A group of Expressionist artists active in the late 1940s and 1950s. The name is derived from the letters of the capital cities of the countries of the artists involved - Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam.

Karel Appel Danse d'espace avant la tempête [Dance in Space before the Storm] 1959 © Karel Appel Foundation / DACS 2018.

The Origins of CoBrA

CoBrA emerged in the late 1940s in Paris. They were a large artists’ collective, with around 30 members, including Asger Jorn, Carl-Henning Pederson, Karel Appel, Cornelius Guillaume Van Beverloo, Christian Dotremont, Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys and Henry Heerup. Members were a diverse mix of critical thinkers, essayists, poets and painters who predominantly focussed on paintings, murals and writing. It is thought the group were officially brought together in a café in Paris on November 8th, 1948, in a meeting organised by Asger Jorn involving artists from Denmark, Belgium and Holland.

The three cities were formerly under Nazi occupation and emerged from the Second World War surrounded by devastation and tragedy. For the artists associated with CoBrA the styles of art that had existed before the war, particularly geometric abstraction, were a dead language that failed to communicate the realities of post-war life. Instead, the group produced spontaneous, rebellious artworks inspired by a range of ideas, including the work of children and Outsider Art.

Key Influences for CoBrA Artists 

CoBrA artists strongly opposed the dominant art styles of abstraction, Socialist Realism and the Ecole de Paris aiming instead for a more honest, down to earth art language. Influences came from a wide range of sources including prehistoric art, primitive art, folk art, graffiti, Norse mythology, children’s art and the art of the untrained. Their aims were to resurrect a lost innocence in art practice, which could be a powerful, cathartic tool for expressing desires and emotions.

The Surrealists were a strong influence, particularly with their emphasis on Automatism and the unconscious mind, and their rejection of a ‘civilized’ society that held led to the war. The Surrealists’ focus on chance and experimentation led to Appel’s Objets Poubelles and Jorn’s book, Luck and Chance, 1952.

The German Expressionists exerted a powerful influence too, particularly the work of Edvard Munch, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde, with many CoBrA artists producing expressionistic paintings with strong primary colours and free brushstrokes, such as Appel’s Danse d’espace avant la tempete (Dance in Space before the Storm), 1959. Paul Klee’s fascination with children’s art also influenced many of the CoBrA artists’ naïve paintings and murals.

Important CoBrA Projects 

CoBrA artists held a wide number of exhibitions internationally. One of their most prominent shows was held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1949, which included wildly expressive paintings and live poetry readings. The deliberately provocative show was met with outrage and ridicule by the public and press, forcing the artists to leave Amsterdam.

Collaboration was also an important part of the CoBrA project, which the artists saw as a means of rejecting the isolation and commodification of individualistic artworks. Together they published a series of manifestos, the first of which was titled La Cause Etait Entendue (The Case Was Decided), 1948, outlining their work as ‘a tribute to the geographic passion which filled us in our refound freedom, giving birth to the animal myth.’

Their artists lived and worked together and often collaborated with family members on projects including the interiors of friends’ homes, most famously in The Bregnerod Murals, 1949, which featured figurative elements by Jorn, Pedersen and British member Stephen Gilbert. Together they also published a series of journals, periodicals and publications including Reflex and the CoBrA Journals.

CoBrA Legacy

By the early 1950s, the group gradually disbanded, although many continued to work in a CoBrA-esque, expressionistic style. From 1957-72 Jorn and Constantin became important members of the highly politicised group The Situationists while the establishment of a Cobra Museum in Amsterdam in 1995 celebrates their important contribution to the development of modern art.

Artists

Karel Appel
1921 - 2006
Stephen Gilbert
1910 - 2007

Glossary terms

  • A literary and artistic movement that sought to challenge conventions through the exploration of the subconscious mind, invoking the power of dreams and elements of chance. It is now regarded as one of the most radical movements of the 20th century.

  • A style that made an impact in the arts in the 1920s, particularly in Germany. Expressionists abandoned realistic, accurate representations in favour of exaggerations and distortions of line and colour that were intended to carry far greater emotional impact.