COBRA and expressionism 20/20

What am I working on? One thing I am working on – or maybe I should say thinking about – is ‘Expressionism Twenytwenty‘. And, being a great fan of Karel Appel, I was wondering: how does COBRA fit in with XP20/20?

What was COBRA?
COBRA  was a European art movement, active from 1948 to 1951. The name was came from the members’ home cities: Copenhagen, Brussel, Amsterdam. Famous painters from this movement were Karel Appel, Carl-Henning Pedersen and Corneille.

They preferred the process over the product and they liked primitive art, mythical and folkloric elements and they admired the artistic expressions of children and psychiatric patients.

Let’s have a look at a few of their paintings.

Karel Appel (1921-2006), La Fleur et les oiseaux (The Flower and the Birds)
painted in 1951. 73 x 92 cm.
Lucebert Pythia 1960 Collection Cobra Museum voor Moderne Kunst, 1960
Carl-Henning Pedersen Cobra Painting, Title, “Rød Vinge Hest” “Red Wing Horse”

The pattern
What’s the same in these three painting? Of course there’s all the elements of COBRA: primitive, experimental, colorful and so on. But also: recognizable animals, faces, eyes, people. It is difficult (though not entirely impossible) to find a totally abstract COBRA painting. And that makes sense. Because can you think of any children’s drawings or folkloric pictures that do not contain people or animals, or at least plants or trees?

Here is a set of cards from Hungary, showing folkloric themes.

Folkloric themes

And in this folkloric example you see all the usual COBRA-suspects: men, women, animals, trees. Even the fish and the birds, so often found in CONRA work appear on these cards.

Abstract expressionism
Compare this with the abstract expressionism from New York in the forties and fifties of the last century. Roughly the same period as COBRA.

Here’s two of their paintings:

Jackson Pollock, Convergence, 1952
Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1960

As you can see, one of their defining characteristics is total – be it quite expressive – abstraction. No faces, no people, no animals, no eyes, no animals, no fish, no birds, no plants. Just shapes and colors.

Combine a mafia boss with a philosopher
What do you get when you combine a mafia boss with a philosopher?
“I’ll make you an offer you can’t understand”.

It almost seems like COBRA is an integration between the ‘old’ expressionism from before the second world war and the abstract expressionism from the fifties. I don’t know if this is literally true, since abstract expressionism and COBRA happened more or less simultaneously. In fact, COBRA happened right in the middle of abstract expressionism, timewise.
Abstract expressionism: 1943-1965.
COBRA: 1948 to 1951.

Timeframe AE-COBRA

The expressionism list
So how could we describe COBRA, coming from figurative and abstract expressionism? Of course, all art is expressive of something. That makes it a bit more complicated. Maybe we should aks: expression of what? And then the answer is: emotion.

So we could justifiably list it like this:

  1. Figurative expressionism
    As in Max Beckmann
  2. Abstract expressionism
    As in Jackson Pollock
  3. Abstract Folkloric expressionism
    As in Karel Appel

Does it even matter?
Probably not. I just like to think about it. And sort of find a structure where it fits together…. What this defining exercise is showing me now, is that there could logically be something like ‘primitive abstract expressionism’. Since the abstract expressionism that we know seems to be quite formal and intellectual, no matter how free their techniques are.

About the Author JAAPH

JAAPH is a visual artist living in Nijmegen, The Netherlands.