They are now world-famous artists with work hanging in many museums across the globe, but, as often happens in the art world, this was not always the case. Initially, their art was met with complete incomprehension. Or even worse; their art was found shocking.
It was precisely this shock element that Willem Sandberg, then director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, was looking for, because it was widely believed that the art world in the aftermath of the Second World War was in a state of dormancy.
A wake-up call! That was what the brand-new museum director was after. And he got what he wanted in 1949.
What led up to this? And what happened afterwards?
The Dutch Experimental Group and the International Cobra artists: “a more or less organised movement” (quote by Christian Dotremont)
After the Second World War, young artists in the Netherlands, such as Karel Appel, Constant Nieuwenhuys and Corneille, wanted to cause a stir. ‘To wake society up, which had actually gone to sleep, that’s what it was about; that was the revolt that kindled tremendous enthusiasm … Being awake meant having clarity. Your antennae had to be constantly on the alert’, Karel Appel said in the film Cobra.
They wanted to liberate themselves from the long-standing burden of Western Art Tradition, which in their eyes had reached an impasse. They did not think that the pre-war generation had succeeded in achieving that end.
However, they did greatly admire a few individuals among the pre-war artists. These were chiefly: Wassily Kandinsky, because of his fascination with Eastern calligraphy and experimental colour improvisations to music; Paul Klee because of his interest in children’s drawings and Joan Miro because of his fantastic dream-like imagery. They also liked the German expressionists because of how they expressed emotional experiences in colour.
But these artists had not gone far enough in their opinion. The younger generation believed that the time was ripe for a more far-reaching revolution. And this had to happen collectively, because there was strength in numbers.
After Karel Appel, Constant and Corneille found one another in Amsterdam in 1947, they set up Reflex,the Dutch Experimental Group, on 16 December 1947. The three blood brothers dipped their hands in paint and entered into a pact by leaving a handprint on a large sheet of paper; it was a rare moment of solidarity between these divergent personalities.
They were in agreement about their quest: to jointly search for freedom in art for everybody. They had to go back to the very beginnings of art, back to the playful and creative human being. They used various sources: experiment, the unconscious, non-Western traditional cultures of pre-industrial peoples (who they regarded as primitive), children’s drawings and drawings made by mental patients, because these artists believed that this was where the origins of art lay. They did not want to make art dictated by the mind, which was an offshoot of the post-war reality they experienced. It gave them free rein to alter old works by other artists or each other’s work. They coined it modification.
Modification became a Cobra trademark. Karel Appel used it throughout his entire life.
A few months later, on 16 July 1948, the Experimental Group was set up for the second time, but now with more artists as well as writers. The following joined the group: Theo Wolvecamp, Jan Nieuwenhuys, Anton Rooskens, and Tjeerd Hansma. Later on, Eugène Brands, Hugo Claus, Lucebert, Gerrit Kouwenaar and Jan Elburg also signed up.
The painter Anton Rooskens wrote a wonderful description of the extremely colourful characters in the group. In his eyes, Appel was a truly jovial Amsterdam lad, a bit on the rough side, but really rather nice. Corneille, on the other hand, was a different type altogether who went his own sweet way as a poet and whose personality was nothing like Appel’s, even though they were good friends. And as for Constant, he was cast in a different mould – he had had a respectable grammar school education. Wolvecamp was a bit on the wild side, in Rooskens’ opinion. Brands was slightly introvert and somewhat of a lone wolf. He was a man who never strayed far from home, unlike Rooskens, who said, ‘I travelled all corners of the world to fulfil an inner need’
Martin Visser, collector and furniture designer, got to know the group early on and was captivated by their devil-may-care attitudes and plans. ‘Totally charming, spontaneous, and tremendously powerful young men; that’s what you wanted at that time,’ he summed up. ‘I really liked it, it held me spellbound and I very quickly bought one or two pieces.’ He also gave them the opportunity to exhibit in the Bijenkorf, a chic department store. Both the public and the directors of the Bijenkorf enjoyed it ‘even though they didn’t see anything in it’, Martin Visser reminisced in a documentary.
To reach a wider audience and spread their ideas and work, they decided to create a mouthpiece and came up with the name Reflex for a magazine. Constant published what has now become his world-famous ‘Manifesto’ for the Experimental Group. The artists published impressive lithographic prints in the magazine. They are now much sought-after collector’s items.
Among other things, they closely studied the power of children’s drawings, because they believed that children expressed themselves in a pure way.
The Dutch experimentalists decided to set up Cobra in 1948, together with their like-minded Belgian counterparts and the Danish Experimental Group around Jorn. It was founded in Paris on 8 November 1948. The conceptual framework was forged by the Dane, Jorn, the Belgian, Christian Dotremont, and the Dutchman, Constant. It was Dotremont who thought up the name Cobra, because it is a mythical snake and it is formed by the first letters of the cities where most of the artists came from: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam.
Dotremont took charge of Cobra activities and added more members to the group, including Pierre Alechinsky and several writers. Cobra quickly attracted members from all over Europe and even beyond. Dotremont wrote an amusing summary of the group in one of his texts:
‘Appel is a barber, an out-and-out manual labourer; Corneille adores Arabs; Constant mollycoddles his son; Carl Henning Pedersen lisps; Ortvad imitates North and South Swedish accents; Thommesen is first and foremost a furniture maker; Heerup paints in his shed and sculpts in his big garden; Mancoba is South African; Bury is a metalworker in his spare time; Alechinsky is a bricklayer; Osterlin knackers himself in an office; Doucet can’t take anything seriously, and the rest.’
As mentioned previously, members of the Cobra group were as different as chalk and cheese. Cobra had a different meaning for each and every artist from whatever country they came from. There were heated arguments from the very outset. And the question of which individuals really were part of it is still, to this very day, open to debate.
In retrospect, it turned out that mainly the intensive experiments with colour, the materiality and the prominence of circular-shaped fantasy figures inspired many artists and had an international impact. The childlike and lively mythological animals have, in particular, become synonymous with Cobra. This holds equally true for the collaborations between artists and poets. They gave rise to a substantial body of joint work. You will find several of these in the Ambassade Hotel.
The Cobra group of artists and poets had a few international exhibitions in the short heyday of their existence, from 1948 to 1951.
In the Netherlands, it was the exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1949 that made the most furore. Not simply because the exhibits were found shocking in the Netherlands, but also because it ended up in a big fist fight. Journalists had a field day describing this exhibition and the disruptive events surrounding it. At last, they could go hammer and tongs writing juicy stories.
The then museum director, Willem Sandberg, was more than satisfied with this turn of events as he later explained:
Something has to happen, a scandal or whatever, otherwise no one will write a review. But then it became front page news.
Interviewer: what did you think?
WS: I was quite happy!
I never read reviews.
I just look at how big they are and where they feature in the newspaper.
Fortunately, not all journalists were scathing. You can find favourable reports by people who saw the exhibition as a breath of fresh air. At last, innovative art! Below is an example of an enthusiastic review.
Opinions were divided among the artists and writers about how successful the exhibition had been and its organisation. Jan Elburg said later on, ‘everybody argued with everybody else’. Some members left the group afterwards.
However, Appel, like Sandberg, was deeply satisfied with what they had achieved. From that moment onwards, Sandberg became the innovative museum director par excellence and Cobra became the new movement par excellence.
After Cobra disbanded in 1951, Constant and Jorn then joined the Situationists. They took over several of the tenets of Cobra. You can detect many of these ‘principles’ in the later work these artists produced as well as in the work by future generations of artists.
In the meantime, most of the Cobra artists are dead and this particular experiment in the arts has become totally accepted.