Constant, a monograph

Trudy van der Horst

'C’est notre désir qui fait la révolution'

It is 8 November 1948 in café Le Notre Dame, Paris, when six artists, Asger Jorn (Copenhagen), Christian Dotremont and Joseph Noiret (Brussels), Constant, Corneille and Karel Appel (Amsterdam) found CoBrA. “Cobra” is an acronym for the artists’ three native cities. In the café the six sign the manifesto “La cause était entendue” (“The matter was settled”), in response to a previous statement from the French surréalistes-révolutionnaires “La Cause est entendue” (“The matter is settled”). The six had just walked out of the surréalistes-révolutionnaires conference where they had observed a lack of unity amongst the French representatives. For Constant the crucial breaking point lies in the fact that the Belgian, Danish and Dutch groups associate art with a political conviction, something the French reject.

Willemijn Stokvis comments that after studying three years of ‘Cobra in practice’, she finds the most complete overview of the ideas and theories, which emerge in this movement, in the Manifest Constant wrote for the Experimentele Groep Holland (Experimental Group Holland).

In the autumn of 1946 Constant meets the Danish artist Asger Jorn at a Miró exhibition in Pierre Loeb’s Gallery, rue de Seine, Paris. He goes back to Jorn’s small hotel in rue des Ciseaux to look at his paintings. In a dark room he sees a number of paintings, pinned with thumbtacks on floral wallpaper. He is greatly impressed with Jorn’s art, although he finds the colors, as with Munch, harsh. In café Flore across the street, Jorn introduces him to Alberto Giacometti, for whom Constant’s great admiration, especially for his paintings, will last his entire life. This meeting with Jorn is the start of a close friendship and collaboration. Through Jorn Constant becomes acquainted with his movement Høst - the Danish experimentalists - who have their own magazine “Hellhesten”. Together, Constant and Jorn start on the theoretic preparations for a new, international avant-garde movement.

Constant wants to set up an experimental group similar to that of the Danes in the Netherlands. The Experimentele Groep Holland (Experimental Group Holland) is founded on July 16th 1948. The group comprises Constant, Karel Appel, Corneille, Jan Nieuwenhuijs (Constant’s brother), Anton Rooskens, Theo Wolvecamp, Eugène Brands and the Dutch poets Jan Elburg, Gerrit Kouwenaar and Lucebert. The first issue of the Experimentele Groep Holland’s magazine ‘Reflex’ is published in September 1948 and includes the Manifest written by Constant.

After the foundation of CoBrA in Paris, the first two copies (10 in total) of the magazine ‘Cobra’ are published in March 1949. The fourth issue of the magazine, the Nederlandse Experimentele Groep in Holland edition, serves as catalogue for the major international experimental art exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, from 3 to 28 November 1949. A long tongue is depicted sticking out on the cover of no. 4. Constant provides one of his finest and most passionate texts: C’est notre désir qui fait la révolution. Witness the following quote: Creation is always making what is not yet known, and the unknown frightens those who believe they have something to preserve. But we, who have nothing to lose but our shackles, we are able to risk this adventure. The only virginity we have at stake is an abstract. Let us fill Mondrian’s virginal canvas even though it may only be with our misery. Is misery not preferable to death, for the strong who are able to fight?

The architect Aldo van Eyck, who has had close contact with the Dutch experimentalists for some time, is asked to design this exhibition.

May 1949 sees drastic changes in Constant’s personal life. While staying with Jorn on Bornholm (Denmark) with Matie and his three children, his wife turns out to have entered into an affair with Jorn. She leaves with Jorn and takes the two daughters, Martha (1946) and Olga (1948) with her. She leaves their son Victor (1944) behind with Constant. This seriously damages the friendship with Jorn. Not until 1956 will Constant again work with Jorn in the avant-garde ‘Situationists International’ movement.

The fragmentation of the Cobra movement is complete when Jorn and Dotremont, who both have tuberculosis, are admitted to a sanatorium. The decision is taken to disband the movement with a final, closing exhibition of International experimental art held from October 6th to November 6th 1951 in the Palais des Beaux Arts in Liège. The last Cobra bulletin no. 10 is published for this exhibition. Works by Joan Miró and Alberto Giacometti are also exhibited. Seven of Constant’s ‘war paintings’ are shown including L’Incendie [Fire] (1950) and a painting of the birth of his daughter Eva, entitled Maternité [Mother and Child] (1951). These war paintings not only attest to the devastation of war, but, as Gerrit Kouwenaar writes: He paints war, he màkes war, - the war that resides to this day in the newspaper columns, he substantiates and he warns. He fights hìmself in these ruins and our head lies there like some laughable rutabaga.’