Christian Dotremont

Christian Dotremont
Tervuren 1922 – 1979 Buizingen
Writer – poet – artist

‘Dotremont was a man of letters, a writer. He had a tremendous sense of humour and was incredibly inventive. A sort of Adventurer. He had nothing to his name. He went where his imagination or desire took him’, said Joseph Noiret, fellow co-founder of Cobra.

His friend Jean-Clarence Lambert described one of their get-togethers, ‘Dotremont joined us for an evening meal. He wore a large dark overcoat, collar turned up, walked like a trapper, was quickly out of breath, had a wrinkled forehead, a bushy moustache, and wore a four-pointed Lapp hat in blue, yellow and red. He sat down at the table beside us, didn’t touch a morsel and smoked one cigarette after the other. He knew, by the way. It was his challenge. “Your days are numbered, but not the eternity within them.”’

And friend, Karel Appel, said about his relationship with Dotremont: ‘When I visited Christian Dotremont with Corneille in his small flat on Rue de la Paille, neither of us spoke each other’s language, French and Dutch. But we immediately established a good rapport. You just feel those kinds of things. ... Dotremont often came to see me in my studio in Paris on Rue Brézin. We made word paintings together. I would start by splashing big blobs of colour, that was my share, and he wrote in them. He loved playing with words. He had a great sense of humour.’

Appel and Dotremont stayed good friends the rest of their lives.

Lambert, again: ‘Dotremont liked having direct and personal relationships. First and foremost, he was always there for his friends; he avoided standing in the spotlight, as though he were protecting a secret that might surface from time to time.’

Life history
Dotremont was born in Tervuren, near Brussels, on 12 December 1922. Both his parents were writers and Dotremont also started writing from an early age. His parents separated in 1930, after which Christian’s life was spent mostly in boardinghouses. As a teenager he found education pointless and he decided to leave school in 1938. He wanted to read and write, which is exactly what he went on to do.

He got to know René Magritte and Raoul Ubac in 1940, which introduced him to the surrealists. He left for Paris in 1941 where he met Pablo Picasso, Henri Goetz, Jean Cocteau and Alberto Giacometti and more – mainly French – surrealists who he started working with. Dotremont said, ‘I remember that in the same years that Arnaud published the journal La Main à Plume in Paris, which brought together painters, sculptors, writers and ethnologists, we published Poésie et Vérité by ‘surrealists’ and ‘abstract artists’, unknowns such as Arnaud and me, as well as celebrities such as Picasso and Éluard.’

During the war Dotremont married Ai-Li Mian. She had a Chinese background and Dotremont became fascinated by China: the country, the language and the symbols. Later on he wrote a long letter to Constant about the influence this background had on him: ‘My wife is half Chinese: I’ve been dreaming about China for years, I’ve read Chinese texts, I’m starting to understand Chinese, Cocteau has told me a lot about China, I’ve read books on China, on Chinese characters.’

After the war, he became increasingly embroiled in conflict with the surrealists and he met Asger Jorn, which ultimately led to founding Cobra in the Notre-Dame Hotel in Paris. He drew up a document that was signed by Constant, Corneille, Appel, Noiret and Jorn. At a later date, whilst reminiscing about the influence this now legendary document had on the signatories, he said, ‘You have lousy sods and you have lucky devils; the former lived their lives in grubby rooms in ramshackle boardinghouses or sanatoriums and the latter had big lofts, expensive holiday homes and sunny studios in Paris, New York, Cavaillon or Monaco. Six grams, not a gram extra, is what the rebellious Cobra manifesto of 1948 weighed - “one gram for each poet or painter” – a lightweight deed compared with the ponderous catechism of the surrealists or the suffocating decrees of their “super pope”André Breton. That Cobra gram made a fortune for some; it irrevocably signed the death warrant for others.’

Dotremont single-handedly took care of organising Cobra. It put Brussels at the heart of the movement. Dotremont said, ‘If I was intensely busy organising things it was to give us total free rein.’ But he did develop as an artist as well. According to Noiret, ‘Dotremont was keen to achieve a collective form of expression. His first attempts at collaboration were with Jorn.’ Dotremont himself said, ‘Right at the beginning of Cobra, in March 1948, I painted my first “peinture-mot” (word-painting) with Jorn.’ All these collaborative works were made in the colour blue. There was no money to buy other paint.

Cover Cobra no. 4. Ambassade Hotel Collection

Dotremont unintentionally found himself at the centre of the chaos that erupted during the big Cobra exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in 1949. He read out loud the second part of his essay The big natural convergence, the first part of which he had published in Cobra no. 4, the catalogue for the exhibition. The riot has gone down as the most notorious event in the history of the movement. It made headline news in Dutch newspapers. Dotremont described it later on as a typically unintentional Cobra scandal and believed he knew what lay behind the conflict. ‘It was an undesired scandal that happened because of the lack of cooperation among the painters and writers in the Dutch group. It didn’t gel. Lucebert and the others thought there was a poetry reading in the evening and the painters had asked me to give a reading. But I didn’t know it was supposed to be about poetry.’ Instead of the two poems the audience expected to hear, he read out a long and – to the audience’s mind – theoretical text in French, which repeatedly mentioned the Soviet Union and Marxism. The audience became restless and in the commotion people called out that nobody understood French and even asked why he was speaking in Russian.

