Illustrated companion

The Dutch painter Constant was one of the co-founders in 1948 of the international Cobra group, named from the opening letters of the words Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. This painting was included in the first major exhibition of Cobra art, International Experimental Art, held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1949. In a letter to the Tate Gallery, Constant has explained that the title, originally 'A nous la Libert?' (We want Freedom), referred to the restriction of creative freedom by the official art system in Holland at that time, which he saw as symptomatic of a lack of liberty in society at large. He became even more disillusioned after Cobra fell apart in the early 1950s, and changed the title to its present one: 'I changed the title to express my doubts about the possibility of 'free art' in an unfree society, and at the same time, my hopes for the freedom all men are longing for.'

In a statement in the magazine Cobra (Issue 4) Constant set out a vision of cultural regeneration through spontaneity and free expression. In the same issue were reproductions of paintings by children, some of which came from the exhibition of children's art held at the Stedelijk Museum in 1948-9. This had found an appreciative audience among Cobra artists in Holland who greatly admired the unrestrained imagination of the children's work. Constant was particularly interested since he had a five-year-old son at the time, and something of the quality of children's art is certainly reflected in this painting. Against a dark background swarm strange and fantastic creatures with prominent teeth and wild eyes. Animal imagery abounds throughout Cobra art, and the name of the group seems to have been chosen, from a number of possible alternatives, partly for its animal associations. In 1978 one of the founders of Cobra, Christian Dotremont, commented: 'There is certainly much to be thought about in the choice of a name which is not to be an ism, but that of an animal. In fact, we were against all isms, which implied systematisation. And Cobra is, after all, that snake which you often find in Cobra painting.' In the bottom left-hand corner, isolated and threatened in this nightmarish environment, is a tower-like structure topped by what may be a window, with a triangular roof with pennants on top and streamers of red and white floating below. The colour blue is also in evidence and Constant seems to be evoking the red white and blue French tricolour flag of liberty. From the bottom of the painting a ladder of escape leads up to this place of freedom at the top of the tower. The ladder's fragility and sharply receding perspective imply both the difficulty and the distance of the climb.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.194