Playing Paint and Painted Play

February 8, 2013

by Ruxandra E. Todosi

cobra1Forget criticism. Forget art history. Forget chronology and artistic divisions. Recall Cobra years: the post‑war struggle for upturned definitions of expression, the breaking with past constraints, the class clash, the desolation; the revival of youth.

Erected as a protest against early twentieth century culture‑packed intellectual figures, the Cobra artistic moment empowered a ludic avocation against residual surrealistic stumps, a veracious taste for creativity on a loose leash, and a frolicsome process of regaining the light‑hearted spirit of genuine conception. It proclaimed art engendered by the masses, not merely for the masses and it dispersed an embryonic language articulated through the shared dreams of three city esprits: Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam.

The CoBrA acronym did not allude to national heritage or regional canons. It fused together spirits and horizons, primarily those of the six artists initially united on November 8th, 1948, to sign a declaration in the Parisian Café Notre‑Dame. Asger Jorn was the Danish exponent, Christian Dotremont and Joseph Noiret were on the Brussels side, and Constant Nieuwenhuys, Karel Appel and Corneille representatives of the Dutch aesthetic revolution. The very name they have adopted was meant to renounce all taxonomic traps and denote a resilient beast able to subsist on its own.

Although spurred by Northern Expressionism and Surrealist influences, this second wave of primitivist experiments constitutes the European counterpart to Abstract Expressionism, the latter a proud and singular emblem of North American modern art taken seriously by Europeans. Cobra art combined predominantly literary and communist Belgian tints of revolutionary Surrealism with the more pragmatic approach of Dutch experimental art stripped of De Stijl‘s rigid geometry or Van Gogh’s coercive print. Fuelling them was the Danish engine of rich fantasy, with its national folk motifs and hallucinatory mythology.

The resulting aesthetic was blatantly abstract, vital and crude, eliciting both anxiety and exuberance, and embracing a Proustian pursuit of l’art perdu. It discarded Breton’s psychic‑automatism dictums and shook the Parisian plumage off its cockerels, albeit that French remained its official language. Even so, language was the only purely French ingredient allowed within Cobra, voiced in an anti‑Parisian cluster of nonconformistic expressions.

In following the wider project of settling the first Cobristic (…a joke, of course) museum in Belgium and the second international one after the Amstelveen museum in Holland, the Brussels Royal Museums of Fine Arts assembled a 60th‑anniversary exposé in order to revive and commemorate this mid‑century artistic idiosyncrasy so often absent from European recollections.

Pacing across the entrance corridors of the Brussels Museum of Modern Art, one can gauge the heaviness of the past — a past infiltrated with the omnipresence of sacred giants and their ineluctable legacy. Just before stepping into the underground cradle reserved to the Cobra crusaders, the legacy of such giants raises one more coercive finger in abruptly exposing a wooden and gigantic statue of Diana (1937) by Ossip Zadkine, curiously juxtaposed to a 1951 photograph of Cobra affiliates on the steps of the Liège Palais dex Beaux‑Arts. It alludes to hunting, one should comfort him‑ or herself with, and draw a far‑fetched connection to a cobra serpent.

By following the Cobra word printed on the walls in various sizes and fonts, the visitor arrives to the archival atrium that hosts a comprehensive pre‑Cobra textual and imagistic repository of its coiled inception: manifesto pages, declarative textual excerpts (such as fragments from the Dutch Reflex or the Danish Helhesten), cover drafts, photographs, exhibition catalogues, sketches and drawings of snakes, chickens, monsters or tiny horses ascribed to various Cobra members and respective epiphanies.


