CoBrA: Marxist Expressionism of a Postwar Generation

Photo of Ellen van Wiegand
5 January 2017

The European avant-garde collective known as CoBrA, formed of artists from Belgium, The Netherlands and Denmark, is based on the rejection of Western ideals of civilization and rationalism. These artists sought a more primitive and innocent form of expression, free from the social conventions they had come to despise.

© Heleen Meijer/Flickr

‘In this period of change, the role of the creative artist can only be that of the revolutionary: it is his duty to destroy the last remnants of an empty, irksome aesthetic, arousing the creative instincts still slumbering unconscious in the human mind. The masses, brought up with aesthetic conventions imposed from without, are yet unaware of their creative potential…The onlooker’s creative ability (inherent to human nature) will bring this new way of seeing within everyone’s reach once aesthetic conventions cease to hinder the working of the unconscious.’

The above passage is taken from a Manifesto written by CoBrA artist Constant Nieuwenhuys for Reflex I in September-October 1948. The CoBrA movement would be officially founded in November of that year as a result of the frustration that a group of international European artists felt with the events of the Twentieth Century. These artists felt that the violence and havoc of World War II revealed the failures of the ‘rational’ Western ideal. Thus the objective of CoBrA was to access a primeval territory in art that they felt had been obliterated by the so-called progression of Western culture.

The group’s members, originating principally from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam (hence the name CoBrA), each came to the group from a unique artistic background. All sought a return to the primitive, a utopian regression back to a form of natural expression. This is a longing that artists have been grappling with since the Enlightenment in the mid-eighteenth century. German Expressionist groups, such as Der Blaue Reiter, likewise sought a spiritual connection with nature and did so through expressive, some might say more primitive imagery. Meanwhile, the desire to purge art of what had come to be considered ideal beauty according to Western thinking had been seen in avant-garde movements such as Dada during the time of the First World War. Whereas Dada artists were deliberately irrational through their art as a reaction against the time in which they lived, CoBrA’s tactic was to revert back to a mind-set which preceded the development of Western culture.

© Erling Mandelmann/WikiCommons

Although CoBrA artists such as Asger Jorn, Constant Nieuwenhuys and Egill Jacobson began their more primitive form of expression in separate areas of Europe, each found a starting point through the language of experimentalism. These artists took the Surrealist interest in the subconscious, the freeing up of the mind to make way for automatic expression, to a new level. Instead of a concentration on automatism, they found inspiration through impulsive gesture.

This method of working of course bears strong similarities to the new wave of ‘Primitive Expressionism’ which emerged after the war, with artists in France like Jean Dubuffet and the Abstract Expressionists in the United States such as Jackson Pollock. CoBrA was very much a part of this emergence, and those CoBrA artists who practiced in the United States were often blindly grouped in with the Abstract Expressionists. Nevertheless, CoBrA can be distinguished from these other Expressionist movements through an interest in the approach that a child or a primitive human might take to art. These types of individuals would not be restricted by established methods and would be able to work innocently free of the fetters of social convention.

Animals also played a large role in CoBrA work and were valued at the same level as humans. Consequently all kinds of wildlife, often mystical creatures made from half man and half animal, were included in the canvases of these artists. Despite the desire to avoid any specific artistic language, a clearly primitive aesthetic became visible throughout. Even after the group had officially disbanded, and these artists blended in to the wave of expressionism that took the fifties by storm, these creatures continued to dominate their individual work.

© Heleen Meijer/Flickr

Although there were more artists who associated with the CoBrA movement, it was the strong philosophical efforts of Asger Jorn, Christian Dotremont and Constant Nieuwenhuys that kept the group together. Their desire to collaborate came from the shared belief in the creation of a Marxist society through artistic practice. For the CoBrA artists this meant a focus on joint artworks. Artists did not limit themselves to a specific medium, and embraced painting, poetry, sculpture, photography, film or found objects. They would often come together to collaborate on a single canvas.

It is perhaps ironic that despite the value they placed on collective artwork as a reflection of a Marxist ideal, CoBrA’s fame came after it disbanded in 1951. It wasn’t until artists like Asger Jorn and Karel Appel became famous through their individual work around 1960 that the name CoBrA became a household name. In his book COBRA: The Last Avant-Garde Movement of the Twentieth Century, Willemijn Stokis suggests just this, that the CoBrA movement would not be followed, at least not in the Twentieth Century, by another group that could be considered avant-garde to the same extreme. He argues that after this time, no group engaged the arts with such revolutionary force. Instead it would be critics, museums or galleries who would create groupings of artists according to various tendencies. Whether or not this is truly the case, the international cooperation demonstrated by the group is unique to all other avant-garde movements who have emerged since them.

The CoBrA Museum in Holland continues to act in the way that Stokis suggests through its exhibiting of contemporary artists who may or may not strive to align their practice with that of the CoBrA movement. In doing so they are creating a legacy for this group of artists, whose achievements are frequently not granted the same critical discourse as their Abstract Expressionist counterparts.

Watch a video of Karel Appel painting in his studio below:

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