This year, we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the CoBrA art movement, a collaboration of now internationally renowned artists who, at the time, thoroughly reshaped the boundaries of modern art and continue to exert significant influence today.
The CoBrA movement, as we know it today, formally emerged on November 8, 1948, at the Notre Dame café in Paris. It was founded by a group of like-minded and diverse Danish, Belgian, and Dutch artists. They collaborated around the internationally published CoBrA magazine, named after an extremely dangerous yet also sacred snake, which served as a symbol for their determination to bring art to the forefront during a chaotic period when the world was still grappling with the immense damage caused by World War II. The participants were driven by the need to express themselves creatively with the limited resources available at the time, in an attempt to realize their ideals for the future society.
CoBrA was a reaction by these artists to the rational Western culture, which they believed had been forever tainted by the Second World War. They aimed to return to the original sources of human creativity by using forms that, according to them, had not yet been tainted by the Western world. These sources included primitive cultures with totems and symbols, Eastern calligraphy, prehistoric and medieval art. They concluded that the cause of the war was the breaking of "fictional national borders" and therefore decided to create "borderless" art. Within the Western world, they sought inspiration from various forms of folk art or naive expressions of creativity, such as the work of children and the mentally ill, assuming that these were not "bounded" by prevailing Western culture. Notably, they also believed that one's personal handwriting was a unique expression of the psyche. In essence, they were in search of the authenticity of life, the source, free from Western formalism, heavily influenced by the expressive power of irrational forms and colors as found in primitive art.
Three leading artists within the CoBrA movement were staunch Marxists who believed in the concept of international fraternity and cooperation, later conflicting with the principles of Soviet realism regarding art. Anti-aesthetics and anti-specialism were highly emphasized among CoBrA members. The symbiosis between language and painting, the resistance to any form of formalism and stylistic conventions, surprisingly culminated in the development of a unique painterly language closely aligned with abstract expressionism, which dominated Western art in the 1950s.
In essence, CoBrA served as the theoretical foundation for a movement that can be described as primitivist abstract, where artists replaced the oppressive, distorted world of surrealism stemming from their own subconscious with a vital explosion of color, form, and matter in their expressive art.
The fundamental idea of opening the path for the inherent urge for expression in every individual stemmed from the development of folk high schools under the influence of the Danish pastor-poet Grundvig (1783-1872), which had a profound impact on the Danish members of the CoBrA group. Asger Jorn became the most influential thinker within the Danish group and virtually the only one with genuine international aspirations. Starting from 1945, he developed a wholly unique style characterized by an unceasing, meandering line with many small, mobile patches of color, evoking the concept of a mythic vegetative world.
Jorn sought international connections and, in Paris, came into contact with the Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys. Under Jorn's influence, Constant became the driving force in the Netherlands for a group of experimental artists, including Karel Appel and Corneille.
After 1945, there was a strong desire in the Netherlands to break free from the stifling isolation of the German occupation. Appel and Corneille made contact with Belgian painters from the Jeune Peinture Belge, and through them, with Parisian artists such as Miro, Dubuffet, and Paul Klee. Appel, Constant, and Corneille embarked on a quest for primitivist modes of expression, with one pursuing it through barbaric, sometimes childlike fantasy creatures, and the other through the wild play of forms and colors inspired by Miro.
In 1948, the group of "De Experimentelen" was formed in the Netherlands, and Lucebert joined their ranks. The influence of Jorn on Dutch theoretical thinking about art was already evident in the Reflex manifesto at that time.
The Belgian branch of CoBrA emerged from the movement around the Revolutionary Surrealists, with Christian Dotremont being its main representative. He had strong connections with the international communist resistance and was determined to forcefully combine politics and art, in contrast to the Frenchman André Breton, who didn't see the merit in it. With Jorn's support for Dotremont's ideas and the resonance they found among the Dutch Experimentelen, CoBrA came into being. The CoBrA magazine was published from March 1949 to November 1951. The aim of the affiliated artists was to escape the dominance of reason in favor of that of life through experiments designed to allow spontaneous expression of thought.
Characteristic of the group was the enthusiasm with which they collaborated and initiated joint projects, such as "Les rencontres de Bregneröd," where artists decorated a house together with limited resources and lived together like one big family, and the collaboration with poets in which words and visuals were brought together on a single canvas. The true center of the CoBrA group became a property rented by Alechinsky on Rue du Marais in the center of Brussels, from which they established contacts with various artists. The common trait among them all was the direct, spontaneous approach, using bright, unmixed colors to create fantasy beings that appeared to be a hybrid of humans, animals, and plants.
In addition to publishing a magazine, CoBrA organized several significant exhibitions that marked the breakthrough of the group. As early as November-December 1948, Danish and Dutch artists exhibited together in Copenhagen. In Brussels, there was the exhibition 'La Fin Et Les Moyens' in March 1949, which was visited by the young Pierre Alechinsky, leading to his contact with the group.
The two most important international exhibitions were held from November 3 to 28, 1949, at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, and from October 6 to November 6, 1951, in Liège at the Palais des Beaux Arts, organized by Alechinsky.
For most artists, CoBrA was ultimately a phase in their development, and as they gained more recognition, the sense of interconnectedness within the group faded.
In November 1951, the publication of the CoBrA magazine, under the editorship of Dotremont, came to an end.
As such, CoBrA (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam) was the last avant-garde movement of the 20th century, driven by a revolutionary spirit and composed of artists themselves, not by critics or gallery owners. This is why this movement is of such great importance to modern art.
The Zutter Art Gallery, particularly gallery owner Michael De Zutter, boasts years of experience (Michael's parents were avid collectors, including works by CoBrA members) and extensive expertise (a sworn expert in the works of Corneille and a member of the Guillaume Corneille Foundation) in the realm of CoBrA art. For over two decades, we have been guiding and inspiring collectors in expanding and enhancing their collections.
Over the years, it has become evident that interest in the oeuvre of CoBrA artists is steadily increasing. This naturally results in growing demand and the associated price increases. As one of the last major international art movements from Europe, it remains very accessible in terms of pricing, especially when compared to contemporaries like the American abstract expressionists. Please feel free to contact gallery owner Michael De Zutter for personalized advice and guidance.