Walking through the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale’s “Spirit Of Cobra” exhibition, you may be inclined to exclaim a demeaning phrase so common it eventually became the title of a documentary: “My kid could paint that!” Indeed, any number of the paintings that line the three or four rooms of “Spirit of Cobra” have the air of refrigerator art, like Karel Appel’s “Children Playing,” a gouache painting whose stick-figure children dwarf a distorted house. There’s no sense of dimension or perspective, and the colors seem to have the texture of Crayola.
But the more you wander through this show, the more it becomes apparent that one generation’s infantile scribbles are the next generation’s outsider-art prototypes. Many of the brush strokes, and the forms they take, are violent, aggressive, disturbing, and disquietingly captivating. Jean-Michael Atlas’ painting “Composition” is a collection of abstract forms that resemble a face in anguish; it’s Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” 50 years later, after two World Wars. The artist known as Lucebert’s graphite drawing “To Dance in the Dark” depicts a shadow person dancing with a demon, and visions of mutant hybrids and nightmarish creatures are commonplace. Clearly, there’s more to them than the childlike memories they initially evoke.
These artists’ primitivism was so radical they were destined to be denigrated in their time— the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, mostly—but today, they look like wildly imaginative emotional exorcisms from minds equally entrenched in childhood naivety and the immediate horror of postwar Europe. A 1943 engraving by Asger Jorn encapsulates this uneasy dichotomy—the contradiction at the heart of so much of this pioneering work. It’s called “The Impure Innocence.”
Before we go any further, a little background on the Cobra movement is required. The name has nothing to do with snakes, though serpentine creatures certainly appear enough in the paintings and drawings. The name is actually a portmanteau of “Copenhagen,” “Brussels” and “Amsterdam,” the cities where the movement took root. It was formed in 1948 by its chief member, Christian Dotremont, and as an avant-garde manifesto of artists disillusioned by abstract expressionism, surrealism and social realism alike, it spread throughout Europe, with members reaching as far as South Africa. Nearly 30 artists, in all, were card-carrying “Cobras,” and the movement even churned out a number of zines to promote its work and its message of liberation from the bourgeois, elitist art of its time.
But Cobra seemed to burn out as quickly as it formed, as fiery movements often do. In one of the short video interviews with the artists, which are peppered throughout this exhibition, Eugene Brands make the illuminating comment that “a group has its high point on the day of its formation.” By 1951, Cobra had dissolved, with the artists going their separate ways—personally, geographically, artistically.
No matter; in terms of the artists’ creative output, the “spirit” of Cobra existed before and after the official movement, as works in this show stretch at least from the early ‘40s on through to the early ‘80s, evoking similar tones and emotions across mediums and decades (a parallel can be made to the influential French New Wave cinema movement, which formally existed for about seven years in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but whose filmmakers continue to challenge orthodox storytelling to this day).
In fact, the museum does a marvelous job of distilling a movement, its preamble and its various epilogues, thanks to the loads of supplemental material on display here, from books and magazines to the video interviews, a musical recording—Appel’s ultra-rare “Musique Barbare” LP, whose atonal collage of banging, cracking, tinkling and radio static mirrors the anarchic nature of his visual art—and a timeline that stretches a wall of the museum and places Cobra in a comprehensive context of world affairs and the art movements that anticipated and sprung from it. It’s nothing less than one of the year’s most indispensable exhibitions.
“The Spirit of Cobra” runs through May 18, 2014 at Museum of Art, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Admission costs $5-$10. Call 954/525-5500 or visit moafl.org.