Carter Ratcliff examines the legacy of COBRA, one of the 20th century’s most important, though shortlived, artistic movements, whose work is now exhibited collectively in Britain for the first time.

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  • COBRA members bringing their work to First International Exhibition of Experimental Artists, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, November 1949

    COBRA members bringing their work to First International Exhibition of Experimental Artists, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, November 1949

    Photo: Mrs E. Kokkorris-Syrie
    Courtesy: W. Stokvis Archive, Amsterdam

  • Constant The Little Ladder 1949 oil on canvas 90 x 75 cm

    Constant
    The Little Ladder 1949
    oil on canvas
    90 x 75 cm

    Municipal Museum The Hague

  • Constant Untitled (Copenhagen) 1949 oil on canvas 55 x 60 cm

    Constant
    Untitled (Copenhagen) 1949
    oil on canvas
    55 x 60 cm

    Private collection

  • Carl-Henning Pedersen Pink Sun 1942 oil on canvas 96 x 96 cm

    Carl-Henning Pedersen
    Pink Sun 1942
    oil on canvas
    96 x 96 cm

    Carl Henning Pedersen & Else Alfelts Museum, Herning, Denmark

  • Asger Jorn, Christian Dotremont Un Visage suffit nier le miroir 1948 oil on canvas 29.5 x 21.5 cm

    Asger Jorn, Christian Dotremont
    Un Visage suffit nier le miroir 1948
    oil on canvas
    29.5 x 21.5 cm

    Silkeborg Kunstmuseum, The Asger Jorn Donation

A favourite subject of Northern European painting is the Temptation of St Antony, shown beset by sins in the shapes of sundry imps and goblins. For the Danish, Dutch and Belgian painters who banded together in 1949 under the banner of COBRA, the temptations were no less legion: caution, conservatism, all the endless boring routines of art-businessas- usual. As Constant (Constant Nieuwenhuys, born 1920), a leader of the Dutch wing, put it: ‘Today’s individualist culture has replaced creation with artistic production, which has produced nothing but signs of a tragic impotence and cries of despair from the individual, enslaved by aesthetic prohibitions.’ The way out of this impasse was obvious: ‘revolution’, driven by the need ‘to discover our desires’.

More than 150 of COBRA’s splashed, smeared and scribbled images have just gone on view at Baltic, the Centre for Contemporary Art, in Gateshead. Organized by Baltic director Sune Nordgren, COBRA expert Peter Shields, and Roger Malbert, senior curator at London’s Hayward Gallery, this is the first COBRA exhibition ever to be seen in an English museum. Beside Constant, the major Dutch figures are Karel Appel and Corneille (Cornelis van Beverloo). Chief among the Danes are Asger Jorn and Carl-Henning Pederson. Pierre Alechinsky is Belgian, as was the poet Christian Dotrement, who assembled ‘COBRA’ from the initial letters of Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. In addition to generous selections of paintings and drawings by these figures, the show presents work by a dozen artists tangentially affiliated with COBRA during its brief life. The group officially disbanded in 1951.

Traditionally, the crowd of St Antony’s tempters includes a fatally seductive woman embodying Lust. Her equivalent in what can quite properly be called the heated imaginations of the COBRA artists was the Parisian ideal of refinement, which they detected even in the work of the Surrealists, their supposedly unfettered predecessors. All the founding members of COBRA were deeply in debt to the Surrealist theory of automatism, which requires the artist to suspend judgment and let unconscious impulses guide the hand. Yet André Breton, the ‘Pope’ of Surrealism, had complained that, in practice, the results of automatic drawing were tepid and predictable. To release what they saw as this method’s still dormant potential, the COBRA painters made a fetish of spontaneity.

An image, they felt, should appear on the canvas as naturally and quickly as a sudden change of weather in the world beyond the window. And it ought to be as impersonal as a thunderstorm. According to Dotremont, ‘anonymity is the great hygiene.’ The very idea of the artist as a singular individual, privileged by genius, was to be swept away on the currents of universal liberation. COBRA’s politics were Marxist, though none of its members shared the left’s love of theorizing. Not rarefied thought but exemplary action would break down the barricades that isolate individuals in their bourgeois complacency. From the start, the COBRA artists collaborated on books and prints. The traces of six not easily distinguished hands can be seen in COBRA lithographs from 1949. In the summer of that year, Jorn, Pederson and a group of COBRA sympathizers painted murals on every last wall and ceiling of a country house near Copenhagen: architecture as communal canvas.

Though COBRA anathematized personal styles, a set of shared mannerisms appeared almost at once. Forms are flat and ‘childlike’, outlines are rough, paint is thick, and when you can make out a subject it has the feel of a dream recollected or a ritual being improvised. Each artist struggled in his own way to overcome his individuality. Tending towards darkness, Constant’s paintings often have the look of a storm kicking up. Appel’s colours are brighter, though his pigments are just as vigorously streaked as Constant’s – or Jorn’s, for that matter, though Jorn allows faint reminders of traditional drawing to persist amid the deliberately crude forms of his unnameable birds and beasts.

