May 25, 2009 in Abstract Art
So now I’ve visited the Cobra Museum, near Amsterdam, a visit that was inspired by a trip to the Municipal Museum of The Hague, a week earlier. There I saw some Cobra works, Cobra standing for COpenhagen, BRussels and Amsterdam, the cities of residence of the art group’s members. The group was founded in 1948, right after Hitler had made short work of one the greatest period’s of artistic and scientific bloom, in art represented by the School of Paris. In truth, this period of bloom was already in decline, but Nazism well and truly buried it.
I must confess I didn’t know a lot about Cobra, but seeing their works in real time surprised me positively. This comes at a time at which I’m (once again) trying to broaden my scope and get away from the pre-WW II tradition.
What you take away from the Cobra museum is proficient abstract painting, related to abstract expressionism in method certainly and to an extent in style. It’s main feat is it’s spirit, though, of which Karel Appel was the main representative. It’s a spirit of freedom, joy and childlike optimism.
The artist that actually made me want to see Cobra is Contant (short for Constant Nieuwenhuis, the guy’s real name). I’m not well enough versed in the post-WW II period to see if he dreamt it all up himself, be he certainly seems the most innovative of the bunch. And very different in tone, which makes you wonder about all the political rhetorics of Cobra. While some artists had this joy and optimism about them (like Appel and Pedersen), some started out as somewhat gloomy (Corneille, Lucebert) and Contant was downright apocalyptic. Appel and Pedersen’s approach to painting was also very different to that of Constant and Corneille. The former two were of the “gestural” kind, which means they didn’t really employ a methodology, but they “messed about”, as Appel once infamously mentioned, fuelling already existing prejudice against abstract painting.
Corneille and Constant were more “structural” in their approach, in fact, Corneille is quite an intelligent painter. I would say that Constant was the most forward thinking of the bunch. While Appel and Corneille were still tied to the School of Paris, Constant was decidedly post-WWII in his approach. While most School of Paris painters that are still famous today were political more in name rather than in actual militancy, many of Constant’s works from the 1950s had a flavour of political activism in the modern sense.
Why have post-WWII art groups like Cobra not found the recognition that the School of Paris has? One possible answer already occurred to me while at the The Hague museum, where I couldn’t help but compare Cobra art to that of their predecessors, such as Mondrian and the German expressionists, which are well represented at The Hague.
Actually the answer must be broken down in two, because of the above-mentioned devide that existed within Cobra. I wonder if Constant, like many of his contemporaries, bothered to “take his art to the people”, as so to speak. During the post- WW II period a strong sense of elitism developed in art (today more than ever, actually) and there was a strange contradiction about the way left wing intellectuals would be “for the people” and way above them at the same time. It seems unlikely that they didn’t realize that their “social criticism” was anything other than criticism of the “man in the street”. However, social criticism is one thing, turing away from society quite another and to many of Constant’s generation of artists it was fashionable to do both.
Now, in 2009, if I say to people I’m an artist, they are lukewarm, in such a way the relationship between the people and artists has been spoilt. If they see my art, they do recognize the honest attempt (if anything -:), showing that in spite of the post-WW II artistic carnage of the bureaucratic coup d’etat (meaning that art officials have taken control), nothing has been lost. In the wake of 1970s leftist intellectualism I grew up as an anti-elitist, but even then the above-mentioned considerations teach me a valuable lesson: That if artists don’t ally with the people, then ultimately art officials will fill the gap, totally destroying art, as has happened, from pickled sharks to museums looking like theme parks.
Piet Mondrian was always single-mindedly involved in the development of an inaccessable style, but as an artist I don’t think he lost the trust of the people. They didn’t understand him, but didn’t doubt his sincerity either. One of the main things I take away from Picasso was the way in which he tried to bring avant-garde art to the people. Don’t stay locked within the confines of your niche, but think of fine art in terms of it’s broader cultural context. That causes “high art” to flourish, elitism has caused it’s doom.
(Provided of course, that we’re referring to genuine fine art, not to art for entertainment’s sake only (or pulp art, if you will), the latter is the trend in museums of contemporary art)
The second reason why the School of Paris is more popular than Cobra still, may have to do with Cobra’s lack of emphasis on pictorial organization, most clearly visible in Appel’s work. While an extremely talented expressionist, his work lacks a clear conceptual plan, in contrast with the work of Picasso, Mondrian, etc. In art, instinct shouldn’t be tamed, but it should be guided, or else what results are paint-splashing spams. The essence of the work of great artists is the way in which they can layer idea upon idea in such a way that consecutive ideas strengthen each other and lead to surprises that can’t come forth out of fits of mindless passion. It’s this seemless connection between instinct and intelligence that characterizes artists like Rembrandt, Leonardo and Van Gogh.
Continuing on Cobra, Lucebert’s work, above, looked very attractive and well painted in the museum, but seeing it here I think it looks crappy and ill-defined. This morning I put an image of one of the Georgian paintings on this page, because it looked so nice in the museum. A few minutes I replaced it with a Lucebert for about the same gripe I have with the latter. These are in fact decorative paintings, which requires craftsmanship and can be convincing during a direct confrontation, but decorative doesn’t mean it’s good art.
So now I’m inclined to believe that the impression a painting makes on a webpage is actually a good measure of it’s merit, to some extent. On the other hand, every time I visit the Rijksmuseum, I’m disappointed with Vermeer. Oddly, his paintings look better in art books than in reality, taking into account, though, that I’ve never seen his larger works in the “real world” (the ones in the Rijksmuseum are all small-sized). Rembrandt is the opposite. Only in reality you feel the Rembrandt magic.
The Cobra museum is a beautiful place, built in the 90s, especially for Cobra. Although Appel, Corneille and Constant were/are/are certainly good painters, I would guess that in 100 or 50 years (or less, considering the less than generous public attendance during my visit) the museum still exists, but not as the Cobra.
If it weren’t for a group of senior citizens on a guided art trip, I would have felt lonely at the museum. At the Cobra cafe one of them sat down with her peers and said:
“May I be honest? I think it’s all crap”.
“Yes…”, someone replied…”But you have to take into account their vision”.
With which I agree, partially. I go to museums to get influenced. If there’s one thing I can get out of it, then it’s worth the trip and it has been worth it in the sense that I have a much better understanding of what Cobra is about. It may be interesting to compare Cobra to it’s American counterparts, abstract expressionism and and color field painting. Willem de Kooning has a lot in common with Cobra, not suprisingly, but their style is a marginal extension of pre-WWII European expressionism. What they did, eesentialy, was mess it up, literally. It became more free, but at the cost of structure.