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On 8 November 1948, in a café on the corner of the rue Saint-Jacques in Paris, a group of artists including Constant Nieuwenhuijs, Karel Appel and Corneille — all members of the Dutch Experimentele Groep — met with their Danish counterpart Asger Jorn. Guided by the Belgian painter and poet Christian Dotremont, they wrote and signed their first manifesto, The Case Was Heard.

Cobra focused explicitly on collaboration, experimenting with different arts and media.

“Our experiments [by the artists of 'Cobra'] the aim at letting thought express itself spontaneously without the control which reason represents. By means of this irrational spontaneity we get closer tot the vital source of life. Our goal is to liberate ourselves from the control of reason which has been and still is the thing which the bourgeoisie has idealized to seize control of life.”

artists from occupied capitals

COpenhagen BRussels Amsterdam (cobra)

wanted to demonstrate together

their spontaneous vitality

Dotremont would later recall the founding principles that had, in that moment, united  them: ‘Creation before theory; that art must have roots; materialism which begins with the material; the mark as a sign of wellbeing, spontaneity, experimentation: it was the simultaneity of these elements which created CoBrA.’ Dotrement is credited with originating the group’s moniker, which was derived from its members’ home cities: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam.

The European artists were different from their American counterparts (the Abstract expressionists) for they preferred the process over the product and introduced primitive, mythical, and folkloric elements along with a decorative input from their children. One of the new approaches that united the COBRA artists was their unrestrained use of strong colors, along with violent handwritings and figuration which can be either frightening or humorous. Their art was alive with subhuman figures in order to mirror the terror and weakness of our time unlike the dehumanized art of Abstraction.

This spontaneous method was a rejection of Renaissance art, specialization, and ‘civilized art’, they preferred ‘uncivilized’ forms of expression which created an interplay between the conscious and the unconscious instead of the Surrealist interest in the unconscious alone.

The childlike in their method meant a pleasure in painting, in the materials, forms, and finally the picture itself; this aesthetic notion was called ‘desire unbound’.

"Beautiful, ugly, impressive, disgusting, meaningless, grim, contradictory etc.. .It makes no difference, as long as it is life, vigorously pouring forth."

The Dutch Artists in particular within Cobra (Corneille, Appel, Constant) were interested in Children’s art.“We Wanted to start again like a child” Karel Appel insisted. As part of the Western Left, they were built upon the fusion of Art and Life through experiment in order to unite form and expression.

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.

“A living art makes no distinction between beautiful and ugly because it sets no aesthetic norms.. ..The child knows of no law other than its spontaneous sensation of life and feels no need to express anything else. A new freedom is coming into being which will enable human beings to express themselves in accordance with their instincts.”

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 supporters painted murals on every last wall and ceiling of a country house near Copenhagen: architecture as communal canvas.

Ernest (Methuen) Mancoba (29 August 1904 – 25 October 2002) was an avant-garde artist, born in South Africa, who spent the majority of his life in Europe. He was probably South Africa's first professional Black modern artist, and exhibited from the late 1920s onward.

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 colors 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.

"The great work of art is the complete banality, and the fault with most banalities is that they are not banal enough. Banality here is not infinite in its depth and consequence, but rests on a foundation of spirituality and aesthetics"

Jorn was the charismatic and intelligent force at the center of the Cobra storm, without whom the entire movement would probably never have flourished. Believing art was “a fundamental human expression of community and an oppositional tactic rather than an individualist statement,” Jorn’s artwork was constantly entwined with politics and theory. The group dissolved in the early 1950s.

In 1957, Jorn established the experimental and revolutionary artistic movement Situationistisk Internationale (SI) (International Situationists) in conjunction with Pinot Gallizio, Guy Debord, Michèle Bernstein, and Ralph Rumney. 

..was the cobra movement

the prefiguration

of youth protest

which took place some twenty years later?

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