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Progressive art at the Cobra Museum

Bright colours, strong lines, fanciful figures: the Cobra art movement started a revolution in the European art of the 1940s. No more traditional still lifes and old landscapes; in this movement artistic freedom would prevail. It was all very controversial at the time but nowadays the works of the Corbra artists are among the classics of Dutch art. In the Cobra Museum you can admire the exciting works of top names such as Karel Appel and Corneille.

Cobra refers to Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, the home cities of the founders of this art movement: Karel Appel, Constant, Corneille, Christian Dotremont, Asger Jorn and Joseph Noiret. At an international art conference on 8 November 1948 in Paris, they decided to put an end to the depressing post-war art. A manifesto was signed in which the artists pledged to only create works that spontaneously sprang from their imagination; similar to the way children’s minds work.

The Cobra Museum in Amstelveen
The Cobra Museum in Amstelveen


Radical art inspired by children’s drawings

A major part of the unique legacy of Cobra is featured at the Cobra Museum in Amstelveen, near Amsterdam. Birds, cats, snakes and imaginary creatures are often the subject of these playful works. Dutch painters including Karel Appel, Eugène Brands and Anton Rooskens were often inspired by children’s drawings; after all children were free and unspoilt by conventions and rules. This freedom is clearly reflected in the endearing painting Cats by Jan Nieuwenhuys, and Toy Painting by the Danish artist Asger Jorn.

Cobra is now seen as a leading movement in modern Dutch and European art, but this was not always the case. Places at which the artists exhibited in the 1940s were often accosted by angry and even violent mobs who blamed them for destroying art, while a common saying was ‘My child could have done that!’. Eventually Cobra became a huge success and upon reaching this goal, the radical movement abolished itself in 1951. The influence of Cobra was unparalleled and its effects can still be seen in contemporary art today.

“‘My child could have done that!’”

Covered by wallpaper

Although Karel Appel became one of the most famous and successful Dutch artists, his career started slowly. The general public in the late 1940s didn’t much like his ‘scribbling and scratching’. Nevertheless, in 1949 he was asked to paint a wall in the cafeteria of Amsterdam’s City Hall. Appel created the work Questioning Children which showed hungry kids staring into space. The officials didn’t like what they saw when they were enjoying their lunch and a commotion ensued. The fresco was then covered by wallpaper for a period of ten years. The controversial painting can now be seen in all its glory in the Bridges restaurant on Ouwezijds Voorburgwal in Amsterdam.

Questioning Children by Appel

Photo credits

  • Questioning Children by Appel: © Karel Appel Foundation, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2014 & Cobra Museum, Amstelveen