Constant (Constant A. Nieuwenhuys)

After Us, Liberty


In Tate Modern

Original title
Après Nous La Liberté
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1395 × 1066 mm
frame: 1499 × 1181 × 83 mm
Purchased 1983

Display caption

Constant believed that spontaneity and free expression could transform culture. He was fascinated by the uninhibited art of children and untrained artists. The wild figures here are a mixture of human and animal. Real and imagined animals feature in many of Constant’s works. He kept dogs, cats, a baboon and an iguana as pets, and was a frequent visitor the Amsterdam zoo. Originally this work was called ‘To Us, Liberty’. Constant retitled it to reflect his ‘doubts about the possibility of “free art" in an unfree society’.

Gallery label, June 2020

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Catalogue entry

Constant (Constant Nieuwenhuys) born 1920

T03705 After Us, Liberty 1949

Oil on canvas 1395 x 1066 (55 x 42)
Inscribed ‘Constant | 1949' centre and ‘Constant 57 rue Pigalle IX' on stretcher
Purchased from Galerie Van de Loo, Munich (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Prov: Purchased from the artist by Galerie Van de Loo, Munich 1961
Exh: Exposition Internationale d'Art Experimental, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Nov.1949; Constant: Amsterdam, stadtische Kunstgalerie, Bochum, March-April 1961 (3, repr., as ‘Nach uns die Freiheit'); Constant, Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Oct.-Nov.1965 (18); Constant Schilderijen 1940-1980, Staatsuitgeverij Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Sept.-Nov. 1980 (24, repr. p.47); Van Gogh bis Cobra: Hollandische Malerie 1880-1950, Wurttenbergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, Nov. 1980-Jan.1981, Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn, April-June 1981 (repr. p.226, as ‘Nach uns die Freiheit'); Westkunst, Museen der Stadt, Cologne, May-Aug.1981 (365, repr. p.395 and p.164 in col., as ‘A Nous La Liberté'); Cobra 1948-51, Kunstverein, Hamburg, Sept.-Nov.1982 (30, repr. p.87 in col., as ‘Nach uns die Freiheit'); Cobra 1948-51, Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris, Dec. 1982-Feb. 1983, Maison de la Culture, Chalon-sur-Saône, March-April 1983, Musée des beaux-arts, Rennes, April-June 1983 (48, repr.p.131 in col., as ‘A nous la Liberté'. Also repr: Cobra, no.4, Nov.1949, p.II; Christian Dotremont, ‘Constant', in Asger Jorn (ed.), Artistes Libres: première série du bibliothèque de Cobra, no.6, 1950; H.Van Haaren, Constant, Amsterdam 1966, p.37; Willemijn Stokvis, Cobra, Amsterdam 1974, p.27 pl.43

This work was painted in Amsterdam and its original title was ‘A Nous la Liberté'. In a letter to the compiler dated 6 February 1988 Constant recalled the ‘general mood' from which the painting emerged and explained why the title was later changed:

After the five years of the German Occupation, during which hardly any work of other painters was to be seen, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam organised a large show of contemporary Dutch art, entitled ‘Kunst in vryheid' (Art in freedom). This exhibition was a deception by the lack of any creative freedom - the worst kind of academicism. Shortly after (in 1946) I met Asger Jorn in Paris, who appeared to be a related mind. Our friendship would lead, 2 years later, to the foundation of Cobra. The title of this painting was originally ‘A Nous la Liberté' opposing the false ‘freedom' of the above mentioned exhibition (and what followed after). A few years later, Cobra had fallen apart and many of its former members were classified in museums as ‘experimentals', forming a new ‘style' contradictory to the real aims of the movment - My disappointment about this development led me to change the title to ‘Après Nous la Liberté'. 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.

T03705 was first shown at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 3-28 November 1949, as part of the exhibition of ‘International Experimental Art' which was the first of the two large official manifestations of Cobra. The fourth issue of Cobra magazine was produced by the Dutch group, including Constant, and was published to coincide with the exhibition. A double page spread inside the magazine served as a catalogue and although T03705 is clearly visible in installation photographs of the exhibition (repr. Paris 1982, p.69) it is not listed among the works on exhibition. The design and layout of the exhibition were planned by the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck and were considered highly innovative. T03705 was hung high on a wall above Constant's ‘L'animal sorcier', 1949 (Musée national d'art moderne, Paris). Works by Madeleine Kemeny, Karl-Otto Götz and Pierre Alechinsky were also hung in the same gallery.

The magazine Cobra, no.4 opened with a statement by Constant, ‘It's our desire which makes Revolution', which spoke of cultural regeneration through spontaneity and free expression. The issue also reproduced T03705 and juxtaposed images by Cobra artists with the imaginative creations of children and amateurs. Some of these pictures were taken from the exhibition of children's art ‘Kunst en Kind' organised by the Stedelijk Museum during 1948-9 and which found an appreciative audience among Cobra artists who saw unrestrained imagination as an inspiring alternative to mainstream conformity. Constant was particularly interested in such juvenilia as his son was only five years old at the time.

‘After Us, Liberty' is a large painting by Cobra standards. Against a dark background strange and fantastic creatures are set full face or in profile, several human in feel while others are more animal in intention. Special prominence is accorded to characteristic features such as mouths with gaping teeth, ears and wild, haunted eyes. The hallucinatory quality is emphasised by the nocturnal tone of the background and such features as the star, top left and the cusped moon, top right.

Animals, real and imaginary were frequent subjects for Cobra artists and in particular for the artists of the Dutch group, though in Constant's work there seems to be an edge of menace and fantasy absent from the more vividly coloured paintings and constructions of Karel Appel. Constant's fascination with animals was stimulated by his own menagerie of dogs and cats, small child, baboon and iguana, and he was a frequent visitor to Artis, the Amsterdam zoo, as is indicated by the title of a slightly earlier painting ‘J'ai visité les ours blancs' 1948 (Nordjyllands Kunstmuseum, Aalborg, repr., Paris exh. cat. 1982, p.129).

On the left hand side of the canvas of T03705 Constant depicts an imaginary structure topped by a triangle with floating streamers and a flag motif. The colours red, blue and white stand out and the symbolism of the tricolour in the context of the title is obvious. The ladder which leads up to this structure occurs in many paintings (and constructions) by Constant and culminated in the painting ‘Ladder Labyrinth' 1971 (repr. The Hague exh. cat. 1980, p.18 in col.).

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.502-3

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