“No politeness in art — art is brutish desire” is splashed on one of the walls. This Cobra quotation construes over 190 compositional works about to become subject to scrutiny. However, the phlegmatic, yellow‑paged atmosphere and silence of this preliminary compartment are nowhere close to arousing brutish desire just yet. Theoretical sources continue to tease the guest’s patience as a set of wall‑sized souvenir photographs from Cobra’s golden years emerges in the subsequent chamber and reproduces the physical settings designed by architect Van Eyck for the two major Cobra events held in Amsterdam (1949), and Liège (1951). In the centre lies a cadre sheltering six of Henry Heerup’s rather clumsy granite sculptures from 1949, seated onto a coal carpet — which marks another reference to the original assemblage of the 1951 exhibition and an indirect allusion to the veridicity of Cobra’s down‑to‑earth artistic intent.

After the pre‑Cobra documentative sector, the exhibition follows distinct, and to an unknowing eye obscure themes. Not every visitor will have my privilege of an insightful interview with exhibition curator and designer Anne Adriaens‑Pannier, and thus may easily disregard the mindful order in which the galleries unravel: Danish precursors first, followed by visual homages paid to the ethos of child art and animal symbolism, closing with a series of drawing technique confrontations between Belgian artists. The latter withhold a surprise‑effect black‑and‑white corner with calligraphic representations and artistic photographs, which eventually converge towards a collection of collaborative endeavours enacted by two or three pairs of hands.

Once re‑engaged onto the setup’s sinuous itinerary, gazes are led into the Danish art glade, where sizes regain more telluric quotas and paint is finally splattered on canvases. A tête‑à‑tête encounter unfolds between Carl‑Henning Pedersen’s crude red, blue and gold fantasies and consort Else Alfelt’s more impressionistic Norwegian Summer Dream and Icelandic Mountain Landscape, which complement and compliment each other. As Dotremont described in the first issue of Cobra, “Danish painting wears no spectacles. Hand‑made, it doesn’t wear gloves either. It is naked painting, and because it is naked it isn’t vulgar”. Evidently free of any cultural curls and canons, Pedersen’s fairy‑tale glimpses attune to Alfelt’s brush‑batches and triangular segments, fusing together in a romantic sense of summer tranquillity and worldly joy.

The works of these two self‑taught spouses, along with those of other Danish figures — only marginally involved in Cobra — occupy honorary places among the first displayed pieces as eloquent examples of Danish folkloric and mythological influences upon the movement. However, a neighbour‑wall takes pity on the more aloof observers and specifies that “these paintings are not like numbers for you. Add them up in your own way.” (Dotremont in Cobra 10, 1951). This is where the rules of random play and painted pleasure unknot themselves from the frozen thread of Surrealist philosophy, revealing an important ventricle of Cobra’s heart and irrigating it with autonomous expression, impetuous wilderness and sincere childishness. Thereby, the idea of playing with raw material derives from the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: in its four vital forms of earth, water, air and fire, he deems matter the chiefly source of imaginary potential, well applying to Heerup’s previously‑exhibited unpolished granite sculptures in which the laws of chance and coarseness found symbiosis.

The following room proves the most material of all. A few samples of Cobra’s unconventional creativity in tinkering with matter translates here into more down‑to‑earth goods, that unpredictably interrupt the drawing‑painting‑sculpture stream and inject it with a substantial dose of child‑like spontaneity. Flanked on one side by a collective work entitled Storage of Sensibility — gracefully materialized in what appears to be a basketful of laundry — and on the other side by Calonne’s poetical object made of hat brush and three shells (dubbed Innocent Ocean), a group of six genuine, and apparently unperishable potatoes ascribed to Dotremont (1949) proudly prove to have passed a sturdy test of time. This eclectic vibe is reinforced further along, where such curious earthly reminders mingle with the austere, mind‑bending Composition (1950) of Raoul Ubac, an Untitled Hugo Claus confluence of bird‑shaped smeared gouaches and, finally, with the musically inspiring Painted Wardrobe Doors of Pierre Alechinsky.

