CoBrA. A great European avant-garde (1948-1951)

CoBrA Exhibition at Fondazione Roma Museo, Palazzo Cipolla in Rome
Karel Appel. Begging Children (Bambini che elemosinano) DIE GALERIE, Frankfurt am Main © Karel Appel Foundation by SIAE 2015 per Karel Appel

The first exhibition in Italy to explore the subversive movement CoBra, is a colourful homage to the eclectic group of radicals. Yet beneath the playful swirls of blue, yellow, and green there is an important political message for Italy. Like any art movement, the timing here is crucial. Shortly after World War II, a group of irreverent young artists meet in Paris and agree they want to revolutionise art. They decide on a manifesto, a distinct philosophy, which is surprisingly comprehensive considering their main postulation was simply ‘freedom’. They reject a precise definition for themselves but rather define themselves through what they are not: Abstract, Geometric or Surrealist. They are CoBra, the name chosen to acknowledge their cities of origin: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, and the founding members are Corneille, Jorn, Appel, Constant and Dotremont. CoBra quickly spread its doctrine across Europe but it abruptly dismantled in 1951. Although short lived, the CoBra influence endures. Their short, but fierce period together was the last truly great European Avant Garde.

CoBrA Exhibition at Fondazione Roma Museo, Palazzo Cipolla in Rome
Asger Jorn
Ravnen (Il Corvo)
Collezione Privata, Frankfurt am Main
© Donation Jorn, Silkeborg by SIAE 2015 per Asger Jorn

The Fondazione Roma have chosen to adorn the walls throughout the exhibition with Constant’s words ‘After us Freedom‘, an ongoing reminder of the revolutionary spirit of the movement. The most obvious hallmark of Cobra is the fantastical use of colour. Marine blues, forest greens, and electric yellows endow the exhibition with a festive feeling of celebration. The museum has exaggerated this further by painting the walls in bright colours. The effect is childlike, and fun, yet unexpected for a group that favoured Marx and radicalism. Childlike is key here, however. Cobra wanted the artist to return to the inherent spontaneity of the artistic act. Creation came through freedom of colour and of form. They started again as artists, as if children, and experimented with the pleasure of materials and textures. The spontaneity of children’s art would reinvigorate post-war culture.

CoBrA Exhibition at Fondazione Roma Museo, Palazzo Cipolla in Rome
La grande sinfonia solare (La Grande Symphonie solaire)
Collezione Peggy Guggenheim, Venezia (Fondazione Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York) © Corneille by SIAE 2015

After the initial shock of colour, the second hallmark of Cobra reveals itself through various strange creatures peering from the paintings. The Danish Cobra artist, Carl-Henning Pedersen, was the first to use this Cobra motif. The sub-human characters are intended to frighten, and are a reminder of the devastation left from the war. They are frankly uncivilized and unnerving, and act as a bold proclamation that Cobra was anti-society and acceptability.

Cobra caused a stir throughout Europe. Karel Appel outraged Amsterdam with his ‘Begging Children’ (1948) (featured image). Appel created the mural for the town hall in Amsterdam but it was deemed incomprehensible and swiftly covered up. It is typical of the Cobra movement: childlike, eery and experimental, being made out of old wooden shutters. The use of different materials and outlets was central to Cobra. There is one room dedicated to their short lived magazine. In one edition several members of Cobra each painted a postcard sized piece. They are a rainbow delight, and offer a perfect pandect of the Cobra collaborative style.

CoBrA Exhibition at Fondazione Roma Museo, Palazzo Cipolla in Rome
Femme qui a blessé un oiseau avec une feuille morte
(Donna che ha ferito un uccello con una foglia morta)
Kunsthalle Emden – Stiftung Henri und Eske Nannen und Schenkung Otto van de Loo © Constant by SIAE 2015

The second part of the exhibition honours the Cobra legacy. Rooms devoted to Cobra’s influence in Great Britain and Denmark illuminate the international reach of the movement. Carl-Henning Pedersen, although not a founding member, became an influential Cobra artist, and the most famous Danish artist of his generation. His paintings are a highlight of the exhibition, particularly the romantic blues of ‘The Suitor’. (1984) Yet what is Cobra’s influence today? The final room explores Cobra and Italy. There were no Italian members of Cobra, although Jorn spent time in Italy. The director of the museum, Emmanuele F. M. Emanuele, however, feels Cobra’s legacy is increasingly important for Italy. Culture, he believes, is the ‘only true bulwark against the social decay of Italy.’ The exhibition therefore has an important objective; for Italy to find remedy in the Cobra doctrine.

CoBrA Exhibition at Fondazione Roma Museo, Palazzo Cipolla in Rome
La Ville (La città)
Private collection, courtesy DIE GALERIE Frankfurt am Main © Corneille by SIAE 2015

Till  3 April 2016

Fondazione Roma Museo – Palazzo Cipolla

via del Corso, 320

Entry fee €12, reduced €10

Tuesday to Sunday 11am to 8pm

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