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Attack of the CoBrA

In the blur of post-World War II disillusionment, the art world was dominated by surrealism, and surrealism was dominated by the dictatorial André Breton. In 1948, in a small café on the Rue Saint-Jacques in Paris, a group of vigilante Danish artists formed a collective called CoBrA dedicated to shattering Breton's hegemony over avant-garde art. (The name is an acronym of the artists' cities of origin: Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam.) This Friday, Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art will open two exhibitions featuring work from this experimental collective: "Asger Jorn: The Printmaker" and "Selections from the CoBrA Collection of Marlene Brody."

Like Lost Boys to Breton's Captain Hook, CoBrA members signed a manifesto, "Le cause était entendue," and then clambered up to their tree house, taking along various sources of inspiration: Viking dragon patterns, African and Oceanic tribal masks, Scandinavian petroglyphs, mythology, primitive art, drawings by the mentally ill, and Freud. As the surrealist Paris School revolved primarily around structured painting, CoBrA became a never-never land for displaced artists and for other media (poetry, ceramics, and sculpture) as well as painting. It fostered organic, childlike impulsiveness against the antidemocratic forces and technological advancements that emerged during the war.

CoBrA artists published magazines, organized their own exhibitions, and held meetings, and they did so with almost no support from the more-established European art communities. This renegade burst of expression lasted only three years before the artists, led by Christian Dotremont, Asger Jorn, and Karel Appel, separated and began solo careers.

When asked to describe the CoBrA exhibitions, Fran Mulcahy, curator of education at the Museum of Art, says they are "abstract, colorful, and passionate." Influenced by Edvard Munch and Joan Miró, the body of work that CoBrA left behind is characterized by bold rhythms, lines, and color -- intuitive, wild, and fantastic images that are both politically expressive and playful. Despite its brief tenure, the artistic and cultural energy of the CoBrA school has sustained its memory for the past half-century. Now, many consider CoBrA to be the last art collective of its kind.

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Marli Guzzetta

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