75 years of Cobra: freedom cry full of experimentation

The Cobra Museum in Amstelveen shows the vibrant summer exhibition Grenzeloos en Vrij, which would not have been out of place on a larger stage. About 75 years of Cobra art and the universal character of the freedom cry full of experimentation.

It was on November 8, 1948 in the Parisian café Le Notre Dame that the Cobra movement saw the light of day. Young artists such as Karel Appel, Corneille and Constant Nieuwenhuys wanted to shake off the traumatic war years with their Belgian and Danish counterparts, such as Christian Dortremont and Asger Jorn, and to also give artistic shape to the recaptured freedom. “We wanted to start all over again, just like a child,” Appel later described their irrepressible urge.

They were called daubers

“An eruption of blocked spontaneity”, exhibition maker Maarten Bertheux calls the Cobra art. “Freedom was a new concept for these artists after having lived through that terrible war for five years. Their work, which was presented in 1949 at the very first Cobra exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, was received with a great deal of negativity. They were called daubers. But it didn’t stop them from persevering, defying poverty.”

Bertheux, who was a curator at the Stedelijk for many years under the then director Rudi Fuchs, has with Boundless and Free not want to make a historical review of the Cobra group, which, after all, only existed for 1000 days (from 1948-1951). He places Cobra in a broader context.

The exhibition also shows where the members got their inspiration from: from children’s drawings, African masks, folk art or work by the mentally ill, but also wildly painting predecessors such as Vincent van Gogh or lovers of the playful experiment such as Pablo Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann and Joan Miro.

What did Cobra mean?

He also asks himself: What has Cobra meant? The uproar it caused at the time has long since died down. Their work has since become part of the western art canon with a capital A.

But Bertheux shows that the ideas still live on. Their rough, savage painting style, their childlike and therefore disarming fantasy and their expressive visual language are still inspiring after 75 years for many other, younger artists.

It is precisely this aspect that makes this exhibition so sparkling and attractive. Bertheux makes it clear that Cobra is part of a long tradition of expressionist art: starting with Vincent van Gogh to young painters such as the German artist Jonathan Meese.

Indebted colleagues and extra attention for women

In Amstelveen, the famous Cobra work by Appels Questioning children to Corneille’s mythical bird creatures to Constant’s ideal world of New Babylon presented in dialogue with canvases or sculptures by younger artists who are indebted to them. Among them many top painters, whose work it is wonderful to see again, such as Georg Baselitz, whose Trümmerfrau from 1978 from the collection of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, to the American graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat who died much too young.

There is also extra attention for the female artists, such as Lotti van der Gaag, Dora Tuynman and Frieda Hunziker, who preferred to be kept out of the spotlight by the dominant macho Cobra men (Appel and Corneille in the lead). Rightly so, now, on Cobra’s 75th birthday, they should not be missing.

Boundless and Free can be seen in the Cobra Museum Amstelveen until 8 October.