The Friends of Cobra and What They Represent
In 1958, something of a conspiracy launched a new avant-garde movement that had the peculiar trait of having been defunct for seven years. Though never presented in clear terms, allusions are made to the continuing existence of none other than Cobra. In some cases an origin is fixed, implying its permanence. Thus, on 18 September, France-Observateur wrote on the painter Corneille: “At this time (1950), he participated in the founding of the artistic group Reflex, which was slowly integrated into the avant-garde movement Cobra.” In other cases, given the fact that Cobra is hardly ever mentioned, the illusion is created that its constitution is more recent, as in Le Monde of 31 October: “With his combination of abstract lyricism and African aesthetic influences, Holland’s Rooskens is part of the avant-garde movements Reflex and Cobra ...”
What is the reality? Between 1948 and 1951, there was an Experimental Artists International more often known as the Cobra movement, after the name of its journal (its title, short for Copenhagen - Brussels - Amsterdam, expressed its almost exclusively Northern European composition). The journal Reflex, which was the organ of the Dutch Experimental Group before international contact and the publication of Cobra, ran to only two numbers in 1948. The groups that made up the Cobra movement were united in the proclamation of experimental cultural research. But this positive aspect was paralyzed by an ideological confusion maintained by the strong participation of neo-surrealists. The only effective experiment that Cobra could carry out was that of a new style of painting. In 1951, the Experimental Artists International put an end to its own existence. The representatives of its advanced tendency pursued their research in different forms. On the other hand, a number of artists abandoned their preoccupation with experimental activity, putting their talent to use in making this particular pictorial style, which was the sole tangible result of the Cobra endeavor, and highly fashionable (for example [Karel] Appel in the UNESCO building).
It is the commercial success of old members of the Cobra movement that has recently led to other more mediocre artists, who were of very little importance to Cobra and its afterlife, to plot to various ends the mystification of an uninterrupted, eternally young Cobra movement, classically experimental in the style of 1948, where their wretched commodities can be marketed under the same prestigious label as those of Corneille and Appel. Cobra’s old editor-in-chief [Christian] Dotremont is responsible for this charade, by trying to please everyone. Indeed, the artists linked to this scheme, whether or not they participated in the brief experiment of 1948-1951, attach a supposed “theoretical” value to their works by declaring themselves an organized movement. And the individuals who control the judgment and sale of the decomposed repetitions of modern art have a vested interest in making people believe the objects in question are expressions of a truly innovative movement. They therefore struggle against real changes, whose foreseeable extent must entail their practical disappearance from the posts they hold, and the ideological failure of their entire life (the taste, the practical consideration, and the dominant cultural elite of ebbing movements, whose strongest example remains that of the surrealists, but is discretely beginning to manifest itself even in regard to some lettrist recordings, in spite of the near complete opposition that they met at the time of lettrism and the difficulty of exploiting that movement).
It is most likely, however, that no matter how favorable conditions may be, the reactionary effort now being deployed under the Cobra flag will not last. At the beginning of 1958, Neo-Cobra was assured of a show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, once upon a time the site of a scandalous exhibition by the movement, and whose extremely overrated reputation in Paris should be attributed to a few hack journalist friends of the warmed up Cobra as much as the old cultural world of museums. Neo-Cobra intended to organize a highly eclectic major exhibition designed to travel to other capitals, and above all to make an impression on the American market. The situationists, who found themselves implicated in this little affair because two of them had played important roles in Cobra, made it known that they would only accept this exhibition in a rigorously historical form, whose appraisal would be undertaken by a delegate chosen by them, and that they would be limited to opposing as unimportant any sort of attempt to present Cobra as contemporary research. In the face of our opposition the Stedelijk Museum withdrew its agreement. It goes without saying that this is behind the present campaign to resurrect Cobra. And it is doubtful that this campaign can expect any worthwhile success if its promoters cannot find considerable enough support to allow the them to show the assembled bits and pieces of their pseudo-movement.
The despicable character of this attempt at a new beginning is familiar to anyone who knows the program adopted by Cobra ten years ago, as is demonstrated by the Manifesto of the Dutch Experimental Group, written by Constant and published in Reflex #1:
The historical influence of the upper classes has pushed art into more and more of a position of dependence, accessible only to exceptionally gifted spirits, capable only of pulling off a little formalist freedom.
An individualist culture is therefore constituted and is condemned alongside the society that produced it, its conventions no longer offering any possibility of imagination or desire, even preventing vital human expression.
At this stage, a popular art cannot correspond to the conceptions of the people, as the people do not participate in artistic creation but in historically imposed formalisms. What characterizes popular art is a vital, direct and collective expression ...
A new freedom will come that allows humans to satisfy their creative desires. With this development the professional artist will lose his privileged position: this explains the current resistance in the arts.
In the transitional period creative art found itself in permanent conflict with existing culture, while at the same time announcing a new culture. With this double aspect, whose psychological effect would have a growing importance, art played a revolutionary role in society. The bourgeois spirit still dominates all of life, even to the point of bringing a prefabricated popular art to the masses.
The cultural void has never been more obvious than in the post-war era ...
Any prolonging of this culture appears impossible, and therefore the task of artists cannot be constructive in the framework of such a culture. It is necessary first of all to rid ourselves of old cultural shreds which instead of permitting us an artistic expression prevent us from finding one. The problematic phase in the history of modern art is over, and it is about to be succeeded by an experimental phase. This is to say that the experience of a period of unlimited freedom must allow us to find the laws of a new creativity.
Naturally, those who marched in line with such a program can today be found among the ranks of the Situationist International.