* *



COBRA's origin is dialectical, lying as it does in surrealism, but more specifically in the rejection of surrealism's spurious doctrines. There was a 'surrealist' group in Belgium from 1926, but it developed in a different direction from those who fell under the influence of Breton in Paris. In Belgium, there was little interest in mysticism or automism.

Christian Dotrement (1922-1981), a key figure in the COBRA movement,(1) became involved with the Belgian surrealists following the publication of his first pamphlet 'Ancienne Eternite', a long love poem. He established contact with Breton in Paris, but was eventually forced to break with him over the questions of mysticism and the Communist Party. On returning to Europe after World War II, Breton wanted nothing to do with the Communist Party and tried to make 'magic' the focal point of surrealist de activity. In 1947, Dotremont responded by forming the 'Revolutionary Surrealist Group' to "renew surrealist experimentation, to affirm its independence and the simultaneous necessity for common action".

In his lectures and theoretical writings, Dotremont always stressed the need for collective activity. At the Revolutionary Surrealist Group's first meeting in October 1947, Dotremont made use of Henri Lefebvre's recently published "Critique Of Everyday Life", and emphasised that 'surrealist' experiment must take place within the context of everyday life.

The Danish painter Asger Jorn (1914-1973) was an immediate supporter of Dotremont's group. Jorn had already met Breton and dismissed the Parisian group of surrealists as 'reactionaries'. At this time, Jorn was a central figure in the Host group. This was a union of painters, writers, and architects, who had originally gathered around the magazine "Helhesten" ("House Of Hell"), which was published in Copenhagen between 1941 and 1944. Its members included the painters Jacobsen, Alfelt, and Bille; the writers Schade and Nash (Jorn's brother); and the architect Olsen. "Helhesten" contained an eclectic variety of material, ranging from imagery critical of consumer society to texts on jazz, from poetry to writings on negro art, from cinematic criticism to surveys of nordic culture.

Dotremont and Jorn had been introduced to each other by the Dutch painter Constant (born Amsterdam 1920).(2) Jorn fIrst met Constant at a Miro exhibition in Paris in 1946, and again by chance in a cafe later the same day. Constant was to prove vital in the formation of COBRA. In 1948 he founded the Dutch group Reflex, whose membership included Appel and Corneille. In their magazine, also called Reflex. the group published literary texts, poetry, studies in popular culture, and theoretical elaborations of their experimental platform (which included opposition to the standardising influence of De Stijl). The fIrst issue of Reflex contained two texts by Constant, one a manifesto, the other a Declaration of Freedom in which he states:

"In the unprecedented cultural emptiness that has followed the war... in which the reigning class increasingly pushes art into a position of dependence... We find established a culture of individualism which is condemned by the very culture that has produced it; because its conventionality prevents the exercise of imagination and desire, and impedes vital expression... There cannot be a popular art, even if concessions such as active participation are made to the public, while art forms are historically imposed. Popular art is characterised by vital expression, which is direct and collective.
"A new freedom is about to be born, one which will allow people to satisfy their creative desires. As a result of this process, the profession of artist will cease to occupy a privileged position; which is why some contemporary artists are resistant to it. In the period of transition, artistic creation finds itself at war with the existing culture, while simultaneously announcing a future culture. With this dual aspect, art has a revolutionary role in society".

In this tract we can read what would, more or less, become the COBRA platform. The COBRA group was constituted in November 1948, after six delegates walked out of a conference at the "International Centre For The Documentation Of Avant-Garde Art" in Paris, protesting at the facile level of debate. The six met at a cafe on the Quai St. Michel, where they formed a dissident group. A short statement was drawn up by Dotremont ("the only reason to maintain international activity is experimental and organic collaboration, which avoids sterile theory and dogmatism") and signed by Constant, Appel and Corneille, on behalf of the Dutch group Reflex; by Jorn on behalf of the Danish group Host; and by Dotremont and Noiret on behalf of the (mainly Belgian) Revolutionary Surrealist Group. Dotremont invented the name COBRA (made up from the first letters of the cities COpenhagen, BRussels, Amsterdam) a week or two later. The first COBRA manifestation took place within weeks of the group being formed. This was as a part of the annual Host co-operative exhibition in Copenhagen. At this time the individual groups that made up COBRA had yet to amalgamate fully, and were thus semi-autonomous.

