To be or not to be Cobra
Lotti van der Gaag Homage to Henry Moore / L’homme avec laye bouche, 1949 bronze sculpture 49 x 25 cm Ambassade Hotel Collection, Amsterdam
Lotti van der Gaag
The Hague 1923 – 1999 Nieuwegein
Sculptor – drawer – painter
unscathed is not, among us, the maker of images. see, how he sacrifices, implores and yearns, just like us, when the mercenaries of death begin their encirclement and ashenly force their way into our walls, writes the maker of images letters and names and figures and his voice, like our own, dies. (excerpt from a poem by Hugo Claus)
Lotti van der Gaag held, and still holds, an interesting position with respect to the Cobra group. For many years, artists in the group challenged the claim that she belonged to the Cobra movement, although some art historians believed she did. That argument has now subsided because nearly all of the artists are dead.
Lotti van der Gaag Untitled, 1952 drawing 36 x 25 cm Ambassade Hotel Collection, Amsterdam
Who was Lotti?
Piet de Jonge, chief curator of the Boymans van Beuningen museum (1989-2002), said, ‘She was never part of Cobra and never exhibited in one of the big exhibitions in Amsterdam and Liège, but her visual language is totally Cobra.’
Wim Beeren, director of the Stedelijk Museum (1985-1993), said: ‘All the “Cobra” principles are present in sculptor Lotti.’
Willemijn Stokvis wrote in her exemplary book: Cobra, the Road to Spontaneity, 2001, ‘At the end of 1950, the sculptor Lotti van der Gaag … was taken on board the circle of Dutch Cobra members in Paris. … Her sculptures, with which she trod an unbeaten path as far as Dutch art was concerned, can, in fact, be completely counted among the Cobra experimentalists.’
Beeren again: ‘It was nothing short of a miracle to suddenly be confronted with the huge output of a naturally gifted person. Out of her pure imagination, Lotti created a world of gnomes, small monsters, animals, trees and plants.‘
‘The figures that come alive in her work invade all of us and will never leave us alone.’ said Bert Schierbeek.
Lotti van der Gaag Untitled, 1952 aquarelle37 x 23 cm Ambassade Hotel Collection, Amsterdam
Lotti (Charlotte) van der Gaag was born in The Hague on 18 December 1923. Her father was a tailor and a fashion designer. Her parents separated in 1933, whereupon her mother, Maria Augusta Förster, started a guest house. Lotti travelled abroad a lot with her family. She was inspired by the landscapes she saw and took up drawing.
After the Second World War she became romantically involved with the artist Bram Bogart, who put her in touch with the art world. She shared a passion for Van Gogh with Bram. In the meantime, she took on all sorts of jobs to support herself. In 1947 she studiously took a course at the Royal Art Academy in The Hague, but quickly became bored with the traditional way of teaching.
In 1948, after the break-up of her relationship with Bram Bogart, she decided to become a sculptor and studied under Livinus van de Bundt at the Free Academy. Her work greatly impressed him. She was given total freedom to work and did not have to pay him for her lessons, even though she had the money. She created 150 weird types of fantasy figures. In 1950 she was given the opportunity to make a debut in exhibition room Loujetky in The Hague, and immediately was given a good review by the renowned critic Jos de Gruyter. A terracotta version of Homage to Henry Moore was on view at that exhibition, which is now in the Ambassade Hotel.
In the same year, in November 1950, she left for Paris to get better acquainted with the French sculptors she admired so much and to study under Ossip Zadkine. She wanted to get on in life and Paris was the place to be in those days. Zadkine agreed to teach her and she did not have to pay him either.
She came into contact with Karel Appel and Corneille through Simon Vinkenoog, and was offered a studio and a place to live near them in Rue Santeuil. Lotti said the following about this period, ‘There were other Dutch people as well. But there was no true camaraderie.’ Much of the activity round the Cobra group went unnoticed by her. Lotti, ‘I wasn’t there, at the meetings.’
