CoBrA exhibition at ASU Art Museum presents impact of World War II on European art

TEMPE, Ariz. – ASU Art Museum presents an exhibition of works from one of Europe’s most important post-war art movements when it opens CoBrA: Before, During and After, Works from the Collection of Stéphane Janssen on Feb. 8. The exhibition will run through May 11. 

A free public reception from 7-9 p.m., Feb. 8, will launch the exhibition, which presents approximately 80 pieces drawn from one of the world’s best collections of work by the CoBrA movement – that of Valley resident Stéphane Janssen.

Named for Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, from which the original group came, the CoBrA artists reflect post-World War II malaise and shifts in philosophical thought that followed the devastation of war and genocide. Among the best-known figures in the movement are painters Pierre Alechinsky, Karel Appel and Asger Jorn. However, this exhibition will include work by a number of other artists, lesser known in the United States, including Henry Heerup, Corneille, Christian Dotremont, Reinhoud and Carl Henning Pederson.

Marilyn Zeitlin, director and chief curator of the ASU Art Museum, said that while the group existed under the CoBrA rubric for only the period of 1948-51, associations among them preceded and endured after this time. For this reason, the ASU Art Museum exhibition will contain works from before and after the official CoBrA time period.

“The artists of CoBrA took stock of their culture in the aftershock of the horrors of Nazi genocide and the extermination camps,” Zeitlin said. “Their work demonstrates a recasting of European traditions and innovation, creating a visual vocabulary for expression of a new worldview.”

The CoBrA artists often worked despite hunger and meager shelter, painting on burlap, cardboard and found objects to compensate for the absence of canvas. Yet it was this poverty that helped spur their creativity. And, just as the war had swept away much of Europe’s material wealth, it had taken old ideas along with it, creating a liberating atmosphere for artists.

While the CoBrA movement is known primarily as a movement of painters, the ASU Art Museum exhibition will contain a substantial selection of drawings by the artists, as well as rare ceramic pieces.

The artists were driven by the need to find meaning in senseless violence and by age-old questions about God, good and evil. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the imagery of the CoBrA artists was often of skulls, piled corpses or hordes of the insane. They sought to plumb the destruction of society and civilization, and the human capacity for evil.

The CoBrA movement had its stylistic roots in Surrealism and German Expressionism, but also incorporated many of the attitudes and techniques of American abstract expressionism. Artists on both continents were impacted by the enormous changes of their time, such as the creation of the atomic bomb and the credibility of psychoanalysis as a method for accessing unknown regions of the mind. In this environment, the imagery of dreams (and nightmares) became the logical avenue for the CoBrA artists’ expression.

As time distanced them more from the horrors of war, the European artists began to use more satire and wit in their images, and to break with traditional methods of painting. They explored very direct methods of paint application, such as the “action painting” invented by Appel. Alechinsky, at about the same time as Jackson Pollock in America, also began to pour paint directly onto canvas.

Zeitlin said that although CoBrA: Before, During and After presents work that was created decades (and in some cases more than half-a-century) ago, is particularly relevant to our time.

“Much of the work reflects on the horrors of war and the determination to rebuild both physically and psychically in its aftermath. This is applicable to the present, as art is being asked to assist in addressing the meaning of violence,” Zeitlin said

The ASU Art Museum is a division of The Katherine K. Herberger College of Fine Arts at Arizona State University. It is located on the southeast corner of Mill Avenue and 10th Street, Tempe. For more information, please call (480) 965-2787 or visit the museum online at

When You Go:

Location: ASU Art Museum, Nelson Fine Arts Center, corner Mill Avenue and 10th Street, Tempe.

Date & Time: CoBrA: Before, During and After, Works from the Collection of Stéphane Janssen will run Feb. 8 – May 11.
A free opening reception is scheduled for 7-9 p.m., Feb. 8, in conjunction with the opening of the Sara and David Lieberman Collection.

 Free parking is available in ASU Art Museum-marked spaces at the south end of Tempe Center, located at the NE corner of Mill Avenue and 10th Street. Visitors using museum spaces must sign in at the front desk in the lobby of the Nelson Fine Arts Center. Free parking is also available on weekends and after 7 p.m. weeknights in Parking Structure #3 on Myrtle Avenue, Tempe.


Cost: Free 

Media Contact:
Jennifer Pringle