From its initial formation, COBRA grew to number about fifty painters, poets, architects, ethnologists and theorists, from ten different countries. The number might have been larger, if the Iron Curtain hadn't cut through the cultural and political life of Europe. In its early days COBRA was in contact with the Czech group Ra, and works sent from Prague by Josef Istler were shown as part of COBRA's 1949 exhibition in Amsterdam. Unfortunately repression in Czechoslovakia ended these contacts.

COBRA's activities covered meetings, exhibitions, exchanges, and the production of the magazine "COBRA". Most of this activity was directed by Constant, Dotremont and Jorn, although the magazine was to be published by different groups, using French as a common language.

Although COBRA worked as a collective, the group was not without tensions. Constant, Jorn, and their wives took a holiday on the island of Bomholm in summer of 1949. It was here that Jorn started an affair with Constant's wife Matie, whom he later married. This met with disapproval, particularly on the part of various Danish COBRA members, who felt that Jorn should not have taken up with another painter's wife while the painter was a guest in their country.

There were also political problems to be faced by the movement. Dotremont, Jacobsen, and a number of others were forced to break with the Communist Party over its support for social realism. This did not weaken the movement's political conviction ("He who has the experimental spirit must necessarily be a communist" - Dotremont). However, although it was glaringly obvious that the CP would never accept Dotremont's dictum that "the patch of colour is a scream in the hands of a painter... a scream of its very substance", the break was preceded by a good deal of soul searching.

The movement was, from its inception, critical of surrealism. In the text "Le Discours Aux Pingonins", published in "COBRA 1", Jom analyses Breton's definition of surrealism as 'pure psychic automism' using materialist dialectics. Here, by referring to his conscious experimental position, he demonstrates that individual creativity cannot be explained purely in terms of psychic phenomena. Explication is itself a physical act which materialises thought, and so psychic automism is joined organically to physical automism. In a letter to Jorn, Dotremont warned of the three dangers to the autonomous development of COBRA - surrealism, abstract art, and social realism.

One of the movement's major projects was the creation of a new urban environment - which would manifest itself in opposition to the rational architecture of Le Corbusier. Michel Colle, in an article in the first issue of "COBRA" writes:

"...buildings must not be squalid or anonymous, neither should they be show pieces from a museum; rather they must commune with each other, integrate with the environment to create synthesised 'cities' for a new socialist world."

It was the painter Constant who was to develop the COBRA concept of unitary urbanism(3) and take this conception with him into the Situationist International (SI). It was also Constant, in the 1949 editorial to the fourth issue of "COBRA", who elaborated a number of theses concerning desire, the unknown, freedom and revolution, which would later become central to the SI:

" speak of desire means to speak of the unknown, of the desire for freedom... The freedom of our social life, which we propose as a first commitment, will open the door to a new world... It is impossible to know a desire without satisfying it, and the satisfaction of desire is revolution... Today's culture, being individualistic, has replaced creation with 'artistic production', and has produced no more than signs of tragic impotence... To create is always to discover what one doesn't know... It is our desire that makes revolution".(4)

Internal and external pressures caused COBRA to disband in 1951. In "Ce Que Sont Les Arnis De COBRA Et Ce Qu'ils Representent", published in the second issue of "Internationale Situationiste" (December 1958), Jorn and Constant sum up the legacy of COBRA with the following words:

"In '51, the International of Experimental Artists broke up. The representatives of its most advanced tendency continued their pursuits in new forms; but others abandoned experimental activity, and now use their 'talent' to make the COBRA picture style, the only tangible result of the movement, fashionable" .


1. The terms 'movement', 'ism', 'group' and 'tradition' are generally employed in this text to provide a stylistic variation in syntax; while not necessarily interchangeable, the terms are not applied with any great rigour. A fuller discussion of their use is contained in the Afterword.

2. Constant used only this name for public purposes. His other, publicly unused, name was Nieuwenhuis.

3. This term was actually coined by the Lettriste International in the summer of 1956.

4. A great deal of recent critical theory has dealt with desire as a social construct - while I recognise that arguments derived from post-structuralism could be used to invalidate the COBRA and situationist positions on the subject, they (un)fortunately lie beyond the scope of the present study.

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