One reference can excuse and account for the renderings of intimacy with the material: Cobra primitivism — a topic reserved in recent exhibition catalogues to essayist Graham Birtwistle. Unrestricted to the kindred visions of Picasso, Klee or Miró, the introverted language of Cobra assumes a closer position to that of Danish painter and writer Egon Mathiesen in his progressive approach to nature. The Cobrians envisioned themselves as modern farmer‑like fosterers of nature in opposition to the regressive hunger typified by the hunter counter‑metaphor, ascribed by Asger Jorn to the Nazis, the technocratic bourgeoisie and the bulk of Western society.

This homo ludens, homo naturalis orientation might henceforth explain many of the discrepancies found behind the array of unsophisticated and naïve compositions lying ahead, which might elicit a similar reaction to that of journalist Edward Messer after the first Cobra exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1949). He is remembered for having mockingly assessed a three‑year‑old’s sketches as relevantly superior to a Wolvecamp, a Jorn or an Appel.

There is, indeed, an ubiquitous note of unintelligible puerilism transpiring from many showcased items. Along the corridors looms the risk of being left dissatisfied while longing for steadier lines, milder hues, and perhaps a brighter child’s immaturity. Ranging from Appel’s diluted and effeminate Figure or his Questioning Children to Constant’s daunting Disobedience Masks or Kbhvn, and further on to Corneille’s Love Couple, Woman and Bird or mere Drawing, the regressive stances, asinine silhouettes and contrastful splashes stand nonetheless faithful to Constant’s manifesto in delivering a necessary loop of fresh thought and genuine brush to the mid‑century avant‑garde. Other times, this effect was achieved in reference to exotic tribal art influences rendered, for instance, in Corneille’s more fortunately composed Joyous Couple in Djerba (1950) or Appel’s riotous Tribal Chief (1951).

Some more balanced, inspirationally astute — both thematically and chromatically — works such as Doucet’s The Bird Above the City, Österlin’s Imaginary Red or Appel’s octagonal and tastefully‑assorted Little Girl follow the path already‑paved by Freudian pulsions and Jungian archetypes. Nevertheless, many half‑human, half‑beast loud apparitions may puzzle the visitor and stray him or her from the ideal je lève, tu lèves, nous rêvons that Dotremont and Jorn so deared in 1948.

The curator has saved the best for last: Stephen Gilbert’s Butterfly, Theo Wolvecamp’s 1949 oil‑chalk and gouache Compositions, Georges Collignon’s The Big Dive, the few Alechinsky and Van Lint bright‑abstract textural canvases, and Serge Vandercam’s insightful photographic series projected from the black‑and‑white corner. Despite Alechinsky’s having assumed an active part in organizing the occasion and lending it over twenty pieces plus numerous informative sources, the unfortunate dearth of the talented Belgian’s works remains notably stringent — yet explained by the exhibition’s main emphasis on the period 1948‑1951, when the artist was only adjacent to the movement.

Cobra actors were joint forces par excellence, and after having stridden through the final room of the exhibition, one catches a glimpse of just how far their collaboration extended. Aside from a communal Marxist‑inspired vision of the world soaked in overt (or more discreet) political motifs — such as Appel’s Questioning Children displaying starving children on railway platforms, or Constant’s The War and Wounded Dove — the final gallery is devoted to pieces composed by two or three artists permuting their thoughts and brushes, paints and words, intentions and meditations. This phenomenon, stamped by nomenclatures ranging from peintures‑mots and dessins‑poemes to logograms or calligraphic symbioses, conveys a remarkable array of concrete outcomes: sketches and drawings, paintings and sculptures, even bone‑shell collages. From the latter category, Jésus Lapin (1950) by Pierre Alechinsky and Reinhoud, truly invites to introspection.

The star of this particular category is the largest and most peculiar peer‑work produced by Dotremont and Alechinsky, entitled Abrupte Fable. Indian ink and acrylic on paper glued to five panels of a windscreen tell an abstract, convoluted tale in cream, buff, black and red. The art piece was designed for adorning the Anneessens Brussels subway station, and still provides a 284 x 475‑centimetre endless oriental narrative, posing the most expressive and impressive presence in the show. Its date affirms 1976, hence it can be justly regarded as astray from the exhibition’s 1948‑1951 emphasis. In this particular room, however, a few exceptions were allowed in order to delineate a Cobrian trail prolonged throughout the following years.

