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  • Cobra: Postwar Expressionism in Western Europe
  • Kristine Somerville

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previous page: Constant with his painting Terre Brulée III, 1951, photo: unknown.

© Constant/Fondation Constant/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2015

[End Page 53]

A painting is not a composition of colour and line, but an animal, a night, a scream, a human being, or all of these together.

—Constant Nieuwenhuys, “Manifesto,” Reflex #1 (September–October 1948)

The Cobra art movement was announced in 1948 in the group’s first issue of Reflex, a magazine containing lithographs, articles and reproductions by its members. Their name was the acronym of capitals of the countries where the artists lived—Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. Founding member Constant Nieuwenhuys wrote the group’s manifesto, a document that has become one of the signal texts on postwar Western European art. In it he proclaimed that the act of creative expression offers mental and spiritual enrichment more important than the work itself. He envisioned a new society in which the artistic expression of emotions, yearnings and ambitions was radically democratized and widely shared. Cobra abandoned the art establishment in favor of freedom and experimentation, seeking a return to a primitive state of artistic innocence.

For Constant, Cobra meant a complete integration of art with life, a “living art.” He wrote, “The masses, brought up with aesthetic conventions imposed from without, are yet unaware of their creative potential. [End Page 54] This will be stimulated by an art which does not define but suggests, by the arousal of associations and the speculations which come forth from them, creating a new and fantastic way of seeing.” In an article in the fourth issue of Reflex, he added, “We who have nothing to lose but our chains, can risk striving for adventure.” While not all members shared his leftist political views, he captured the common core of their ideas—that through their art they would lead others to self-fulfillment and personal freedom.


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Constant (1920–2005), lithograph, Portfolio 8 x La Guerre-3, 1951, photo: Tom Haartsen.

© Constant/Fondation Constant/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2015

The high value Constant placed on art and his loathing of restrictions came from the deprivations he experienced during his early life as an artist. Born in 1920 in Amsterdam, he drew passionately as a child, showing early talent. At sixteen, with a desire to paint but little money, he improvised materials from jute bags and leftover house paint. He studied at the Arts and Crafts School and State Academy of Fine Arts from 1939 to [End Page 55] 1941 and then lived and worked in Bergen until it was evacuated by the Germans in 1943, forcing his return to Amsterdam. He went into hiding after refusing to register at the Nazi Chamber of Culture. Those who did not join were prohibited from exhibiting their work or buying materials. His art supplies came from what he could scavenge: tablecloths and bedsheets were his canvases.


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Constant (1920–2005), lithograph, Portfolio 8 x La Guerre-6, 1951, photo: Tom Haartsen.

© Constant/Fondation Constant/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2015

After the war ended, Constant was finally free to work as he had always wanted. Casting off the oppressive seclusion, he traveled to Paris for the first time and moved through several artistic stages, including Cubism and Expressionism, in quick succession. In 1946 he met the Danish painter Asger Jorn; their friendship, along with an encounter with Belgian artist Christian Dotremont in 1948, developed the basis of Cobra. For Constant, art had to be experimental and continually changing. His fellow artists agreed. In their quest for innovation, they [End Page 56] opposed prescriptive aesthetics in painting and bourgeois art in favor of spontaneity, creativity and an expressive, direct style.


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Constant (1920–2005), lithograph, Portfolio 8 x La Guerre-8, 1951, photo: Tom Haartsen.

© Constant/Fondation Constant/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2015

During the war many artists had suffered isolation and physical deprivation, and many of them hungered for fellowship with others who were passionate...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 53-61
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-10
Open Access
No
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