Paul Gauguin was the best-known member of the late-19th-century Pont-Aven School, centered in the Breton fishing town of the same, but the current exhibition at the Musée de Pont-Aven, “Corneille: Un CoBrA dans le Sillage de Gauguin,” features a 20th-century Dutch artist who didn’t even visit Pont-Aven until almost 50 years after Gauguin died on the island of Tahiti.
The connection between Gauguin, the founder of Synthetism, and the artist known as Corneille (Guillaume Cornelis Beverloo; 1922-2010) becomes clear from the first room of the exhibition, where a late work by Corneille, L’Oiseau des Îles, evokes Gauguin in both color and form, but with Corneille’s distinctive patchwork of tribal motifs and a cheeky, almost cartoon-like yellow cat. Both artists were iconoclasts who sought absolute freedom through bold use of color, and both rejected academism and embraced art inspired by children, tribal cultures and, in Corneille’s case, psychiatric patients.
The two artists were also great travelers, finding in their explorations the longed-for freedom and injections of inspiration that led to major evolutions in their work. Corneille, who visited Pont-Aven a number of times, was 88 when he died a decade ago, leaving behind the imprint of his journeys in Africa, Asia and South America on a lifetime of paintings. He produced his most popular work from the 1970s onward, when he created a “paradise in art,” filling his canvases with women, birds, flowers and lush tropical colors after visits to Brazil and Cuba.
Corneille was also – controversially – one of the first to merchandise his art. The retrospective, expertly curated by Victor Vanoosten, shows that he was also an artist who was constantly pushing the boundaries, an important figure in 20th-century art precisely because he was the bridge between Gauguin and Basquiat (most obvious from an untitled work from 1948, a period when Corneille’s works were scratched and daubed with words around naive forms that seem to spring from the unconscious), and between figuration and abstraction.
First we have the revolutionary Corneille, who came of age in wartime Amsterdam, where he had never even heard of Picasso. His eyes were opened to Miró and Klee in Budapest before he settled in Paris, where he was a founding member of the radical CoBrA group (named for the cities its artists came from: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam). CoBrA only lasted three years (1948-51) but shook up the postwar art establishment with its manifesto and “scandalous” (for the experimental hanging as well as the work) exhibitions and put Corneille and many of his contemporaries on a path he continued to follow.
With the ruins of war-torn Europe still in his mind, Corneille spent much of the 1950s traveling in Africa, where the light-soaked rocks of the Hoggar Mountains in Algeria and the Tuaregs’ geometrical writing influenced his art. Corneille’s Africa-inspired pictures of patchy, organic abstract landscapes of the cities of Timbuktu and Gas use mineral tones, tribal motifs and actual sand.
He later applied the same techniques to New York City, to very different effect. One striking wall is hung with 16 framed sketches of the Big Apple, some of them just scribbles expressing the city’s frenetic pace and architectural grids. Juxtaposed with them is a rare Breton canvas marking his return to the world of color, where you can just make out a palette and a Breton woman’s headdress.
Like Gauguin, Corneille was an artist with flaws – some of his later paintings may lay him open him to charges of objectifying the black female body – but viewed as a whole, his career can be seen to have pushed 20th-century painting forward.
An excellent bilingual book by the curator goes further than the 70 works in the exhibition to give a lavishly illustrated overview of Corneille’s output.
The museum also has a permanent collection on the many artists who chose to live and work in Pont-Aven from 1850 to the early 20th century, attracted by the traditional folk culture, the landscape, the people, and the fact that there were some good inns – particularly Hôtel Julia, which became the original Musée de Pont-Aven.
Ironically, the train station, which originally opened the Breton village up to artists in the 19th century, has now been closed, making it more difficult for art-lovers to visit. Those without their own transport can get a bus or taxi from Rosporden or Quimperlé. Transport info can be found here). The delightful riverside village, where there are plenty of good hotels and restaurants, is worth a weekend stay.