Of all the Modernist artists who were inspired by the art of children and the mentally ill, surely none ever seriously considered that those people might form the audience for their work. But before I had left the first room of the Baltic's touring survey of the CoBrA movement, I was joined by a group of men and women with mental problems. It was as if they had come to exact revenge by critique: they lingered over the exhibits and were loudly enthusiastic; frankly, I couldn't have chosen better companions.
CoBrA was formally instituted as a group in 1948 by the Belgian poet Christian Dotrement, drawing together an eclectic, elastic bunch of poets, painters and sculptors formed from the remnants of a trio of smaller northern European avant-gardes (CoBrA stands for Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam). They were inspired by the conventional Modernist luminaries - Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró and Paul Klee - but their claims to originality were rooted precisely in their devotion to art on the margins. It was 'hot' abstraction, in the European terminology of the day, as opposed to 'cold', technophile, geometric art and to the Social Realism that captured many on the left. Yet CoBrA was never purely abstract, and its followers depicted a bestiary of birds, monsters and sub-human stick-men. As one of the leading figures, Constant, put it, 'painting is not a composition of colour and line, but an animal, a night, a scream, a human being, or all of these at once.'
In the three short years of their concentrated activity before they formally dissolved in 1951, some 60 artists collaborated on exhibitions, publications and even individual artworks. With so many protagonists involved (and titans such as Constant going on to produce such interesting work afterwards - in his case with the Situationists), the survey could have been framed in any number of ways. However, Graham Birtwistle, a British CoBrA scholar and the show's curator, chose to concentrate on those three years, with just one room to sketch out the influence of the Danish Harvest group of the mid-1930s. He amassed over 150 works, almost all paintings, by 20 artists, along with some pleasantly distracting display cases filled with their energetic ephemera.
It's impossible to imagine the post-war Europe that made CoBrA's sometimes hysterical horseplay seem like a viable artistic strategy; and with Expressionism also currently outré it can be difficult to find a route into their work. Some of those on the day trip simply settled for categorizing the works broadly as 'happy', or 'very scary', and given that the pictures showed creatures with gaping mouths and indeterminate expressions - possibly ecstatic, possibly terror-stricken, possibly dangerously, insatiably hungry - that seemed reasonable. Occasionally, however, the guides would ask the party what they thought the images depicted: no doubt this approach had a didactic value, but it seemed a wrong-headed means of understanding pictures that so often began with a simple motif and abstracted it beyond recognition.
The bird in Asger Jorn's The Eagle's Share II (1951), for instance, has three mouths at the very least. I also overheard a guide asking a woman - who I understood was herself a painter - whether she was 'inspired' by the pictures. An interesting idea: surely CoBrA's fascination with the art of the mentally ill always assumed a one-way traffic. Unfortunately, I didn't catch her response.
The entire historical culture of high art, certainly since the late 18th century, has worked to exclude extreme and untutored responses, and CoBrA's interest in precisely these no doubt made their art a difficult proposition even in its own day, when its language seemed more urgent and necessary. A successful picture from the CoBrA stable isn't successful in the conventional terms of abstract art: it should probably be expressively powerful but formally atrocious. On those terms, at least, there are a lot of hits in this show. Interestingly, however, the artists that still stand up after 50 years are figures such as Karel Appel, Pierre Alechinsky, Carl-Henning Pederson and Constant, who knew how to compose a picture, how to balance form, colour and line. This is surely cheating, according to the CoBrA rulebook, but then there was a whole lot of cheating going on at the level of content as well: the painters might depict violent scenes, but never vulgar ones. Their iconography is drawn not from the street but from folklore and sometimes even Classical mythology.
All such habits, from veiled Classicism to Beaux-Arts compositional values (for which the mentally ill have no respect), can set one against CoBrA. They look like textbook bourgeois avant-gardists, putting on performances of subversion and then going around with the hat for contributions from their patrons. What makes one stop short of making such a criticism is the knowledge that many within the group were committed to socialism, even communism. And this leaves them mysterious.
First published in Issue 76