In the years following World War II, avant-garde artists in Northern Europe came together to form Cobra, a short-lived but powerful movement named for their capitals Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam. Lasting just over 1000 days between 1948 and 1951, the movement is remembered as a revolution of artistic expression. In honor of the 400th anniversary of Turkish-Dutch diplomacy, Cobra: 1000 Days of Free Art is on show at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum until September 16.
During the Nazi occupation of Northern Europe, artistic expression was stifled and communication within the art community was limited. Inter-war movements such as Linien (The Line) and Dada initiated avant-garde thinking in Denmark and Belgium respectively, but the Netherlands retained a traditional mindset throughout WWII. With the liberation, the Netherlands emerged from artistic isolation and their newfound spirit of freedom gave rise to unrestrained artistic expression. Artists Corneille, Constant, and Karel Appel organized The Dutch Experimental Group in 1948 to bring together like-minded artists in the pursuit of redefining art.
Cobra began in Paris on November 8, 1949, when these three artists signed a manifesto with Danish artist Asger Jorn and Belgian poets Christian Dotremont and Josef Noiret. Although undoubtedly influenced by Surrealist thinking, its founders wanted to break with Surrealists of their time. By freeing themselves from the past and rejecting all academic movements, these artists were able to look outside the Western tradition to ‘primitive’ art, folk art, and mythology as well as art made by children and mentally disabled people. Through spontaneous exploration and collaboration, they sought to create a new form of folk art that more authentically expressed their experience of life.
Striving toward Marxist ideals of a classless society, Cobra artists took an inclusive approach to both their inspiration and their audience. Their thinking centered on experimentation and manifested itself in media including painting, sculpture, ceramics, and fabric design. Cobra held its first exhibition at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in 1949. As over forty artists and writers engaged in a period of intense artistic and philosophical exploration, Cobra brought people together and filled a creative void that had been left by the war.
A highlight of the exhibition at Sakıp Sabancı Museum is Karel Appel’s Women, Children, and Animals (1951), which he painted in only two days, using burlap from the ceiling of a Paris nightclub because he could not afford a canvas. Characterized by bold, expressive colors, rough brushstrokes, and interplay between organic forms and geometric lines, the painting achieves a delicate balance between order and chaos. The speed of production and informality of materials convey Cobra’s emphasis on art as a process rather than a means to an end.
Cobra artists also looked to Eastern calligraphy as a starting point for exploring the aesthetic qualities of written words. As many members of the group were interested in poetry, handwriting, and Oriental scripts, the relationship between text and image became a recurring theme in their work. Although Cobra disbanded after their second group exhibition in Liège, many post-1951 works by Cobra artists are on view at Sakıp Sabancı right now. For example, Pierre Alechinsky’s Not a Word (1973), created the same year that he visited Turkey, blurs the distinction between drawing and writing by examining the graphic quality of script.
The story of Cobra is told through their art objects as well as photographs, videos, and original Cobra publications. Informal sketches on display emphasize the notion that Cobra was a continual process of production. The show comprises over 60 objects, most of which are on loan from the Cobra Museum of Modern Art in the Netherlands. An elegant villa on the Bosphorus, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum offers an exquisite setting to experience the works of art. As you explore the intricacies of the Cobra movement, notice the formal relationship between Theo Wolvecamp’s The Three (1957) and the lush museum gardens.
Sakıp Sabancı Museum; Sakıp Sabancı Caddesi No. 42, Emirgan; P: (0212) 277 22 00