CoBrA: Insight

By Gillian Scadden

“In the unprecedented cultural emptiness that has followed the war… in which the reigning class increasingly pushes art into a position of dependence… We find established a culture of individualism which is condemned by the very culture that has produced it; because its conventionality prevents the exercise of imagination and desire, and impedes vital expression… There cannot be a popular art, even if concessions such as active participation are made to the public, while art forms are historically imposed. Popular art is characterised by vital expression, which is direct and collective.


A new freedom is about to be born, one which will allow people to satisfy their creative desires. As a result of this process, the profession of artist will cease to occupy a privileged position; which is why some contemporary artists are resistant to it. In the period of transition, artistic creation finds itself at war with the existing culture, while simultaneously announcing a future culture. With this dual aspect, art has a revolutionary role in society”.

~ The Declaration of freedom, printed in the first issue of Reflex, Constant Nieuwenhuys.

A building bursting with bright colours and expressive brush strokes. It enunciates spontaneity, and displays characteristic subject matters that epitomize the movement of mid 20th Century artists CoBrA; a collective name derived from the cities in which the initial members were from (Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam).

The CoBrA Museum of Modern Art welcomes on average 75,000 visitors yearly. The artist’s stories and characters are charming and colourful, capturing and enthralling your attention and imagination. But excluding this, what do we really know about CoBrA?


The group was formed after Appel, Constant, Corneille, Jorn and Dotremont met at the “International Centre For The Documentation Of Avant-Garde Art” in Paris. The six agents walked out together and formed the group, intending to replace any art they considered a smokescreen, with that of organic expressions and human creativity. It was the process of creating, not the end result, that was principal to them.

The paintings and sculptures may at first seem like children’s art, and indeed this was exactly what the artists hoped to achieve. As explained on the walls of the ‘Phanos Zaal’, they were intent on breaking every rule they had ever been taught, and instead paint directly from their feeling. A kind of free association that lead to explosive manifestations of emotion, encapsulated forever in thick globs of paint. The artists were unhappy about the state of modern art after the war and desired change, which they expressed in their work. You can observe the ingredients of Dada (anarchy against the First World War) and surrealism in their style, particularly the ‘automatic’ elements of surrealism. 

In a Europe devastated by war, artists were eager to pool their thoughts and react to the inhumanity of a civilization. Cobra had a distinctive political and social dimension based on a criticism of the World War society of their day.

The group only lasted a few years, but still managed to achieve a number of objectives in that time; the periodical Cobra, a series of collaborations between various members called Peintures-Mot and two large-scale exhibitions. The first of these was held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, November 1949, a legendary ‘International exposition d’art experimental’ in which some of the artists gave dynamic performances from within a cage. The other was at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Liège in 1951.

Their fundamental values were nonconformity and spontaneity. Their inspiration was children’s drawings, folk art, and motifs from Nordic mythology. They rejected erudite art and all official art events. They sought to express combination of the Surrealist unconscious with the romantic forces of nature. The primary focus of the group consisted of semi-abstract paintings with brilliant color, violent brushwork, and distorted human figures inspired by primitive and folk art.  Cobra was a milestone in the development European abstract expressionism.


However internal and external pressures caused CoBrA to disband in 1951, just three years after the group was formed. In “Ce Que Sont Les Arnis De CoBrA Et Ce Qu’ils Representent”, published in the second issue of “Internationale Situationiste” (December 1958), Jorn and Constant summed up the legacy of CoBrA with the following words:

“In ’51, the International of Experimental Artists broke up. The representatives of its most advanced tendency continued their pursuits in new forms; but others abandoned experimental activity, and now use their ‘talent’ to make the CoBrA picture style, the only tangible result of the movement, fashionable”

Many of its members remained close however, with Dotremont in particular continuing collaborations with many of the leading members of the group. Several of their individual works can be admired in museum today.

Displayed in the Phanos Zaal is ‘The CoBrA Family’. Among many other pieces there is Karel Appel’s ‘Esemble of Two Heads’ and ‘Manque de Communication’. Eugene Brand’s ‘The good bicycle ride’ is displayed, Asger Jorn’s ‘Nude without skin’ and Theo Wolvecamp’s ‘Wounded Bird’ which captures you with its vivid hues of blue and idealism. Corneille is also on display (although personally not my favourite), his canvas’ portraying more muted colours and finer brush strokes. There is also a room displaying the letters sent back and forth between the artists, talking of the day to day of their creative and familial lives, which makes for an engaging read.

Additionally and specially, there are workshops for children, and a designated wall for them to display their own works of CoBrA art on, placed directly in the middle of the hall for visitors to admire. Some paintings of which I will subjectively pronounce are as, and possibly even more brilliant than those of the original CoBra group! Unsurprisingly, as the art work here is presented in a child’s language, it is a really wonderful place to take, entertain and teach youngsters.


Also on the ground floor there are rotating exhibitions from other modern artists. One currently in presentation is EXODUS by Izaak Zwartjes, which will continue until September this year. It speaks of curses and blessings, hunting for pleasure and failing to gain happiness, mythological motifs of what it is to be human. It is described as an apocalyptic tale of a degenerated tribe of cloned beings, with an inescapable fate. The result is both haunting and thought provoking.

The modern exhibitions simply add to the magic of CoBrA art, and make this Museum in my opinion, for absolutely everyone, one well worth consideration.  The movement and the museum itself may be slightly ignored, being located out of the city in Amstelveen. However the long enough metro ride plus navigation through this sleepy town, which may seem like a hassle, really just adds to the slightly surreal experience that ensues, where you will then be welcomed to the museum by probably one of the most enigmatic fountains in the world. It is definitely worth the journey. Enjoy!


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