The ending falls abruptly upon absorbed and absorbing visitors. While expecting to find more of the movement’s art — if not an exhaustive continuation of its influence upon subsequent decades — the final chamber remains largely a tease. Although most Cobra members are chiefly remembered as individualist painters in pursuit of their own subconscious, one should not disregard the vast amount of free spirit and free hands put to common use. Even after having dissolved, the Cobra‑after‑Cobra moments preserved and enhanced the goals of communality and equality; “Nous travaillons ensemble, nous travaillerons ensemble” (from The Case Was Heard) echoed still, as the taste for non‑painters’ painting, non‑sculptors’ sculpting and speaking the interdisciplinary language of liberty took the more literary path of visual poetics.

Unsurprisingly, the young comrade artists and theoreticians gained literary sisters especially within the Dutch (anti‑)culture, to which the movement also owes its most noteworthy compositions. Cobra’s influence upon The Vijftigers literary movement, namely young poets such as Kouwenaar, Elburg and the doubly‑talented Lucebert, contributed substantially to the development of Dutch poetry. A corresponding experiment is that of Good Morning Cockerel, by Constant and Kouwenaar, an interplay devoid of norms or traditions, permeated by gaiety and humour and, above all, by the spirit of the process, not by the weight of the outcome. The convergent disgust of these two very similar personalities vis-à-vis hypocrisy, immorality, petty nationalism, and generally any Western civilization façade pronounced their propensity towards the dissident, the vital and the non‑Apollonic, as prone to everyone’s and anyone’s relishment. It shaped their carpe diem philosophy and transported this poetry‑pervaded torch of genuine living ahead, into the hippie soul of the 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Overall, the Cobra exhibition in Brussels is less of a cultural and more of a counter‑cultural window. It does not invoke remembrance; it proposes amnesia. At best, a schizophrenic compromise could be drawn between the two. Despite its general limitation to the brief yet prolific three‑year formal lifespan and the absence of several prominent works such as Constant’s 1949 colossal Barricade of the Stedelijk Museum collection, the occasion has surpassed the success of other Cobra‑related recent exhibitions by providing a notable assortment of naked artistic input. The approximate amount of 190 showcased pieces is not to be submitted, though, to absurd comparisons as to the former 500‑painting personal collection of businessman and Cobra admirer Karel Van Stuijvenberg.

Words and paint blew in Brussels yet another share of avant‑garde labelled fire against any already‑trodden parcel in history, against capriciousness, against rust or dust. Was this a call for, a belief in or a denial of artistic progress? Probably bits of all three, since Cobra embraces authenticity, spontaneity, and a regressive, yet pure form of expression. One needs not dwell on deeming it a progress in itself, but it is safe to suggest that the movement was nevertheless progressive, and infused with the simple, yet refreshing properties of clean country air.

Unlike most other avant‑garde exhibitions, we are not bludgeoned here by an overflowing stream of shocks and fanaticism. And, as is unfortunately the case with most noteworthy events, a community of acceptance or rejection is required to decree the utter argument in determining the revelation contained or not by a given artwork — or, more ironically, by the whole Cobra comet. Yet why accept any of the top‑bottom art criticism canons that the young Cobrians despised and set out to destroy? Why not blend into their nonchalance? The question should not be whether one likes Cobra art, but rather if one connects to its ideals.

Among these ideals, diversity and individuality remain arguable desiderata. The Cobrians’ visions eventuated into a colourful conglomerate, and while its hues or names have varied, the canvases are ever interchangeable. This would explain an exclamation still resonating in my mind, muttered in mixed feelings by an elegantly‑disoriented Belgian dame to her husband, as I was taking my last unallowed photographs of the final gallery: mais c’est la même chose, c’est toujours la même chose!

Review of the Cobra Exhibition at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
(7 November 2008 – 15 February 2009)