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Great Masters

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In 1969, Alechinsky had his first retrospective exhibition in Brussels at the Palais des Beaux-Arts and then in Denmark and in Germany. Working intensively, he produced prints and paintings which started to meet considerable success but destroyed in 1975 some 200 works, which he considered as obsolete.

In 1977, he had a restrospective exhibition at the Museum of Arts of Pittsburg and signed a contract with Galerie Maeght and then with Galerie Lelong in 1987 in Paris. After an impressive series of exhibitions around the world, he taught at the school of Beaux-Arts in the French capital and published several books. Working in the Provence region, Alechinsky was then recognised as one of the great artists of his time while many of his works were being acquired by Museums in France and abroad.

The rebel he was during his youth has turned into a master and a jury member of several art schools dreaded by students for his judgements whereas he has often admitted that during the 1940's no one needed a diploma to become an artist. «The dunce I was at 17 would never manage today to get access to an art school», he was quoted as saying.

Now settled in Bougival, West of Paris, in an area which was often visited by Corot, Turner and Renoir, Alechinsky is always involved in researches and blesses his left hand because if he had been right-handed his life would have followed quite a different course. «Because I was left-handed my educators
(in the 1940's) did not force me to improve my writing. Instead they drove me to secondary works such as drawing. I was thus a very bad schoolboy and much worse as a student. Now I write with my right hand and paint with my left hand but if I write with it I have to read my writing with the help of a mirror, thus my liking for prints and for Japanese calligraphy», he noted.

Alechinsky said his enthusiasm for the COBRA movement was triggered off by the spontaneity and the universalness shown by the painters who belonged to that group. He however admits that spontaneity regarding his works involves a part of deep thinking and know-how believing that a painting is built with the harmonious combination of experience and self-vigilance preventing idleness.

He said a great moment in his career occurred with his painting «Central Park» produced in 1965 which, by observing paths, rocks and lawns of Central Park from the studio of Walasse Ting, had the global looks of a meek monster. Such image haunted him for months making him work on that theme which became central in his work.

He also pinpointed that working with ceramics had been important in the development of his career and often addresses instinctively his dead professors asking himself what they would think of the dunce they had as student.

Alechinsky feels younger nowadays, at least much more than he was at 17, simply because he is more at ease while working. He always chooses Japanese or Chinese brushes which he buys in New York. «I have an incredible collection of brushes which in fact I never use since I always work with a brush which the great Japanese calligrapher Morita offered me in 1955...»

He also uses weights which he places on the sides of a sheet of paper so that it won't move as well as Chinese bowls containing colours.
What elates him is the construction of a painting which after completion is so moving even though it remains a silent and fixed image which can still defy television. «In the face of all this technological storm painting is still alive,» he claims.
Alechinsky always chooses a type of American-made canvas for his works, «the same type used by Pollock, Rothko and someother great painters», while his papers come from Taiwan.

For him, COBRA meant an escape from reason.
The movement set up in a Paris café on November 8th 1948 and dissolved three years later in Liège, is however still vivid in almost everybody's mind and for Alechinsky it was like a railway line as one could fall asleep and wake up not knowing if he was in Copenhagen, Brussels or Amsterdam as Christian Dotremont, the philosopher of the group and a close friend of Alechinsky summed up.

The term COBRA (Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam) was invented by Dotremont in reference to Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg) and such bestial acronym had its part of aggressiveness and instinctiveness which resulted in the production of a COBRA bestiary by artists linked to that group.

COBRA is a pun much used visually by its artists in their works. COBRA also was a rupture with the Surrealists who were considered to be intellectuals and Parisians above accepted limits.

COBRA artists preferred the key-words : «work»,
«experimental» and «international» as their manifestoes in order to distract art from its vegetative life and to make it escape from fashion.
They lived in misery but also in joy coming out from a tragic period and originated from three small countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark) which had been engulfed in the same war. All the more the world of modern art was at that time chaotic and had to be reinvented and COBRA was an ideal crossroad for Expressionism, Abstraction and Surrealism.

It was a way to reach some kind of renovated art in a renovated society.
In that sense COBRA was a kind of optimistic revolution mixing poetry, humour and colours to exuberant forms in a materialistic and primitive way. Such theory seduced Alechinsky who is now the standard-bearer of the surprisingly defunct movement.

COBRA artists wanted above all to satisfy their desires as Constant once said and such concept, like those applied by Pollock with action painting or Tapies with Hispanic matierism, had no limits except for the surface of the canvas.
For Jorn , Constant and COBRA artists, forms, even simplified, were bearing symbols linked to psychism as well as to the objective world. These forms were also a universal language and these artists went as far as getting inspired by drawings produced by children or mad people and art brut as conceived by Dubuffet. Alechinsky, on his part, was inspired by Flemish folkloric themes and carnivals. Overall, COBRA integrated external and internal signs and some anarchic freedom which offered various scopes to its exponents.

Alechinsky offered his dynamism to COBRA which in turn offered him freedom. But above all, he was the only one to tackle all possible techniques, to cling to all the theories of that movement, to combine poetry and painting as defined by its theoriticians and above all the only one to keep alive the COBRA spirit after the group was dissolved in 1951 for having inhaled some kind of poisonous Parisian atmosphere. No wonder that Alechinsky is a great artist hailed by enthusiast critics in Brussels, Paris or New York and whose works sometime sell above the US $ 200,000 mark.

Poet, writer, musician, painter, engraver P.A, as he is called, is universal and somewhat unique always questioning the world in an attempt to find satisfying responses, a self-made artist like Picasso with an incredible appetite for work, a disturbing talent, unlimited humour and incredible charm.

Alechinsky has created a dreamworld which seems so real, swerving like a snake to avoid obstacles, biting life joyfully and spreading some enrapturing venom in his works. In one word he is COBRA all by himself so quiet and so violent and as a result so unpredictable.
Alechinsky is known to be generous and trustful but also rigorous that is why he is inclined to destroy a painting when he finds himself in a dilemma with it.

The Paris retrospective does justice to his work which has been spanning for over 50 years and the way it has been organised has enabled visitors to understand the artist and motivations as well as the fact that COBRA was just a stage in his career as it is not easy to cling to the idea that he is solely the heir of a dead movement who has been in a constant quest for new experiments.

Adrian Darmon

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