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Paul Klee & Cobra explored in major exhibition at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark
Egill Jacobsen, Untitled, 1942. Museum Jorn Silkeborg.

HUMLEBAEK.- The major exhibition of the autumn at the Louisiana Museum explores for the first time the relationship between the Cobra movement (1948-51) and the Swiss artist Paul Klee’s (1879-1940) works and artistic thinking. For artists like Asger Jorn, Carl-Henning Pedersen, Ejler Bille and Corneille, Klee’s art seemed to show the way forward after the war. They encountered them in publications as early as the 1930s; later came the first exhibitions in Denmark and Holland and – most significantly – the later legendary showing of more than 300 of Klee’s works at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1948. Like Klee, the Danish abstract artists were seeking the directness and spontaneity of the child’s simple, powerful expression, and the discovery of children’s ability to express themselves in pictures was an important source of artistic inspiration for both Klee and the Cobra painters.

For Klee and other artists of the Avant-Garde like Wassily Kandinsky and Picasso, the work with the art of children and “primitives” at the beginning of the twentieth century opened up a whole new pictorial universe and provided crucial impulses to their emancipation from handed-down artistic conventions and traditions. No other artist – perhaps with the exception of Jean Dubuffet – worked as continuously, intensively and diversely with children’s production of images and their transposition into his artistic work as Paul Klee did. This can be seen for example from his work with the iconography of his own and his son Felix’s childhood drawings as well as in experiments like his ‘blind’ drawings from the 1920s, his radical rejection of all formal ties and his return to the unmediated emotions of childhood in the 1930s.

Forty years after Klee, as a young artist, had rediscovered his own childhood drawings, several painters in the Cobra group, including Asger Jorn, Karel Appel, Constant, Corneille and Pierre Alechinsky, similarly tried to immerse themselves in the pictorial world of children – although against a quite different historical background. The willingness to let go of the reins and look for the roots of painting that they discovered there constituted at once an artistic revolution and an existential epiphany. As Klee had done before them, both Jorn and Corneille built up collections of children’s drawings that became important sources of inspiration for them. What for Klee had been a way of gaining insight into his own artistic development took on a political dimension for the Cobra artists. Their quest for a direct, sometimes almost physical connection with reality, for example in their spontaneous and sensual treatment of colours and materials as elementary means of expression, meant that they turned their backs radically on the prevailing artistic conventions of the time.

The fascination with the primal image-making power that connects Klee with Cobra is manifested in surprising parallels and points of contact in the many works in the exhibition. By means of comparisons and contrasts the exhibition focuses on a number of key themes – children, acrobats, animals, war and masks – which typified both Klee’s and the Cobra artists’ works. As the hub of the exhibition, the large central space in the west wing of the museum where the exhibition is being shown has been transformed into a presentation platform divided into three sections that illuminate both Paul Klee’s and the Cobra artists’ approach to children’s art and its influence on their works, as well as the Cobra artists’ interpretations of Klee’s ideas and work in the post-war period.

The exhibition has been designed by the exhibition architect Anne Schnettler.

Themes of the exhibition:

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.

Childhood battles
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.

Louisiana Museum | Klee | Cobra |  |

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