The artist Guillaume Cornelis van Beverloo (3 July 1922 – 5 September 2010), better known under his pseudonym Corneille, was born in 1922 in Liège, Belgium to Dutch parents. He was raised and went to school in Holland after his parents returned to Amsterdam in 1929.
After spending three years at the Academy of Art in Amsterdam, Corneille left his studies because he found the academy too formal. He instead considered himself a self-taught artist. Corneille had his debut in 1946 at an exhibition in Groningen and in 1948, he had an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum together with the art group Reflex.
During a visit in 1994, Corneille told me about the financial difficulties that young artists in Holland faced when the authorities struggled to rebuild the country following the considerable destruction of property and materials after the war. At a point, he had to share a studio with his friend Karel Appel. To avoid mutual interruptions, they divided their room with a large carpet that was suspended from the ceiling. Corneille was, however, often interrupted by sounds from the other side of the carpet from Karel’s ‘customers’, whose art apparently was much more in demand then.
Since he did not succeed in selling his paintings in Holland, Corneille left the country in 1948 to settle in Paris. He found shelter in the Danish house of artists—’La Maison des Artistes Danois’—in Suresnes as well as new artistic friends such as Asger Jorn, Carl-Henning Pedersen and Robert Jacobsen.
While in Paris, Corneille co-founded the CoBrA-movement, which was a European avant-garde movement active from 1949-1951. The name of the movement was created by the Belgian Christian Dotremont and consisted of the initial letters of the original cities of the members: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam—CoBrA.
The movement was founded on 08 November 1948 in the café of the Hotel Notre-Dame at the corner of Quai Saint Michel and rue Saint Jacques at which the artists Christian Dotremont, Joseph Noiret, Asger Jorn, Karel Appel, Constant and Corneille signed a brief declaration penned by the poet Christian Dotremont. The declaration dissociated itself from a manifesto that had been signed the previous year by French and Belgian revolutionary surrealists. Initially, the CoBrA-movement included artists from the Danish group Høst, the Dutch group Reflex, and the Belgian group Surréaliste-Révolutionnaire. The movement later spread to other countries.
The artistic expression of the CoBrA-movement was based on freedom, imagination and the spontaneous world of images of a child in which emotions and imagination were given a free reign. It was inspired by Nordic folk art and African masks. The movement had a vision of creating art that spoke to all types of people—it should engender artistic and creative forces in society.
During his first five years in Paris, Corneille’s financial situation was not much better than when he left Amsterdam. He was yet to find success with his art and therefore, to make ends meet, he sometimes had to work early mornings at Les Halles.
In 1954, at the XXVII Biennale in Venice, Corneille had his highly anticipated international artistic breakthrough, subsequently followed by him receiving the Solomon Guggenheim Award in 1956. With international recognition, interest in his art grew. He was invited to exhibit at important art museums and galleries all over the world.
Corneille was quite the cosmopolitan—he travelled a lot. In 1956-57 he visited a large number of countries in South America. A journey to Mexico impressed him so much that he bought a piece of land on which he planned to build a house. He also made several visits to Asian countries including China, Indonesia and Japan. He went to the African continent many times—the first time was a journey to Algiers in 1948 and the last was an extended stay in Mali and the Ivory Coast in 1992.
In the early 1960s, the motifs in Corneille’s art changed from the abstractly expressionistic CoBrA-imagery to a colourful poetic figurative and imaginative world—an exotic paradise peopled by a mixture of sensuous female figures, birds, cats, flowers and palm trees, imagery that was clearly inspired by the countries he had visited.
Immediately after the end of World War II, Corneille’s great interest in African art was nourished again, especially through visits to art dealers in Amsterdam; Aalderink, Lemaire, and the widow Elisabeth, of the well-known Carel van Lier (Carel van Lier died in 1945 in the concentration camp Mühlenberg). So far, he had extended his knowledge of ethnographic art through books and magazines such as Kulturgeschichte Afrikas by Frobenius (Phaidon Vorlag 1933) and the art magazines Wendingen and Der Querschnitt. Now, however, he was in direct contact with the original objects among which Corneille was especially fascinated by African masks and figures.
