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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cobra's Legacy: Angst on Canvas

Imploring eyes extend from bulging, demonic figures, creating the wildly surreal abstraction that is the stuff of nightmares. But these monsters on canvas launched careers for a band of post-war artists intending to bring man's bizarre subconsciousness into the mainstream as the world ushered in a new order.

The intriguing works of these Belgian, Dutch and Danish artists, who formed an artistic coalition called Cobra in the post-war 1940s, are on view in Moscow until May 25 at the New Tretyakov Gallery. The "Cobra in Moscow" exhibition features 90 paintings, drawings and sculptures from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

At first glance the show appears derivative. Carl Pedersen's exaggerated features in "Red Figures at the Sea" look to Picasso, while Constant's (Constant Nieuwenhuis') 1945 "Still Life" -- with its intersecting geometries -- appears to be right out of a cubist textbook.

Pierre Alechinsky's and Reinhoud d'Haese's "The Mutation" seems a facsimile of Picasso's renowned "Guernica," while Theo Wolvecamp's "Explosion" seems a Miro recreation.

But as the show progresses, an impassioned, distinctive abstraction takes over. With Dutch painter (Karel) Appel's portrait of "Michel Tapie de Celeyran," self-consciousness and precision give way to the artist's own horrific perception of a tragic humanity. Wide-eyed and elongated features leave the innocence of the artist's early work behind. Asger Jorn's "The Traveler From Munich" shows a skeletal figure vomiting paint.

After World War II, Cobra reflected the post-war angst that resulted in a deluge of nonrepresentative and abstract art internationally. As a contemporary of the Cobra artists stated: "Everything we used to believe in, justice, reason and mortality, had become hollow phrases. We could no longer continue to paint as before."

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union -- its rush of avant-garde art in the '20s completed -- dug its heels into the super realism of the Stalinist Era, where every smile and medal was easily understood.

The Cobra movement came to the fore in an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in 1949 amid great controversy, the mark of success for aspiring modernists. Appel gave fuel to critics of modern art with his credo: "I just mess about."

The free-form abstraction, which was often inspired by children's art, flew in the face of the trenchant traditionalism of prewar Holland. While in much of Europe World War I had yielded a penchant for experimentation, the Netherlands had become a bastion of conservatism.

In Scandinavia, abstract art enjoyed a warmer reception before the war. Future Cobra member Asger Jorn of Denmark fueled his painting with polemic. The painter was convinced that a new folk art representative of Marxism was necessary -- a philosophy of art not only for the masses, but by the masses.

In Jorn's magazine launched in 1941, Helhesten, or Hell Horse, politics and arts were treated in addition to jazz and psychology. The journal became the model for the Cobra magazine.

In Belgium, too, the art world was more open to expressionism. Surrealism had a history with artists like Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux.

The comparative conservatism in the Netherlands can be explained as stemming from the oppressive artistic regime, or "kulturkammer," that Germany imposed upon the country during its occupation. Thus, when Dutch painter Constant met Jorn in Paris in 1946, he was still clinging to cubism as a model. But he became inspired by what he saw the Dane doing and went on to create his own fantastic style, often depicting terrifying figures as in his 1950 work "Concentration Camp."

Jorn, Dutch artists Appel, Constant and Corneille, and Belgian writers Christian Dotremont and Joseph Noiret nodded to communist nomenclature when they set up the International of Experimental Artists in 1948 (Cobra is a later acronym for Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, nothing loftier), affirming the group's commitment to social change.

Yet, as a strident individualist, Appel gave little credence to the "group ideology" requisite to Marxist theory. Despite this it was Appel, more than other Cobra artists, who embodied Cobra's artistic mission: "A painting is no longer a construction of colors and lines, but an animal, a night, a scream, a person, or all of these at once."

Among the Cobra artists, Appel's work is most representative of this transitional period in art history between the Early Moderns and, later, increasingly abstract work of American Abstract Expressionists Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko -- as well as the French Abstract Lyrique, or the individualism of Jean Dubuffet.

For Cobra, distinct lines and colors begin to fuse, subjects become less tame and more demonic.

Careful brush strokes become great swaths of paint effecting the textured layers of the revealed psyche.

Bright, garish colors replace muted, tasteful tones. Childlike innocence gives way to wild subconscious imagery.

As with many modern movements, Cobra sought to combine the fine arts, literature and social theory. Yet, unfortunately, despite the trend in mixed-discipline presentations, the show does not attempt such a holistic approach. The writers of the group are excluded, leaving their polemical writings, poetry and magazines unknown. Thus, the show denies the movement its full berth, leaving the impression of an isolated visual art created in a social vacuum.

The show, among an array of Dutch cultural activities taking place in Moscow this month, is being sponsored by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs in honor of Peter the Great's visit to the Netherlands 300 years ago, when cultural and economic ties were established between the two countries.

As the tsar traveled West and drew inspiration for what became the artistic legacy of his regime, it was a similar internationalism that enabled the Dutch Cobra artists to catch up with the Western art world -- perhaps a fitting commemoration of Peter the Great's visit.

The Cobra exhibit continues until May 25 at the New Tretyakov Gallery, 10 Krymsky Val, Metro Oktyabrskaya, Park Kultury. Daily 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed Monday. 230-7788.