury and frustration of members can be seen in several later works, as exemplified by Exploded Head (1958) by Karel Appel. COBRA disbanded in 1951. Many abstract painters who belonged to the group continued painting in the COBRA-style, and their works can be seen in a number of the world's best art museums, including the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum New York, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Tate Gallery London, and The COBRA Museum for Modern Art in Amstelveen, The Netherlands. The later style of Neo-Expressionism had roots in European schools like COBRA.

COBRA Paintings

Karel Appel
Cry (1948) Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
Questioning Children (1949) Tate Collection London.
Crying Crocodile Tries to Catch the Sun (1956) Guggenheim Museum, Venice

Asger Jorn
The Moon and the Animals (1950) Private Collection, Paris.

Pierre Alechinsky
In the Land of Ink (1959) National Museum of Modern Art, Pompidou Centre.

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