Photos: © Aernout Overbeeke

Texts: © Pim Milo

Portraits of Cobra artists

On 8 November 1948, in the Parisian café Notre Dame, Asger Jorn, Joseph Noiret, Christian Dotremont, Constant, Corneille and Karel Appel signed the manifesto “La cause était entendue”. The Cobra movement was born.

Dotremont, Mogens Balle, Henry Heerup, Jorn, Lucebert, Jan Nieuwenhuys, Anton Rooskens, Theo Wolvecamp, Jean Michel Atlan and Jacques Doucet did not live to experience the opening of the Cobra Museum on 8 November 1995 in Amstelveen (the Netherlands). But for all the others - founders and former members of the movement - the few days of opening festivities were a warm reunion from which only Appel was missing.

Photographer Aernout Overbeeke had set up a temporary studio in the museum depot and the director of the museum ushered in those Cobra painters present. There, they stood suddenly face to face with Overbeeke: a distinguished-looking man, dressed in corduroy trousers and Harris Tweed rather than torn jeans and a tee-shirt; brogues instead of trainers; and with a strikingly loud voice with a posh accent. That is one aspect of sitting for your portrait: the man behind the camera.

One of the principal impossibilities - and therefor a major challenge - of photography is to record someone’s character in a fraction of a second. For the painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) - which fetched 2.17 million euros at a Christie’s auction in New York in May 2008 - Sue Tilley posed for Lucian Freud two or three days a week for nine whole months. Every Saturday and Sunday and any other day she did not have to work. Tilley arrived at the studio at seven in the morning, as Freud wanted to catch the early morning light. After having breakfast together, they worked on until lunchtime, after which they continued through the afternoon. Day after day, layer after layer a painter brushed time onto the canvas, slowly encapsulating the onward-ticking clock. Photography captures an moment in time; painting congeals time.

Against a white backdrop, Overbeeke had constructed a kind of tent where the Cobra artists would take their place one after another. A rather stuffy, black tent to ensure that one side of the head would remain dark. The camera was placed three meters away. That is unusually far for portrait photography. The distance makes a world of difference. Photographer and model are not in one another’s territory. There is hardly any contact. The person sitting for his portrait can stretch his legs without knocking over a tripod and without fear of the photographer tripping over them. At the same time, he is left to his own devices, which leads to contemplation. Painters do not like to pose; they prefer to withdraw from the view of the world by hiding behind their medium. The painter in self-imposed isolation behind his easel; the photographer behind his camera. So there they sat, ill at ease in Amstelveen, in a small black tent, alone with themselves and Overbeeke’s inquisitive eye. A slightly ironic, haughty eye, but that of someone who can observe very, very precisely.

Overbeeke wanted to get the hands in the frame. Along with the eyes, they constitute the artist’s most important tool, and they became the leitmotif running through the series of portraits. That was it: hardly any direction was given; they just took it as it came. The artist sat three metres from the photographer, coming to terms with the situation, trying to conquer his mistrust and perhaps, too, wrestling with the discomfort of the moment and perhaps also the aversion to having his portrait taken or being the centre of attention, and the photographer just let it happen.

That “laissez faire, laissez passer” is what makes these portraits so special and made the sittings in the Cobra Museum such an exciting photo session. The whole thing never took more than ten minutes. Click. Wind. Click. Wind. Click. Just the amount of time needed to recharge the flashes.

When the pictures were ready, each subject was given two prints with the request to adapt them by adding something from his own hand.

That must have been a remarkable process, adding something to your own portrait. You make yourself, as artist, complete, as it were, uniting yourself with your work, with your style of working. That demands a mature attitude in respect of who you are and what you have done with your life. Something like that requires both distance from and empathy with yourself. Cobra artist Constant had the most difficulty with the task. It took him three years to complete his photograph.

The result is a unique series of portraits. A first, in fact. Portrait photography and painting: a snapshot in time and congealed time in one.