CORNEILLE at the Stedelijk Museum, Schiedam

It could be said that for a country of its size, the Netherlands has a disproportionate number of important and influential artists, from Rembrandt and Breugel through to Van Gogh and Mondrian. Perhaps lesser known are the artists associated with the short lived, though significant, Cobra group of which Corneille was a founder member along with Constant, Christian Dotremont, Ernest Mancoba, Joseph Noiret and the better known Karel Appel and Asger Jorn.

Corneille was born Guillaume Cornelis van Beverloo in 1922 in Belgium to Dutch parents. The family returned to the Netherlands when he was twelve and he later attended the Academy of Art in Amsterdam.

With strong links to, though not always agreements with, Surrealism, Cobra was launched in 1948 at the Café Notre-Dame in Paris, following the signing of the manifesto La cause était entendue which had been drawn up by Dotremont. The group’s name was an acronym created by Dotremont using the first letters of the artists’ home cities COpenhagen, BRussels and Amsterdam.

The group believed in the simplicity and unfettered art of children and also of primitive tribal art. Corneille was fascinated by West African ethnic art and after moving to Paris in 1951 he amassed a huge collection of masks, sculptures and other artefacts rivalled only by, or even surpassing that of André Breton.

Corneille’s collections was broken up and sold after his death in 2010 but the curators of this exhibition have managed to bring together a number of fascinating pieces from other sources to accompany the paintings.

I must confess to not being a great fan of Cobra but this exhibition was, for me, a bit of an eye opener. It caused me to look a little deeper into a movement which I had tended to ignore. There is a vast amount of documentation and ephemera relating to Cobra in general and Corneille in particular, which is not only good to look at – some beautiful posters and other graphics – but informative as well. There are lots of photos, books and other bits and pieces which shed light on the always fascinating ideas and beliefs of a group of earnest young artists who believed they could change the world.

After the group disbanded after only three short years Corneille continued to work in much the same vein but his later work became much bolder, more figurative with bright reds and yellows as opposed to the dull greyish tones of his early work.

His influences are very apparent throughout – Miró, Picasso and Klee among others. In fact there is a very nice Miró included in the exhibition along with some prints and documentation. But Corneille’s strongest influence, and in fact his inspiration, was African tribal art, namely from Nigeria, to which he was and always had been, a frequent visitor.

As I said, the paintings are not really my cup of tea although the works on paper, both drawings and prints, were more to my liking. Working on paper is much more relaxed and immediate, with lower expectations, and because of its directness allows an artist, any artist, to reveal his true self – an opinion that is endorsed at the Rubens exhibition down the road in Rotterdam.   Michael Hasted   December 2018

The exhibition continues until 3rd February.

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