Lotti van der Gaag Untitled, 1951 drawing 29 x 25 cm Ambassade Hotel Collection, Amsterdam
To be or not to be Cobra
Although the artists dropped in on each other, nobody, not even the visiting Cobra artists and exhibition curators, asked Lotti to take part in any of the Cobra projects in 1950 and 1951. Lotti: ‘I didn’t mind. I wasn’t very angry about it because I thought my time would come.’ Corneille wrote later on that Lotti did ask him if she could take part in the last Cobra exhibition in Liège in 1951. But he refused. We are not a salon, he argued. It is unclear what he meant exactly. ‘He always saw me as his little neighbour’, said Van der Gaag herself. ‘It wasn’t so important then. It only became important in retrospect. So around 1965 it became super important, that word Cobra’.
As a matter of fact, it is true that Van der Gaag was never part of the Cobra club. But museum directors did show her work in Cobra exhibitions and art critics, such as Willemijn Stokvis, did mention her in publications, because her work bears similarity to the Cobra artists and because she lived and worked with Appel and Corneille in Rue Santeuil in Paris. This issue reached an impasse that even led to the downfall of a Cobra Museum Director, Cees List. This was instigated by collector Karel van Stuijvenberg, who took the artists’ side and threatened to withdraw his collection from the Cobra Museum.
People suspected – and suspect – that she was not invited because she was a woman, which is not inconceivable. But this argument made, in particular, Corneille’s, Constant’s and Doucet’s hackles rise. Corneille explained, ‘Lotti also said that she was ignored because she was a woman. Because apparently we didn’t take women seriously.’ He then reeled off the names of women who did belong to the Cobra movement: ‘Anneliese Hager, Sonja Ferlov, Else Alfelt and Madeleine Szemere-Kemeny were all valued Cobra members.’
The women Corneille mentioned did, indeed, all participate in Cobra exhibitions and in publications. Hager experimented with photography and was a poet, Madeleine Szemere- Kemény made experimental work together with her husband Zoltán Kemény, and Ferlov and Alfelt were in the Danish Høst group that joined forces with Cobra. The latter-mentioned women were included in publications in the Bibliothèque de Cobra.
The reason cannot be attributed to a lack of quality in Van der Gaag’s work. ‘We will say nothing about her work, it is simply good’, was how a reporter for newspaper De Telegraaf quoted Doucet and Corneille in 1993. Doucet emphasised that his wife, whose work was terrific, had also not been invited. As were many artists who made ‘Cobra-like’ work. And sometimes artists were invited, but they said thank you and turned down the honour, such as Piet Ouborg. They are also not included in the Cobra canon.
Lotti van der Gaag Gatepaan, 1958 bronze sculpture 44 cm height Ambassade Hotel Collection, Amsterdam
It is an interesting discussion because it raises the question of what Cobra actually is. Is it a style? Is it an artistic language? Is it all artists who experimented, as some art historians claim? Or was it completely different for the artists involved? Was it more a group of artists (and writers) who got together because they needed each other on a national level, but also on an international level, to deal with the war, to join together in protest, to learn from one another, to share the same ideas about which direction art should go in, who had joint ‘enemies’, who wanted to make a better world together, to discuss political ideas together, because almost all of the Cobra artists were politically active, and especially, to work together. Because, after all, there was strength in numbers.
It is probable that Cobra frontmen Appel and Corneille were no longer interested in expanding the group when they went to live in Paris. They may have believed that the women – another Dutch artist, Dora Tuynman, lived in Rue Santeuil – had nothing extra to offer them. Moreover, the previously deep relationship between Appel and Corneille was under immense pressure, possibly due to a financial dispute. They were in the process of extricating themselves from each other and from Cobra. It had become a matter of ‘every man for himself’, certainly as far as Appel was concerned. The discussion that erupted later on about Van der Gaag touched a raw nerve. She said, ‘Cobra has become a consumer item. Washing powder. A concert.’
Lotti van der Gaag Untitled, 1953 drawing 30 x 24 cm Ambassade Hotel Collection, Amsterdam
Everybody had their own interest in mind in this discussion. The art trade and galleries had an interest because artists with a Cobra label sold better and museums had an interest because the Cobra label made it easy for exhibitions. It attracted bigger audiences.
