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CoBrA: Before, During, and After

One of the most important post-war European art movements, CoBrA is scarcely known in the United States. The CoBrA rubric is an acronym of Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam, cities from which many of the original artists came. It existed under that name for a mere three years: 1948-51. The group, which functioned primarily in Belgium and France, attracted the young, discontented and defiant artists of the time. Among the best-known figures are painters Pierre Alechinsky, Karel Appel, and Asger Jorn. This exhibition encompass lesser-known figures--- Heerup, Corneille, Pedersen, Dotremont, Vandercam, Reinhoud, Constant and others, and collaborations among them--- and places the CoBrA canoncial years within a context of the evolution of work by several of the participants from 1940 through 1970, completing the picture in drawings, sculpture, and ceramics.

The movement has its roots in Surrealism and especially German Expressionism, but incorporates many of the attitudes and techniques of American abstract expressionism. The artists were participants in the shifts in prevailing philosophical currents of the time, from existentialism to that aspect of critical theory that took shape in Paris in the 1960s. Coalescing around the Situationiste Internationale and Guy Debord, their manifestoes and publications form the basis upon which much post-modern work of the latter half of the century found its intellectual grounding. The question of why the European work was virtually eclipsed by American abstraction is a fascinating one, one that must be answered both by aesthetic fashion and politics. The larger question of how abstract art can respond to and address socio-political issues is raised more in the work of the CoBrA artists than it is in that of their American counterparts, in which there is less explicit content and imagery.

CoBrA work can be viewed as both the confluence of Surrealism and of German Expressionism, and as the pairing of abstraction + expressionism. Examples are rarely purely abstract, as they are in American abstract expressionism. The goals and strategies of the two groups are distinct, yet tendencies are clearly shared. Differences between American abstract expressionists working at mid-century and their European counterparts in CoBrA reveal the impact of post-war malaise in contrast to the triumphalist spirit in the United States following its victory. Unlike the Americans working in the context of a post-war economic boom and with the stimulus of an extremely active art milieu of critics, sophisticated dealers, and re-energized museums, the CoBrA artists often worked despite hunger and meager shelter (Heerup lived out of doors), with meager means, painting on burlap, cardboard, or found objects to compensate for the absence of canvas, a poverty which spurred rich inventiveness. The war had swept away much material culture, but also took old ideas along with it, so that it was also a liberating atmosphere for artists. The absence of a market for the CoBrA artists had the positive outcome of relieving them of pressure to please the public, critics, or collectors, a condition that engendered freedom of content and experimentation at every level. Yet the CoBrA artists share stylistic similarities with the Americans, many of whom, like Willem DeKooning, were European transplants, though others, like Mark Rothko, had arrived in their youth. Both groups see the expressive power and psychological penetration of primitive imagery, the work of children, and of the insane. Both sought new means for breaking through the notion of the finely crafted painting, preferring, instead, direct paint application as a route to the interiority of the artist.

Both were impacted by intellectual discoveries that allowed one access to the invisible. Advances in physics, accelerated by the Manhattan project, which created the atomic bomb, changed warfare forever. The power of the atom and the bomb branded the era at mid-century the Atomic Age. Versions of the Bohr model of the atom appeared in paintings and even in popular design. The credibility of psychoanalysis as a method for accessing unknown regions of the mind, made known to the general public through popularization of the theories of Sigmund Freud and other pioneers of psychoanalysis, gave new authority to dreams and the unconscious. Dreams were by no means new as sources for artists. But Surrealism, a largely European movement, operated chiefly on representational imagery. The impact of dreams carried through abstract imagery, releasing the dream without translating it into the cohesive albeit irrational narrative of Surrealism, was new. The experience of the dream, the emotion it evoked and the information it delivered from within, was expressed without the language of narrative, with irrational overlay of image fragments, pure form, and gesture carrying the greatest part of the emotional impact. One was not meant to decipher so much as to experience this work. Viewers understood the painting through empathy with the artist, recapitulating the experience of the artist as they confronted the Gestalt of the painting.

