Children in focus
Paul Klee immersed himself in the children’s gaze at the world and stepped into their dreams. His works deal as much with the reflectiveness of the child as with the child’s confidence and urge towards movement and play – and with the child’s seriousness, curiosity and reticence. Cobra was also a protest against modern society and the forces that control it. The child is not yet part of this society, and for the Cobra artists the child therefore comes to stand for the definitive embodiment of the free, independent individual.
Acrobats, artistes and jugglers
Artists belong to a different world and to a certain extent represent the opposite of bourgeois society. In that respect they are related to the immediacy and freedom that is characteristic of the child. In the playful exploration of the world by acrobats, circus artistes, jugglers and dancers, Paul Klee discovers (and invents) images of motion and balance. Ill and isolated after being driven into exile by the Nazis with his physical and artistic life threatened, Klee recognized them as kindred spirits: With their bold, carefree tricks they succeed in conquering gravity and the material nature of reality.
Cobra’s fantastic creatures refer not only to human beings at play; they also forge a link with a different world, a world beyond the tangible reality that can be directly sensed. The ability to make the impossible possible – that was what Karel Appel appreciated in the circus artistes.
An imaginary bestiary
Animals in Paul Klee’s work are lovable, grotesquely comical creatures – small monsters that are not to be taken seriously, whose oddities and small peculiarities play ironically on (all too) human behaviour patterns. Klee’s works from his last years, however, also show the impenetrable, the mysterious aspects of the nature of the animals, and depict the threatening dimension of the instinctive and the things that human common sense cannot control. Deliberately naive and stylized animal motifs, including birds, dogs, horses, mythical and magical creatures, are all included in the repertoire of motifs that came to characterize the Cobra artists. In their search for personal modes of expression and for their own original visual world, the Cobra artists used animals as symbols of various human qualities or as allegorical bearers of a wide range of meanings.
Paul Klee’s view of childhood is far from the clichéd notion of innocence or sincerity; instead it is typified by a profound interest in children’s inscrutable and complex behaviour patterns and interrelations. For Klee the analysis of childhood becomes the key to his own identity and the inner nature of mankind. This is particularly true of his works from the years 1932-33 and 1939-40, which mark great changes in his life. Against the background of the political unrest in Germany Klee’s depictions of childhood become visions of the abyss and panoramas of destruction.
Cobra is characterized by optimism and a belief in a better world, but the artistic development of the members of the group was also inextricably bound up with the post-war years, and both politically and artistically the artists were inspired ny the experiences of the cruel war years. Several of the artists explored violence and aggression, not least Asger Jorn and Constant, who were also active as theorists. They developed dark, oppressive layers in works that dealt with the darker sides of humanity.
Masks and physiognomies
Masks conceal, disfigure and distort the human face. However, the distortion can express what lies hidden behind the surface: the compulsive, hidden and irrational in the subconscious. Klee was just as fascinated by the multifaceted nature of the mask as by its disturbing otherness.
The visual imagery that the Danes in particular brought to the shared artistic efforts of the Cobra group consists especially of the mask as a bearer of complex meanings and mythical content. The Cobra artists were convinced of the fundamental human need to create images and symbols that can be understood by everyone and provide the opportunity for direct, personal experience. The Cobra artists were not as preoccupied with the formal potential of the mask as with its magical, psychological content. For them the mask became the path to a new free space of artistic imagination, and at the same time an attempt to find a universal language that could pass this experience on to others.