1st and 2nd International Exhibition of Experimental Art (Cobra) Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 3–28 November 1949 | Palais des Beaux-Arts, Liège, 6 October–6 November 1951
Aldo van Eyck (1918–1999) studied architecture in Switzerland at the ETH Zurich, where he met his lifetime partner Hannie van Roojen (1918–2018). After the Second World War they moved to Amsterdam after an intermediate stay in Paris. Both in Zurich and Paris they mingled with avant-garde artists, and in Amsterdam too, the Van Eycks were drawn into artistic circles. Constant Nieuwenhuys, one of the founding members of Cobra, would visit their home to see works by Joan Miró which Van Eyck had obtained, which was the start of a friendship and short-lived collaboration in those years. Hannie’s brother Joost van Roojen was an accomplished painter of abstract figurations himself, and would contribute to the scenography of some of Van Eyck’s famous designs for public playgrounds.
The two exhibitions in Amsterdam and Liège marked the short but turbulent life of Cobra: a group of artists from Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands, its acronym being derived from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. The official name of the groundbreaking shows was international Exhibition of Experimental Art, and in the case of the Amsterdam edition it also included the work of poets. The first edition was made possible by the director of the Stedelijk Museum, the forward-looking Willem Sandberg, who aimed to bring the most challenging contemporary devel- opments in the arts to the Amsterdam audience. Cobra was assigned to seven rooms which the group found it hard to fill with their modest-sized works. Van Eyck asked the participants to create new works especially for the show to create an impact, among others the monumental Man and Animals by Karel Appel, which was one of the foci of the show and still a major asset of the Stedelijk Museum collections. Its size (c. 350 × 360 cm) corresponded to about half the size of the room and by positioning it directly on the floor a few decimeters in front of the wall the artwork became a spatial element of its own in the overall exhibition design. Corneille created a three-dimensional cube-painting which was also directly positioned on the floor blurring the difference between artworks and pedestals.
Smaller paintings were hung either high or very low, creating a dynamic overall spatial composition reminiscent of De Stijl aesthetics, but also forcing the audience to literally take a different view of contemporary art. A final striking gesture by Van Eyck to work with the scale of the large rooms and the relatively modest character of the artworks was the use of low, horizontal platforms, made out of plain planks. Prints and drawings were laid out on these in various configurations. The platforms were painted either black or white (although a proper source for the correct shades is missing; we only have a few black and white photos as archival evidence), they could be grouped into bigger elements.
In 1951 the second edition of the show was installed in Liège at the Palais des Beaux-Arts. This edition involved more artists from Belgium, plus a few older artists admired by Cobra: Miró and Giacometti, among others. The poets section was dropped, while a film festival was added. Van Eyck completely redesigned the exhibition, yet with similar techniques and an even more radical approach to the pedestals, not only low and horizontal, but now often with only a single sculpture on them. Some of the platforms were materialised as beds of coal – apparently with an eye to the local context of the Belgian mines – the largest of which served as the backdrop for the small stone sculptures by Henry Heerup.
Text Dirk van den Heuvel. First published in the catalogue accompanying the Art on Display exhibition.