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Joslyn Art Museum Exhibition Presents the Fantastical Prints of CoBrA Society Artists
Anton Rooskens (Dutch, 1906-1976), Court Gallery Graphics, Copenhagen, publisher, Untitled, from Anton Rooskens, Cobra Circle, 12 Original Lithographs, 1968, edition 90/100, color lithograph on paper, Gift of Sylvia B. and Jerome I. Cohn in Memory of Frances Batt, 2007, Collection of Joslyn Art Museum.

OMAHA, NE.- The Joslyn Art Museum just opened Fantasy Uncoiled: Prints by CoBrA Artists. The 36 prints in this exhibition, all from Joslyn’s permanent collection, are an intimate introduction to the work of CoBrA artists Mogens Balle, Eugène Brands, and Anton Rooskens and a celebration of fantasy seemingly unfettered by academic standards, leading viewers to question the very nature of creativity. A gift from Sylvia B. Cohn, lifetime member of Joslyn's board of governors and longtime Museum benefactress, in honor of her late sister Frances Batt, these impressions are a delight to the eye and a challenge to aesthetic preconceptions. Fantasy Uncoiled continues through January 11. This exhibition is supported in part by FVB Foundation.

About the CoBrA Society In 1949 the Surrealists met in Paris to establish a plan of international collaboration. Heady with freedom after the deprivations of World War II, artists from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam found the means to attend. They were bitterly disappointed in what they viewed as Surrealism’s suffocating intellectualism and, in a Parisian café, influenced by the philosophy of Karl Jung, artists Miró, Klee, and the German Expressionists, and the Marxist ideal of a people’s art, penned their own manifesto. Calling themselves CoBrA (an acronym for their cities of origin) they sought to combat sterile and dogmatic theories through childlike spontaneity and instinctive imagery. Painters and poets whose art the Nazis had labeled degenerate, CoBrA members sought nothing less than the liberation of the human spirit.

This new folk art could lead to “spiritual health” for all through the vehicle of the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious could be accessed through Play, which the historian Johan Huizinga, another key influence, believed was fundamental to humanity. To Play one must emulate the Child, according to Jung, the state closest to the collective unconscious where the life-giving energy of the imagination was easily captured.

CoBrA lasted a mere three years, but its influence remained. These 36 prints published by Court Graphics reveal their artists’ enduring commitment to its principles. Rooskens spent his life experimenting with “primitive” forms to realize the mythic archetypes he believed were common among all peoples. Denied paint by the Nazis during the war, Brands had worked with expressionistically applied ink and continued to play with free-flowing pigment, while Balle reaffirmed his commitment to spontaneous abstraction. Still vitalized by Jungian archetypes and artistically eternal children, they employed lithography for its spontaneous potential. Each may differ in energy and tone, but always with playful and humane intent. Their fantastical positivism offers another generation both a key to the exorcism of collective nightmare and a reaffirmation of life.

About The CoBrA Artists & Their Prints Mogens Balle (Danish, 1921–1988) CoBrA freed Balle, a naturalistic painter, to confront his chosen materials. Like Kandinsky, whom the CoBrA artists so admired, Balle found spiritual significance in color. A brilliant lithographer, Balle once described colors as claiming certain areas to give expression to a poetic thought, yet these prints are not simply emotional abstractions. Spots that the viewer recognizes instinctively as eyes animate creatures who lurk and flit.

Eugène Brands (Dutch, 1913–2002) Brands’ cosmos is defined by black. Denied art materials by the Nazis during the war, he was able to use only ink, which he dashed or allowed to drip and pool across whatever paper was at hand. After the war, ink remained his medium of choice, with the addition of only a childlike palette of paint box hues. To the artist, his works were “maps” with titles intended as verbal clues, like those provided by a child when presenting a drawing. With these clues the onlooker initially locates the “subject” — a face, a bird, a child — but in exploring, introduces his own creative force, transforming the work anew — a bird may become a face.

Anton Rooskens (Dutch, 1906–1976) Rooskens first encountered the art of New Guinea and the indigenous Americas in postwar Paris. As a CoBrA artist, he interpreted it as tangible evidence of the animating force of which “primitive” cultures and children are intuitively aware. Appropriating this magical vocabulary of totemic shields, horned supernaturals, and fantastic man/beast composites engendered Rooskens’ life-long quest to evoke the collective unconscious of all humanity. The masterful lithographs in the exhibition, executed when Rooskens was 61, vividly reveal his process. Three colors provide atmosphere for what he called his “savage dance” of line. Archetypal images, they have neither concrete identity nor specific narrative. His prints may show leering insects or stars born of battle between a bird and a bull. Some may evoke nightmares, others, gentle humor. All re-animate the viewer as a creative being.

Sam Kaner and Court Galleries The prints featured in the exhibition could not have been possible without Sam Kaner. An Oxford-educated American, he was mentored in Paris by Roger Lacourière, Picasso’s master printer for over 40 years. Kaner became a virtuoso abstractionist whose form, like that of the American Abstract Expressionists, was governed by process. The CoBrA artists found in Kaner a sympathetic audience. The key element of compatibility was respect for the artist’s spontaneity. Prints are by their nature multiples and collaborative prints, made in conjunction with a printer, can often be lifeless and slickly mechanized. Though Balle had a fine understanding of lithographic technique, Rooskens had not executed a print in over 20 years (and never in color) while Brands had always shied away from the multiple altogether, fearful repetition would dull his transformative magic. Kaner wanted prints for his Copenhagen Court Galleries, but his own intaglio process was not appropriate. Lithography would allow the CoBrA artists to work with hand-picked printers sensitive to their method. Working rapidly, sometimes in pairs or sets of stones, each applied the liquid medium with a brush as lushly as they would paint or ink. The stones were then printed on hand-torn quarter sheets in an intimate format demanding a one-on-one interaction with the viewer.

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