CoBrA: A European Avant-Garde Movement You Should Know

CoBrA was a European avant-garde movement and artists’ collective active between 1948 and 1951. The name was created by Christian Dotremont and reflects the members’ hometowns: Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam.

The Foundation of CoBrA

The movement was formally established on November 8, 1948, in Paris at the Hotel Notre Dame’s café. Six artists – Christian Dotremont, Joseph Noiret, Asger Jorn, Karel Appel, Constant, and Corneille – signed a declaration that distanced itself from the manifesto signed by French and Belgian revolutionary surrealists the year before. This declaration marked the beginning of a new direction in avant-garde art, breaking with traditional norms and forms of expression.

Read also: Situationist International: The Revolution’s Artists and Thinkers

Artistic Expression and Inspiration

The CoBrA group was characterized by an abstract, expressive style drawing inspiration from children’s drawings, masks from Africa and Oceania, and Nordic mythology. The artists sought to explore the unconscious and find new ways to express emotions and instincts. The group aimed for an experimental renewal of artistic expression and often worked with a spontaneous and informal approach to art.

Political and Social Dimension

Beyond their artistic ambitions, CoBrA also had a significant political and social dimension. The group criticized the contemporary Cold War society and aimed to create a popular art that could be understood and appreciated by everyone. Art was to be a catalyst for creativity and generative forces in society.

The CoBrA Journal

The movement also published a journal named COBRA. The first issue was released in Copenhagen in March 1949, with Christian Dotremont as the editor-in-chief. The journal played a central role in spreading the movement’s ideas and artistic visions.

The Cobra Ceiling in Denmark

In Denmark, the CoBrA movement left significant marks, particularly with the famous Cobra ceiling in Frederiksholmshytten in Bregnerød. In August-September 1949, several group members met for a congress at Asger Jorn’s invitation. The artists decorated the ceiling with paintings, and this unique art installation was later saved from decay and preserved at Sophienholm in Lyngby.

Preservation of the Cobra Ceiling

Only the ceiling from the Arkitekthytten has been preserved. Both the hut and the ceiling were not adequately maintained and eventually had to be taken down. Virtus Schade fought a years-long battle to save the ceiling from ruin. Several museums, foundations, and the Ministry of Culture refused to take responsibility. Architect Søren Cock-Clausen described the event in the publication “Arkitekthytten og Cobra-loftet,” published in 1994 by the Lyngby Art Association.

Sophienholm and the CoBrA Room

In 1969, Mayor Paul Fenneberg personally bought the Cobra ceiling for 10,000 DKK. After years of newspaper polemics and Virtus Schade’s pleas, the ceiling was saved and placed in the Coach House at Sophienholm. The ceiling was thoroughly restored by conservator Nora Fenneberg on the recommendation of conservator Steen Bjarnhof from the National Gallery of Denmark and placed in the CoBrA Room, which opened in 1994.

The CoBrA Room

The CoBrA Room at Sophienholm has been an important exhibition location over the years, run by the Lyngby Art Association. The room hosted 12-20 annual exhibitions from 1994-2021 and continues to be used occasionally by arrangement with Sophienholm. The ceiling and room serve as a reminder of the CoBrA movement’s experimental and collaborative spirit and contribute to understanding the group’s significance in art history.

Members and Influence

CoBrA had members from several European countries, including Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Among the Danish members were Asger Jorn, Carl-Henning Pedersen, Egill Jacobsen, Henry Heerup, and Mogens Balle. The movement quickly spread to other countries and attracted many artists who shared the group’s vision of new, experimental art.

CoBrA Museum in Amstelveen

In 1995, a museum dedicated to the CoBrA movement’s art opened in Amstelveen, Holland. The museum collects and exhibits work from many of the group’s artists and serves as an important institution for preserving and disseminating CoBrA’s legacy. Visit the museum’s website: cobra-museum.nl/

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