Due to the financial situation of the young artist, buying African artworks was not possible. Neither did he have any luck with bartering his own art. Later, Corneille would explain that in 1948 at the van Lier art dealership, there was no interest in exchanging African art for his paintings: “The art dealer would probably think that in the future, the ethnographic objects would bring a greater profit than my art!”
During a visit to the Belgian professor of Congolese languages, Gaston Burssens, Corneille witnessed a large private collection of African art for the first time. Among others, the professor had a glass cabinet filled with masks and figures from Africa. Seeing this abundant collection, Corneille suggested bartering a few of the figures for some of his sketches, but the professor was not interested in this offer, so yet again an exchange was impossible for Corneille. He would still have to satisfy himself with his “ethnographic Bible”, Kulturgeschichte Afrikas by Frobenius.
After participating in the XXVII Biennale in Venice and the reception of the Solomon Guggenheim Award, he was now invited by museums and galleries globally to participate in the international world of exhibitions. This great interest in Corneille’s art led to an improvement of his finances which ultimately granted him the funds to buy African art without considering the impact on his everyday life.
Corneille’s collection had some objects of lower quality, but he knew what was good and what was not—good quality and price went together.
The good and the expensive came from galleries and lived in his private home. The not-so-good were bought at markets and stood in his studio as inspiration for his work.
Having a great passion for African art, Corneille gradually acquired a very impressive collection of high quality. Most of the collection was bought in Paris and Amsterdam, yet he also acquired some very fine objects from galleries in Brussels and Rome as well as in New York—buying them directly or by bartering them for his art, the latter of course, now quite interesting to art dealers.
In 1992 the collection consisted of between 600-700 African objects that had been placed in his two studios and residences. The precise number is not known since he had sold a large number of Yoruba masks and ere ibeji figures in 1989—to his discerning eye and great experience, they did not meet the qualities desired.
About the accumulation of all the African art in his studios, he has said, “I have no favourites and I do not only care about one particular mask or figure but all of them. Even if many are boxed or put away and not immediately visible, I still feel their presence. I do not want the objects to own me, but since they are a reservoir that I repeatedly can draw upon for my art, it is necessary that they are near me.”
Among the masks that he had put away, there was an Ibibio-mask from Nigeria. To quote Corneille: “You cannot live with a mask like that—even if I find it fascinating and interesting, I do not want it in my studio. It belongs to the other side of life, and there is no room for demons.”
He said the following about his bird figures: “Birds are my favourite. I have been told that my Baga birds are an artificial design and they are used for decoys—that bothers me. I would have been fascinated if I had been told that somebody had invented the design, the concept of a bird. That would have been more pleasant because you do not always need to know for what purpose an object has been created!”
During a burglary in one of Corneille’s studios, not only paintings but also a number of valuable African objects disappeared. It was not only a financial loss, there was also a great emotional loss because the stolen objects interfered with the balance of the room. It had to be re-established, so that the studio could once again become a harmonious place for Corneille to work.
Therefore, he quickly bought some new objects, so the available space was filled again. However, some of the new objects had to leave quite soon again—their qualities could not live up to the other objects in the studio; they did not have the “magic“.
The largest part of Corneille’s African art collection came from Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo while the other objects of the collection predominantly came from West African countries such as Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast and Ghana as well as Cameroon and Angola.
Divided by ethnic groups, Nigeria was represented by masks from Yoruba, Ogoni, Igbo, Boki, Widekum, Anang-Ibibio, Ejagham (Ekoi) and Cross River Igbo. The Democratic Republic of the Congo was represented by masks and figures from the Kusu, Lele, Ngbaka, Hemba, Songye and the Tshokwe-Lulua.
Corneille’s studio was in rue Vieille-du-Temple and his private residence was in rue Malher, not far from the Pompidou-Centre and the Picasso Museum near Les Halles in Le Marais—the oldest quarter of Paris where the most dramatic events of the city have taken place.
It was like entering a completely different world when you went to visit Corneille in both his studio and his private residence. The studio was full of exciting African artworks, surrounded by a large collection of ethnographic books and not the least, Corneille’s own colourful art. In his private residence, it was like waking up in an Arabian tale. His Russian-born wife, the painter Natacha Pavels, had a large influence—there were Russian icons, samovars, Asian furniture, figures and carpets, paintings made by Natacha herself and photos of her as a beautiful model.
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.