Lotti van der Gaag Untitled, 1952 drawing 23 x 37 cm Ambassade Hotel Collection, Amsterdam
Although Van der Gaag was thus not permitted to take part in Cobra, traces of her Cobra neighbours can be found in her work. Her drawings and paintings from around that period show particular affinity with Appel. His larger than life animal and human figures seemed to give her new ideas. The watercolour she made in 1953 gives the impression it directly refers to the now world famous Animals by Appel, dated 1951. It is likely that she saw the painting being made.
Lotti van der Gaag Untitled, 1953 aquarelle 33 x 24 cm Ambassade Hotel Collection, Amsterdam
In 1952 and 1953, the French government granted Lotti a scholarship, and in the Netherlands she quickly gained a reputation among museum directors and gallery owners. Willem Sandberg, director of the Stedelijk Museum, dedicated an entire room to her work as part of the exhibition The devil in the arts in 1952. The sculptures were suspended with wires from the ceiling and the room was dimmed: spectacular. While Appel, Constant and Corneille had to swallow a mountain of criticism, the press was full of praise for Lotti. ‘Laughing nightmares’ was how Jos de Gruyter described her work. In 1953, she was given a solo exhibition in gallery Le Canard, in Amsterdam, which was the centre of the Experimentalists and the ‘Fifties generation at the time.
Lotti van der Gaag Untitled, 1967 drawing 35 x 35 cm Ambassade Hotel Collection, Amsterdam
In 1962, Van der Gaag was given a retrospective in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The reviews wrote with great enthusiasm about her work and a lot of attention was paid to her international success. In that same year Van der Gaag moved to the artists’ neighbourhood Montparnasse in Paris.
She received various commissions to make large monumental pieces for public spaces. She went on to receive more commissions and to show work solo and in group exhibitions. She gained recognition from important people in the art world without the Cobra label. That was no mean feat in a world then dominated by men.
Lotti van der Gaag died in Nieuwegein in 1999.
Van der Gaag was one of the first sculptors after the Second World War who succeeded in breaking away from pre-war traditional styles. She often looked to nature for inspiration. This is why the structure of her images seems rough and why the forms they take appear to be so natural. She used rod supports when creating her sculptures. The rods served as internal armatures that could be removed afterwards.
Lotti van der Gaag, Duality, 1953 bronze sculpture 49 x 40 cm Ambassade Hotel Collection, Amsterdam
In the 1950s, they took the form of plant-like imaginary figures. The Ambassade Hotel has several of them in its collection. Take Duality, for instance, from 1953. Two figures joyfully fling their plant-like arms in the air. There are several variations of this sculpture. She may well have been inspired by the new love in her life, Kees van Bohemen, who moved in with her in Paris that year. 1954 marked the birth of Iris van Bohemen. Round about the time her daughter was born, Lotti also began working in a totally abstract way. A very fine example of this type of abstract sculpture (Gatepaan) can be found in the Ambassade Hotel Collection. The animal and human fantasy figures have completely disappeared. Work by Lotti van der Gaag is included in most of the collections of the major museums in the Netherlands..
Esther Schreuder in Cobra on the Canal (Samsara 2013) about the Cobra collection in the Ambassade Hotel in Amsterdam. Digital and print copyrights, for this essay, are paid by the publisher Samsara.
Translation: Vivien Cook
- Wim Beeren, et al., Lotti van der Gaag. Plastic work and paintings, Municipal Museum The Hague 26 February – 11 May1965
- Wim Beeren, et al., Lotti, Beyerd Breda,1987
- Hugo Claus, For Lotti, Amo, 1987
- Dr H.L.C. Jaffé, The image and the word, Meulenhoff, 1964
- Bert Schierbeek, Lotti van der Gaag, Dutch Institute Paris, Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1992
- Laura Soutendijk, Lotti van der Gaag,Waanders, 2003
- Cobra 1948-1951, Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 20 May -17 July 1966
- Cobra, Stedelijk Museum Sint-Niklaas, 21 September – 26 October 1975
- Eye to eye with Hans and Alice de Jong, Arnhem Municipal Museum, 28 June – 6 September 1970
- Esther Schreuder, ‘Africa in the unconscious’, Black is beautiful, From Rubens to Dumas Waanders / De Nieuwe Kerk, 26 July – 26 October 2008 Karel P. Van Stuijvenberg, Cobra is my mirror, Kunsthallen Brandts Klaedefabrik Odense, 1988
Magazines and books
- Cobra 1948 – 1951, Van Gennep, 1980 ‘Cobra’, Museum Journal 7, 1962
- Piet Calis, The electric existence, Meulenhoff, 2001
- Hugo Claus, Meetings with Karel Appel and Corneille, Elsevier Manteau, 1966
- Jan G. Elburg, Not literary gentlemen.
