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Pierre Alechinsky, 1977. Courtesy CMOA archives.

Art of the People: Pierre Alechinsky and the CoBrA Movement

With its high-key, high-contrast palette and jagged lines, Pierre Alechinsky’s Savage State (1968) carries on the look, feeling, and approach of CoBrA, a vibrant Paris-based artist collective that came together in the years following World War II. Taking their name from the first letters of the three northern European cities the artists hailed from—COpenhagen, BRussels, Amsterdam—CoBrA was an intense, if brief, coalition of radical artists and poets who were interested in recharging art with the sensual experience of the world.

Their paintings and drawings share some aesthetic qualities like brilliantly saturated colors and playfully distorted human forms, but what really linked these artists was their intention—create a new art for a new postwar society. Against the intellectualism and cool aesthetic of Surrealism, CoBrA attempted to initiate a new “art of the people” out of artistic experimentation, emotional expression, and spontaneity.

Pierre Alechinsky, Savage State, 1968. Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift of James L. Winokur.

As a young painter and writer, Alechinsky (Belgian, b. 1927) joined the group after seeing one of their early exhibitions in Brussels in the spring of 1949.[1] Like the group’s initiators Asger Jorn (Danish, 1914-1973), Christian Dotremont (Belgian, 1922-1979), and Constant (Dutch, b. Constant Nieuwenhuys, 1920-2005)—all of whom have works in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s permanent collection—Alechinsky sought a new means of creative expression in the wake of the tremendous destruction wrought upon Europe by the war.

Asger Jorn, Underdeveloped Ferocity, 1961. Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Leon Anthony Arkus.
Asger Jorn, Underdeveloped Ferocity, 1961. Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Leon Anthony Arkus.

Alechinsky and his colleagues looked to art made by so-called outsiders to the Western avant-garde, the so-called “naïve” work by children or “the insane,” as well as the work of European painters Paul Klee and Joan Miró. For CoBrA artists, Alechinsky especially, spontaneity was a method that opened up the artwork, the final product, to the unpredictability of the experience of painting itself—allowing the chanciness of brush-handling and the fluid agency of the paint to be part of the final image. Sometimes spontaneity, however, didn’t yield a desirable final product—beneath the oil paint of Savage State is an earlier acrylic painting the artist deemed unsuccessful. In one of his many poetic, quasi-autobiographical writings, Alechinsky shares the frustration of creative labor:

“No longer knowing what order or disorder I was obeying, I set about modifying the painting which I had had before my eyes for weeks. I should have left it in its innocent immobility, there where it was: pinned up, serene, admissible. But no, I had to ground it, turn around it and cover it irreparably with a new colour rendering it blind and invisible to my eyes.”[2]

In ink and oil, on paper and canvas, Alechinsky continued working in his signature ludic mode after CoBrA disbanded (the group parted ways in 1951, after three years of co-operation), treating landscapes, mythic animals, and flaring volcanoes in his electric color and agitated lines.

Alechinsky’s presence in Pittsburgh began in 1952 when, at 25 years old, his work was first shown in the International. His work would be shown in each International after that until 1977, when the large-scale, multiple-artist format was discontinued in favor of a single-artist format—for which Alechinsky was the first artist selected. The single-artist format, titled the Pittsburgh International Series, functioned as a retrospective for Alechinsky, as well as the largest exhibition of his work in the United States at the time. This is precisely what Leon A. Arkus, director of CMOA at the time, had in mind when he redesigned the museum’s major biennial: provide international artists with the recognition they deserved, but had not yet received, in the US with a major exhibition of their work. Being selected for the Pittsburgh International Series came with the Andrew W. Mellon Prize, a prestigious award and a cool $50,000. The new format was even commemorated by a seal from the mayor’s office in honor of International Series Week.

Proclamation from the office of Mayor Richard S. Caliguiri, October 13, 1977. Courtesy of CMOA archives.
Proclamation from the office of Mayor Richard S. Caliguiri, October 13, 1977. Courtesy of CMOA archives.

In his press release, Arkus explained his rationale for the change to the International format, which had been in place since Andrew Carnegie initiated the biennial in 1896. Citing that the original format had become “obsolete” in an age of “high speed technologies,” Arkus suggested that the museum no longer had to assemble the international art scene for its patrons, who could access it through technologies like video. In earlier drafts of the press release, Arkus also noted how exorbitantly expensive the old format was for the museum.

Excerpt from Leon Arkus's press release regarding the debut of the 'International Series.' Courtesy CMOA archives.
Excerpt from Leon Arkus’s press release regarding the debut of the ‘International Series.’ Courtesy CMOA archives.

Although Arkus intended this new format to bolster the Carnegie Museum of Art’s reputation as a maker of major exhibitions, the first Pittsburgh International Series, Alechinsky’s retrospective, met with mixed reviews. The “updated” format would only last for two biennial cycles, and would revert to the familiar Carnegie International installation that is currently used. The single-artist format might not have lasted, but the impact of Alechinsky’s exhibition and the warm friendship that developed between Arkus and the artist can still be seen in the collection: with 94 works in the collection, Alechinsky is one of the most-collected artists in the Carnegie Museum of Art. 81 of these were given by the artist himself. A letter from Arkus to Alechinsky thanking him for the gift of 81 works-on-paper shows how much Arkus deeply cared for the artist and his work: “it will make us, probably, the outstanding repository of your works in America. This we are proud be.”

Excerpt from Leon Arkus's letter to Alechinsky. Courtesy CMOA archives.
Excerpt from Leon Arkus’s letter to Alechinsky. Courtesy CMOA archives.

Footnotes

[1] The small exhibition, La Fin et les Moyens (The End and the Means), was held in a little gallery of the Séminaire des Arts in the Palias des Beaus-Arts in Brussels. See Willemijn Stokvis, COBRA: The Last Avant-Garde Movement of the Twentieth Century (Hampshire, UK and Burlington, VT: Lund Humphries, 2001), pages 188 and 196.

[2] Alechinsky, excerpt from “This,” as printed in the exhibition catalogue for his 1977 Pittsburgh International Series retrospective at this museum, then the Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute. Alechinsky: Paintings and Writings, page 19.

Uncrated: The Hidden Lives of Artworks is on view in the Scaife Lounge at Carnegie Museum of Art from March 9, 2015–May 8, 2015. Learn the stories behind some intriguing works from CMOA’s collection and find out more about the people who buy, move, hang, clean, and care for them. Over the course of nine weeks, a team of registrars, conservators, preparators, and curators will be sharing their work with the public as they examine objects recently taken out of storage. Come back throughout the show and visit uncrated.cmoa.org to see what new discoveries the team is making.