Constant and Aldo van Eyck were irritated by the commotion. They threw one of the troublemakers out of the room, chair included. Van Eyck said, ‘At the same time Doucet, the Frenchman, started fighting behind me.’ The incident split up the Dutch members of Cobra. The poets left the movement and carried on under the name ‘the ‘Fifties’ poets’ (Vijftigers). The newspapers had a field day, with headlines like: Trotskyite riot in Stedelijk Museum and Brawl in Museum in Amsterdam. Communist riot ends in a fist fight.

Appel said, ‘There was nothing wrong, it was just that Dotremont spoke French because he couldn’t speak Dutch. And the confusion probably arose from the language difference, that’s what I think.’ And Dotremont said in 1962, ‘People know that this exhibition was the biggest success Cobra had, in every respect; a manifestation of these proportions affects us individually, for a start. The speech I gave also affected us all, because it was particularly imbued with a belligerent tone. There’s no shortage of enemies! On the other hand, the scandal created by this speech brought us terrific publicity. The Dutch press discovers Cobra, sees nothing in it, but discovers it nevertheless: the audience grows and the magazine sells.’

Afterwards, Dotremont feverishly continued his many activities for Cobra, including editing the many Cobra magazines, the Cobra books, and collaborating on the only Cobra film, by Luc Zangrie in 1950, entitled Persephone. Furthermore, he worked with other artists on his peinture-mots. And he started making logograms: symbols that are not writing, but which become works of art. The logograms are akin to Chinese calligraphy, but in reality they are poems, albeit indecipherable. He put the deciphered text underneath. He called some of these works: c’écrit c’est écrit mais ça n’était pas écrit.

In 1951, Jorn and Dotremont were taken in quick succession to the Silkeborg Sanatorium, in Denmark, to be treated for their tuberculosis.

This paralysed Cobra, which was one of the reasons why the members jointly decided to disband the movement. Dotremont said about this moment in time, ‘Cobra was a legend that we created while visiting Paris in 1948. We immediately went back to our roots and we came up with the name Cobra, playing with the names of Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam: our cities. And we experienced the legend ourselves, by, for example, travelling from Brussels to Copenhagen, from writing to painting, from laughing to crying to shouting to laughing to creating. Chaotic rhythm, inflated in a completely honest way to become even a legend, and in 1951 we thought that the legend had run out of steam and that it had to end. And it was chiefly because of this solemn announcement of the end of Cobra that we were mythomaniacs.’

In the years that followed, Dotremont would try to keep the spirit of the movement from dying. Jorn even accused him of trying to keep the fiction alive.

Furthermore, Dotremont continued working with others, such as his friend Karel Appel, as well as with Serge Vandercam and Pierre Alechinsky. He made three trips to Lapland between 1956 and 1962, where instead of logograms he made ‘logoneiges’. The whiteness of the snow was given the lead role.

Dotremont died in 1979 after a protracted illness.

Work

he work hanging in the Ambassade Hotel is derivative of Dotremont’s logograms. In this piece he has used a texture, the language of the material, cloth in this case, to make a print on white paper. And now the print from the cloth is no longer a texture, but has become ink on paper. It is probably a lighthearted pun on a painting by Belgian surrealist Magritte, who he had become friends with in his youth. Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

But it is more likely to be a lighthearted reference to fellow Cobra artist and friend Serge Vandercam, who was absorbed by textures and light. They jointly carried out various projects with textures, such as making mud images.

Dotremont’s work is included in diverse museum collections, including the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Belgium, Centre Pompidou in Paris, Tate Modern in London and MoMA in New York. He also had a few one-man exhibitions. Centre Pompidou put on an exhibition of his logograms.

References
Cobra, Sint-Niklaas, Stedelijk Museum 21 Sept – 26 Oct 1975, Namur, Maison de la Culture 14 Nov – 7 Dec 1975
Jan Vrijman Cobra film
Volkskrant (newspaper) Paul Depondt − 19/03/99
Christian Dotremont, “Signification et sinification.” Cobra. Revue Internationale de l’art expérimental, n°7, Bruxelles, automne 1950, p. 19-20.
The last text written by Dotremont on Cobra had been published previously in In Celebration of 30 Years Cobra, a catalogue for the exhibition of logograms by Dotremont in Lefebre Gallery in New York, January 1979.
The text by Dotremont in the catalogue for 1949