Cobra, the Road to Spontaneity (Cobra, de weg naar spontaniteit)
Soon after the end of the Second World War, in 1948, a number of young artists combined forces in the Cobra movement to protest against attempts to restore prewar conditions. Cobra was a passionate ‘Cry of Freedom’ (the title of a painting by Karel Appel). From the outset, these artists were inspired by a longing for simplicity and originality and they searched for ‘first signs’, dug up from the subconscious.
Cobra – the name is compounded from the first letters of the cities of Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam – was a romantic movement and part of a wider manifestation of expressionist art throughout the Western world, including, among other things, American Abstract Expressionism and the work of the French artist Jean Dubuffet. Cobra called itself a ‘group of Barbarians’ or ‘Vikings’, a northern alliance against the aesthetic and intellectual Parisian abstractionists who dominated the world of art. Barbarians though they might have been, three members of the group provided the movement with a solid theoretical foundation. These three, the Belgian Christian Dotremont, the Dutchman Constant Nieuwenhuys and the Dane Asger Jorn, could be considered Cobra’s heart, though Asger Jorn has, in retrospect, turned out to be Cobra’s most important representative.
In 1974, Willemijn Stokvis published a history of Cobra and to this day, her book is the standard work. Clearly and candidly she describes the development of the individual members of the movement and also the way in which their manifestos and actions, which shocked the easygoing art world of their day, were received. She bases her story not only on a host of documents and art-historical sources, but also – and this is what makes her book so valuable – on extensive interviews with the artists, many of whom have since died, and on countless eye-witness accounts.
Stokvis has completely revised her book in this recent edition and updated it in the light of contemporary opinion. Thus she describes the Danish Cobra movement as a continuation of the movement round Helhesten which harked back to ancient, primitive Danish art. In the Netherlands, by contrast, Cobra marked the first breakthrough of modern art, and in Belgium, where the movement did not attain true importance until 1956, it must be considered a special moment in the slow development of Belgian surrealism.
Willemijn Stokvis’s Cobra book, now enriched by a great many color illustrations, is an exceptional work, providing a broad and at the same time detailed picture of an important art movement.
Willemijn Stokvis (b. 1937) is an art historian and taught history of modern art at the University of Leiden. Her thesis on the Cobra movement gained her the Carel van Mander Prize in 1975. She many publications on the Cobra movement to her credit, and works as an art critic for the Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland and the art journal Kunstbeeld.
Excerpt from the Book
In essence, our culture is already dead. The remaining façades can be blown away by atom bombs tomorrow, but cannot deceive us even now. We have been stripped of all our certainties and left with nothing to believe in. All we can still count on is the fact that we are alive and that it is part of the essence of life to manifest itself. This vital manifestation contrasts with the shallow airs and graces of those for whom art is something separate from their instincts (…) We work for tomorrow’s world. A new society will be ushered in and then man will do naturally what nowadays costs him an enormous struggle: to exist as a living being.