Men, Step Aside: the Women of Cobra

A timely show at the Netherlands’ Cobra Museum is devoted to eight women connected with the mid-century avant-garde movement

In 1999, Cees List resigned as director of the Cobra Museum of Modern Art in Amstelveen, the Netherlands. Her resignation hinged on a debate about whether painter and sculptor Lotti van der Gaag (and male sculptor Robert Jacobsen) should be included in its collection and recognized as part of the avant-garde Cobra movement.

The dispute began the previous year, when Constant Nieuwenhuijs and Corneille – two of the most prominent men within the Dutch section of Cobra (so named because its founders were based in Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam) – protested because Van der Gaag did not sign their founding manifesto in 1948 nor exhibit in the two seminal Cobra shows, at the Stedelijk Museum in 1949 or at the Museum of Fine Arts in Liège in 1951.

‘New Nuances’, 2019, exhibition view, Cobra Museum of Modern Art, Amstelveen. Courtesy: Cobra Museum of Modern Art, Amstelveen; photograph: Peter Tijhuis 

Van der Gaag’s defenders argued that her work was mostly made at the Rue Santeuil studio in Paris, where several of Cobra’s leading lights were based; that the membership was always loose, with about 40 artists taking part in Cobra activities before the movement formally ended in 1951; and that her brilliantly realized sculptures bore a strong resemblance to the creatures that appeared in many (male) Cobra artists’ paintings.

Van der Gaag died in February 1999, during the dispute. Since then, Corneille, Constant and most of the other Cobra artists have also passed, and questions about inclusion have become the preserve of art historians rather than participants. Hilde de Bruijn, the curator of the museum’s current ‘New Nuances’ exhibition, shows eight women artists ‘in and around Cobra’ – including Van der Gaag – who either took part in the major shows, contributed to the group’s magazine, or were the subject of one of the monographs published in the Bibliothèque de Cobra series. The exhibition’s title aims to avoid the superlatives often used to justify showing ‘forgotten’ artists, quietly highlighting their relationships with prominent members, the wider movement and – to an extent – with currents in Dutch feminism between World War II and the mid-1960s (although the movement spanned the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark, welcoming a handful of artists from elsewhere).

‘New Nuances’, 2019, exhibition view, Cobra Museum of Modern Art, Amstelveen. Courtesy: Cobra Museum of Modern Art, Amstelveen; photograph: Peter Tijhuis 

As these artists remain relatively unknown, the Cobra Museum has kept their work together, in chronological order, rather than arranging it thematically. Each section opens with an image of the artist working or with her work, with texts about their styles and the impact their gender had on their ability to create. In some cases, they were merely patronized: expressionistic painter Dora Tuynman was described by friends as a ‘fairy with something other-worldly about her […] who, as a painter, one was not inclined to take seriously’. Madeleine Kemény-Szemere (1906–93) stopped painting entirely when her artist husband, Zoltán Kemény, decided he was no longer prepared to exhibit alongside her, although she resumed after his death in 1965; Van der Gaag declined to marry the father of her child after he demanded she abandon her practice, in accordance with a Dutch law that prevented married women from working. Sonja Ferlov Mancoba (1911–84) and her partner Ernest Mancoba, also an artist, supported each other through genuine adversity – he had left apartheid South Africa and felt as strongly that racism was behind his tacit exclusion from Cobra as some of the women felt sexism was behind theirs. One of the most touching pieces comes from photographer Henny Riemens: she took many portraits of the group’s associates, including her husband Corneille, but the one of Dora Tuynman at work on a composition in 1955 writes Tuynman back into the movement, and is the show’s only notable display of solidarity between these women, who resembled each other stylistically but were geographically disparate.

What is most interesting in this show is not what these women made during Cobra’s brief existence, but how their careers diverged during the 1950s and ’60s. Else Alfelt – one of the few women to officially join Cobra – barely changed her style on either side of her involvement, having formed her abstract-expressionist aesthetic in the 1930s under the influence of Wassily Kandinsky and French surrealism. Her compatriot Ferlov Mancoba worked on her bronze sculptures for four years or more, taking a decade to finish the most elaborate and impressive one here, which resembles an ethnographic mask and simultaneously functions as a table. Kemény-Szemere’s work did change after a long, semi-enforced break: her mid-1940s paintings, notably Woman and Bird (1946), display an affinity with Cobra’s ‘primitivism’ and precede Jean Dubuffet’s definition of art brut; Woman Looking at Lights (1976) incorporates abstract, geometric elements, with the female figure, back turned and fists clenched, hinting at the artist’s exclusion and isolation.

‘New Nuances’, 2019, exhibition view, Cobra Museum of Modern Art, Amstelveen. Courtesy: Cobra Museum of Modern Art, Amstelveen; photograph: Peter Tijhuis 

German poet and writer Anneliese Hager contributed just one poem and two photograms to the Cobra magazine, but was an official member alongside her husband, despite her work having more in common with French surrealism than the other artists exhibited here. However, this serves as a reminder that Cobra had a literary component that was strongly influenced by both the style and organizational principles of André Breton’s surrealist group, providing nuance to an exhibition dominated by painting and sculpture.

To me, the most exciting of these women is Dutch artist Ferdi, who learned welding with Cobra member Shinkichi Tajiri. (His 1955 film Ferdi documents her processes.) At the time, Ferdi – who did not call herself a feminist – often attracted attention for her distinctive style, captured here in a 1956 photograph by Ed van der Elsken in which she wears her own jewellery in a costume called ‘Moonlady’. Her large ‘hortisculpture’ – a felt chair entitled ‘Mother’s Invention’ (1966–69) which, with its bright colours and rounded corners, feels like a wry, sensuous take on the design experiments being conducted with plastic in the mid-1960s – seems like an appropriate place to end, showing how the Cobra aesthetic was giving way to a postmodern engagement with pop culture and interior design, at a time when Dutch counter-culture and feminism were also rapidly changing. Sadly, Ferdi died suddenly and so did not get to participate in these currents, but the glimpse of her work here adds considerable variety to the show, and gives a sense of the independence that these women found outside of the Cobra unit as well as the possibilities they explored within it.

‘New Nuances’ runs at Cobra Museum of Modern Art, Amstelveen, until 1 December 2019.

Main image: ‘New Nuances’, 2019, exhibition view, Cobra Museum of Modern Art, Amstelveen. Courtesy: Cobra Museum of Modern Art, Amstelveen; photograph: Peter Tijhuis 

Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London, UK. Her most recent book, Trans: A Memoir, was published by Verso in 2015. She co-hosts Suite (212) on Resonance 104.4fm, which looks at the arts in their social, cultural, political and historical contexts.

Issue 207

First published in Issue 207

November - December 2019

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