Sharing Jean Dubuffet’s interest in the art of the untaught and the insane, the COBRA artists took encouragement, as well, from Dubuffet’s impersonation of an outsider, which produced the coarse textures and gawky figures of his art brut. And, like many avant-gardists before them, Jorn, Appel and company saw an admirable spontaneity in the art of children and tribal people. Chiefly, though, they were the rebellious sons of Surrealism, determined to make good on its promise to erase the boundaries between art and life and release the creative energies that lurk in everyone.

The Surrealists rested their case for revolution on an elaborately Freudian version of Marxism. Impatient with intellectualising, the COBRA artists refused to develop a coherent doctrine. In tones of ecstatic optimism, their manifestos promised everything in general, nothing in particular. As Constant wrote, ‘It is impossible to know a desire other than by satisfying it.’ When artistic ‘experiment’ begins to satisfy the desires of society at large, the elusive path to a better future will become a well-marked highway.

An image, COBRA felt, should appear on the canvas as naturally – and as quickly – as a sudden change of weather in the world beyond the window. And it ought to be as impersonal as a thunderstorm.

Because these anti-theorists saw no virtue in consistency, COBRA’s rejection of individual styles lived side-by-side with the belief that painting and poetry alike originate in handwriting – which is, of course, indelibly personal. The poet Dotremont pushed this notion the farthest, entangling words and pictures in drawings he called logogrammes. The painters, too, would sometimes let visual images turn into fragments of language. In The First Surrealist Manifesto, Breton had drawn a firm distinction between automatic poetry and automatic painting. For the COBRA group, this was just another border to be trampled. A handwritten word could be seen as a picture and a picture as a hieroglyph, an ideogram in a flourish of makebelieve calligraphy, or shed its visual skin altogether and turn into a line of poetry.

COBRA considered automatism to be the most promising weapon in the struggle for the utopia the avant-garde had often promised but never delivered. The painters of post-war New York put this legacy of Surrealism to more narrowly pictorial purposes. Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and other Abstract Expressionists were interested in art, not society. Their use of the automatist gesture was impressive enough to convince Americans, at any rate, that the capital of the avant-garde had shifted from Paris to Manhattan. The art of continental Europe could now be safely ignored. The English art world largely agreed. As Sune Nordgren notes, ‘During the past half-century, the English Channel has sometimes seemed wider than the Atlantic.’ Now that the Channel has narrowed, so to speak, he hopes that COBRA’s faith in a ‘basic creativity’ will appeal to contemporary English artists. Roger Malbert adds, ‘There is an increasing appetite for painting in England now, though the prevailing mood is one of postmodern irony. The COBRA painters were visionary artists and somewhat naive, at least by comparison. It remains to be seen how their work will be received.’

If a 1949 exhibition at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum had not put COBRA on the art historical map, the group might have vanished without a trace, never to be recollected. That show was the work of the Stedelijk’s director, Willem Sandberg, who admired COBRA’s energy but feared that it didn’t come across full force in their smallish canvases. In the total absence of a market, Appel, Constant and the others could afford nothing larger. Sandberg supplied them with a batch of large canvases and they made an array of scaled-up pictures especially for the show. In those days, the Dutch audience owed its idea of avant-garde painting to the prim clarities of Piet Mondrian and the kindred spirits of de Stijl. For many visitors to the 1949 exhibition, COBRA’s unapologetically messy images simply didn’t count as art.

Some, of course, were swayed, and soon the group’s frantic audacities were stirring up audiences throughout western Europe. Two seasons of intense painting, publication, and proclamation followed, culminating in the 1951 COBRA exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, in Lige. This show presented work by 33 artists from 11 countries, many of whom had no close ties to COBRA. Moreover, the event was financed in part by collectors. Entangled with the market it had, until then, managed to resist, COBRA now resembled earlier avant-garde movements: revolutionary in principle but, in fact, securely fitted into the art-world establishment. Soon after the exhibition, COBRA magazine announced the group’s demise.

In the decades since, Appel, Alechinsky and Corneille have become grand old men of post-war Modernism. After a detour into visionary architecture, Constant made a critically acclaimed return to painting in the 1970s. A large selection of his work was included in Documenta 2002. Canvases by Jorn, who died in 1973, have recently sold well at auction. For each of these artists, the end of COBRA was the beginning of a successful solo career. Nonetheless, argues art historian Graham Birtwistle, their larger importance lies in the after-life of the group’s collective spirit.

Constant, in particular, was a tutelary figure for a radical group of the 1960s, the Situationist International. His ideas, if not his art, were important to the Provos, Dutch counterparts to the hippies in Britain and the US. ‘Much as COBRA had done in 1949,’ writes Birtwistle, in an essay for the catalogue of the current exhibition, ‘the counter-culture of 1969 combined a Marxian theme of liberation with an appeal to nature for norms and a subversion of establishment culture by means of spontaneous expression.’

Nature versus culture, freedom versus propriety – emerging from early stirrings of Romanticism, these oppositions still shape utopian agendas. The trouble is that the moment revolutionary art achieves recognition, it becomes part of the culture it wants to subvert. In the view of the COBRA artists, this is what happened to the Surrealists and to every other avant-garde group with utopian impulses, from Dada to de Stijl. To avoid that fate, COBRA committed suicide. And thus, as Birtwistle implies, its best energies stayed alive. The lesson is clear: if a gang of avant-gardists wants to have a utopian impact, it must vanish into the world it hopes to change.

This article was originally published in Tate Magazine issue 4