In the case of CoBrA artists working immediately after the war, the dream was often a nightmare of war and the challenges of survival. The irrationality of dream sequences is distilled into a vocabulary of haunting images, often several juxtaposed, such as a bird and skulls, figurative but eschewing cohesive narrative structure. The artists of CoBrA were living such dreams , not merely reflecting upon it. The courage to continue to make art in these circumstances, and the discipline to do so, were fueled by a need to rescue meaning from senseless violence or what might seem like the triumph of demonic forces. The conundrum of theodicy must have been vividly present; how can God be good if this evil is triumphant? In the immediate aftermath of the war, the imagery of the CoBrA artists is often of skulls, piled corpses, or hordes of the insane. Not since the work of Goya have these subjects been conveyed so convincingly. Yet they also enjoyed camaraderie among themselves, and a rare wit and erotic vitality evident in the work of Alechinsky, Jorn, and Heerup. Later work reveals the lifting of the post-war pall as it becomes more playful, with the appearance of satirical images of animals (snakes, birds, bears), with a sense of liberation and transgression as in the “modifications” of Jorn and others who painted over flea-market paintings to give them new and often absurd meaning.

Emphasis on directness, accessing the intuitive and universal, is expressed in paint application. The privileged position of the brush as the tool between the hand and the canvas was one of a multitude of conventions discarded. Accessing the raw emotion of the artist to convey a maelstrom of feeling was achieved through aggressive paint application. Breaking with tradition, Karel Appel invented “action painting” and Alechinsky, at about the same time that Jackson Pollock made a similar discovery in the U.S., began to pour paint directly onto the canvas. Emphasis on directness, obviating narrative content plotted out in advance, reveals an underlying skepticism of language, an attitude characteristic of Romanticism but which took new form, questioning the power and misuse of language, that emerged in postmodern thought. This skepticism, by extension, is applied to the language of recognizable imagery in the work of abstract artists. The CoBrA work balances between pure abstraction and non-specific figuration. In the case of the Americans, abstraction was a way to convey that meaning is unutterable. Among some of the artists in CoBrA, it may be that the meaning found is unspeakable.

If American abstraction looks inward, into the unique center of the artist, the content of the CoBrA work is less individualistic. It reflects post-war malaise as Europe took stock of its culture in the aftershock of destruction and dispersal of populations, humiliation on a national scale in the case of countries such as France, and realization of the horrors of genocide as the Nazi extermination camps were opened. The artists participated in and insisted upon a conjunction of art and social causes, and their work contains content at least metaphoric and sometimes explicitly referential. Some members of CoBrA became leaders of or activists in other groups such as the Situationiste Internationale, that group of artistic and literary rebels whose actions contributed to the student-worker alliance in Paris in May 1968. The CoBrA artists produced manifestoes in the journals Cobra and Reflex during the CoBrA period; others continued to publish in International Situationiste, articulating social revolutionary solidarity, and pursued a course of challenging both aesthetic norms and social conventions, both of which seemed dated and reflective of a naïveté eradicated by the war. While the abstract expressionists in this country, influenced and inspired by the new value placed on psychoanalysis, sought to liberate the inner self, the Europeans sought to plumb not only the individual and his psyche, but the destruction of society and civilization and the human capacity for cruelty. The spirit of transgression that marks this work, expressed sometimes in violent imagery or paint application, reflects the dark mood of Europe after the war and during the period of recovery. The CoBrA artists saw the ruins of Europe as something that could only have been produced by brutes or madmen.

Many of the artists had studied with the masters of the School of Paris prior to the debacle of the war. Asger Jorn had studied with Fernand Leger, and a painting reflecting this influence, now in the collection of the ASU Art Museum, will be discussed. The work has much in common with that of the New York School. Jorn, like Alechinsky and Pollock, made all-over paintings that repeat rhythmic patterns. The influence of earlier European art is ironically reflected in Christian Dotremont’s Armoire (1949) by Alechinsky, which takes the image of the window so frequently seen in the work of Henri Matisse, and paints it on the wooden-slatted doors of a French armoire. Alechinsky is not only paying homage to and revitalizing the conceit of the window, he is re-cycling the detritus of a demolished building. Further, rather than repeating the formula so often seen in the sun-filled paintings of the pre-war Raoul Dufy or Matisse, Alechinsky paints the doors closed. Rather than linking interior and exterior, he is shutting out the world. Like his cohorts in CoBrA, Alechinsky is reframing history and art history in a manner that parallels the postmodern strategy that, in fact, was being articulated in the Collège de Philosophie at a time that it began to reshape and edge out existentialism, which had been the prevailing philosophic school.

The CoBrA work is relevant to this historic moment. Much of the work reflects the confrontation of horrors of war and the determination to rebuild both physically and psychically in its aftermath. It is appropriate to the present as art is being asked to assist in addressing the meaning of violence.

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