Celebrating 75 Years of CoBrA

In a Parisian cafe in 1948, a group of young and progressive artists gathered to sign the founding manifesto of their groundbreaking art movement. They named themselves CoBrA, an acronym derived from the initials of their home cities: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. Among the pioneering signatories were Asger John (1914-1973) from Denmark, the Belgian poet Christian Dotremont (1922-1979) and his compatriot Pierre Alechinsky (1927), along with Karel Appel (1921-2006), Corneille Guillaume Beverloo (1922-2010) and Constant Nieuwenhuys (1920-2005) from the Netherlands. Together, they formed the first post-war collaboration among European artists.

CoBrA emerged as a response to the horrors of World War II, standing against the National Socialist regime and the artistic oppression during the period when modern art was denounced as ‘Degenerate art’ by the Nazis. Unlike Surrealism, which they perceived as overly theoretical and academic, CoBrA artists focused on creating pure and spontaneous art, tapping into the subconscious without predetermined plans. They drew inspiration from non-Western, prehistoric and folk art, as well as the creative expressions of children and the mentally ill. This approach resonated with Marxist ideals of making art accessible to everyone.

Within a year of its formation, CoBrA achieved a remarkable milestone by securing an international exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, under the direction of the legendary Willem Sandberg (1897-1984). Sandberg, who was keen on promoting abstract art in the Netherlands, supported the uninhibited CoBrA artists, allowing them creative freedom for their 1949 exhibition. Despite controversies and public outrage, the exhibition garnered significant attention and successful ticket sales, reaffirming Sandberg’s decision to showcase CoBrA’s innovative artworks.

The collaboration of artists from different disciplines is characteristic of the CoBrA movement. Poets and their ‘peinture-mots’ worked with painters to merge word and image. The international collaboration of CoBrA artists however, was short-lived; partly due to illness but mainly because some of the artists wished to develop a more personal style. CoBrA was therefore officially dissolved after a concluding joint exhibition in 1951.

Though it was short-lived, artists associated with the CoBrA group continued to stick to the colourful and imaginative style they had developed together. Appel, Constant and Corneille worked on their individual style in Paris, whilst Theo Wolvecamp and Lucebert (1924-1994) went their separate ways in the Netherlands. From the 1960s onwards there was a new wave of attention from art critics and admirers alike for the CoBrA movement. This year marks the 75th anniversary of CoBrA, a milestone celebrated by museums, collectors and auction houses.