Carl Kjersmeier was a versatile man. Born in 1889 in Vejle, the Danish lawyer was known as an art historian and poet—he who wrote and held lectures about art from Africa and Asia, translated and published Asian and African poems, and not the least, owned a large and internationally recognised collection of African art.
In 1907, Carl Kjersmeier moved to Copenhagen to study law. During his studies, he endeavoured to develop a career as a poet by writing and publishing his own collection of poems. He seemed to be more absorbed by poetry and the translation of French and other European literature than by law. Upon graduating from his law degree, Kjersmeier devoted more and more time to foreign language, popular poetry, and translations. His own poetry receded into the background.
At the end of World War I in 1918, recently married Carl Kjersmeier and his wife Amalie travelled extensively across Europe. Their trips to Paris gave Kjersmeier an impression of the impact 'primitive art' had on art circles at that time. This discovery can also be said to be the catalyst for Kjersmeier's later interest in ethnic art.
Visits to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro were a revelation for Kjersmeier, just as it had been for Picasso when he too visited the ethnographic museum ten years previously. Carl Kjersmeier was so overwhelmed by the many impressions, that he began to collect 'exotic' artefacts, such as Chinese furniture, Japanese rolled pictures, Persian miniatures, Indian Buddhas, and figures and masks from Oceania and Africa.
The purchases never seemed to stop, and during the 1920s he had acquired a considerable art collection—however African art was always the centrepiece.
But Kjersmeier did not limit himself to only having masks and figures displayed in his Copenhagen apartment–he also wanted to inform himself about the peoples that had created so many exciting objects, about their work processes, and especially about the background to and the knowledge about the types of ceremonies and rituals in which they had been used. Those were questions he could not find answers to in Europe–this led him to go on an expedition with his wife in 1931-32 to Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, in what was then known as French West Africa, to find the answers.
With Bamako as a starting point, they travelled over 6,000 km by car along almost impassable roads, across fragile bridges, through streams, and were ferried precariously across rivers. They visited the headman in Irili—Emperor Ralebeya of Yatenga, the religious leader of the Mossi ethnic group—who received them in audience. They visited the Baga, about whom Kjersmeier, in his 1932 book ‘Paa Fetischjagt I Afrika’, writes:
The figurines and masks of the Bagas are among the rarest African Negro sculptures. In particular they have become renowned for their up to three metres tall dance masks, “Nimba“, a mixture of bird and man. There are reputedly only three of these in Europe. One belongs to the Trocadéro Museum in Paris; one belongs to de Salles, the museum conservator at the Louvres; the third to the painter Picasso. We had hoped to be able to carry home a Nimba. We were in fact near the coast and would be able to have it transported home to Europe, despite its size and weight.
Amalie and Carl Kjersmeier brought home about 300 objects from the following ethnic groups, all of which they collected during their expedition: Bambara, Bobo-Gbe, Habbe, Mossi, Bobo Fing, Tourka, Senufo, Semou, Samo, Malinke, Soussou and Baga.
Much to his disappointment, Kjersmeier did not succeed in finding a Nimba mask but he did however succeed in bringing home an extremely beautifully decorated Baga Banda mask.
During the following years, Kjersmeier went on many journeys to European museums, to collectors’ homes, and to art galleries where he studied, exchanged objects, traded, and became well known internationally. Specialists, collectors, international art dealers, anthropologists, art historians, authors, and artists came to Copenhagen from far and near to study his collection and speak with Kjersmeier himself. He had become known as quite an authority on African art. In 1953 Tristan Tzara, the Rumanian-French collector and poet, founder of Dadaism and one of the main characters of Surrealism, wrote in the Kjersmeier visitors’ book:
For Mr. Kjersmeier, in whom taste and knowledge are combined in an insight into Negro art whose advancement he has worked for; in remembrance of that heroic age when only few people perceived the greatness of this art; with my most cordial compliments and my admiration.
Among the many visitors were Pierre Vérite, the collector; Leon Underwood, the sculptor; Man Ray and Eliot Elisofon, the photographers; Douglas Fraser, the author; KC Murray, the anthropologist; Marie-Louise Bastin and Frans Olbrechts, the ethnographers; and even noted hunter Gregers count Ahlefeldt-Laurvig-Bille.
Carl Kjersmeier was also a pioneer in the study of African art, and ‘Centres de Style de la Sculpture Nègre Africaine’, which he published in four volumes from 1935-38, is still one of the main literary works about African art.
This pioneering work, which is richly illustrated especially with objects from his own collection, as well as his numerous articles in magazines of the time, caused Kjersmeier to become known internationally among people with an interest in African art. The message here is clear:
In the same way as the beautiful works from the great cultures of the past, the Negro sculpture speaks urgently to whoever endeavours to understand–it tells us truths which have been forgotten in the art of our own race, but which nonetheless are valid.
Kjersmeier acquired most of his collection, consisting of 445 masks, figures and artefacts, 800 Ashanti counterweights and 150 Kuba textiles, on journeys to Belgium, England, France, Portugal, Sweden, and Germany. Less than 100 objects were acquired in Denmark, among others, from people who had worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kjersmeier himself, while in Africa, collected 74 artworks.
The collection, which was created in the years between World War II and I, should not be considered a typical extract of African art, but as an exclusive selection of the art which was of great interest to the European collectors of the twenties and thirties, and which to a high degree, was an inspiration to the European artists of that era.
Amalie and Carl Kjersmeier, who remained childless, wished that the great collection after their deaths should be preserved intact and be on public display. They willed the collection as a gift to the Danish National Museum, with the prerequisite that the museum would fulfil their condition of forever preserving and exhibiting the collection as a whole under the label ‘The Carl and Amalie Kjersmeier Collection’.
That the museum quite exceptionally accepted such conditions was not only due to the fine qualities of the collection but probably also to that the then manager of the ethnographical collections of the museum was a close friend of the Kjersmeiers and had experienced Kjersmeier’s dedication and the development of the collection at close quarters.
After the transfer, the Kjersmeier collection remains at the museum as a monument to a pioneer and his passion for African art. At the same time the Ethnography department, African section of the Danish National Museum was introduced to the world as an international centre for the studies of African art.
The Kjersmeier’s lived in a symbiotic relationship with their African art. To the right of the front door to their home in Svendsgade 1, there was an evacuation list with information to the salvage men about what should be rescued first in case of a fire.
Amalie and Carl Kjersmeier’s names were not on that list.
ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA contributor, Leif Birger Holmstedt is a designer, collector, and author of books including 'African Masks' Borgen 2003 and 'Magic Masks and Figures from Greenland' Borgen 2008. Leif Birger Holmstedt has also authored a number of ethnographic articles.