- An historical backdrop to the Fifties’ generation, Meulenhoff, 1987 Cathérine van Houts, Karel Appel: the biography, Contact, 2000
- Jean-Clarence Lambert, Cobra: art in freedom, Mercator fund, 1983
- Jean-Clarence Lambert (ed.) Grand Hôtel des Valises: locataire Dotremont, Galilée, 1981
- Michel Ragon, Karel Appel: paintings1937-1957, Meulenhoff / Landshoff,1988
- Bert Schierbeek, The experimentalists, Art in the Netherlands, 1964
- Erik Slagter (E. Kreytz), Our inheritance,Volume 14, Stichting Ons Erfdeel, Rekkem, 1970-1971
- Dr Willemijn Stokvis, Cobra. The road to spontaneity,V + K Publishing, 2001
- Dr Willemijn Stokvis, The language of Cobra, Van Stuijvenberg museum collection, Cobra Museum of Modern Art / Uniepers, 2004
- The Cobra Collection, Cobra Museum of Modern Art / The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, 2009
- Cobra: a revolt against the establishment (Jan Vrijman),
- Cobra:painting after the war (Het heilig vuur),
- Asger Jorn in memoriam (Ole Roos),
- The reality of Karel Appel (Jan Vrijman),
- I’m alone when in front of my canvas (Jan Vrijman),
- Constant, an artist in our time (Will Simon, Jan Venema),
- Constant ‘05, Avant le départ (Thomas Doebele, Maarten Schmidt),
- Tajiri’s Labyrinth (Walther Grotenhuis, Cinta Forger),
- Theo Wolvecamp in isolation (Koos Baaij),
- Lucebert, time and farewell(Johan van der Keuken),
- In search of Lucebert (Hans Quatfass),
- Corneille,Parisian portrait (Ko Koedijk),
- The universe of the painter Eugène Brands (Tineke de Groot),
- Alechinsky: a year in the life of a painter (Jean-Michel Meurice),
- Interview Lotti van der Gaag with Karel van der Graaf (AVRO TV programme ‘Kunstuur’),
- Carl-Henning Pedersen, Between heaven and earth where the stars live (JJ film).
- Youtube: The history of CoBrA, Ole Roos, 1975, Spectrum film www.
- Netherlands Institute for Art History, The Hague: press documentation
- Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam: press documentation
- Newspaper archives, website National Library of the Netherlands, The Hague,
In 2008 I was guest curator of the exhibition Black is beautiful. Rubens to Dumas. Important advisors: Elizabeth McGrath (Rubens and colleagues, Warburg institute Image of the Black in Western Art collection), Carl Haarnack (slavery in books), Elmer Kolfin (slavery in prints and paintings) and Adi Martis (contemporary art). And Gary Schwartz made his research for The Image of the Black in Western Art available to me.
In 2012 my Anniversary book: 100 years Schiller 1912-2012 was published. Initiative, idea, text and editing (ES). Design and photography Monica Schokkenbroek.
In 2013 my book Cobra aan de gracht / Cobra on the Canal was published by Samsara publications.
In 2014 my essay ‘Painted Blacks and Radical Imagery in the Netherlands (1900-1940)’ was published in The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume V (I). (ed. David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates jr.)
In 2017 I published a book about the black servants at the Court of the Royal Van Oranje family. More than a thousand documents have been found about their lives. (only in Dutch)
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