Rarely has a collection been kept so secret. ‘I do not readily show my objects and I never lend them. I do not even simply give out photographs. I give my ideas.’ (Alexis Bonew, notes, December 1997). Composed in an epic manner, this collection of art from the Congo reveals the work of a humanist spirit, a lover of ancient civilisations, ancient languages, Classical and African culture; a man whose appreciation for beauty consisted as much of philosophy and science as of feeling.
Alexis Bonew was thirteen when he discovered collecting, sensitised by the intellectual atmosphere of his family’s circle, at the core of which was the Musée du Cinquantenaire and the impressive figures Jacque Lefrancq, Henri Lavachery, Emmanuel Mounier, and the painter Adrien. From childhood he developed a consuming passion for ancient Egypt.
Walking through the labyrinth of deserted galleries at the Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in Brussels to the hieroglyphics study room he encountered the Flamigny nkonde, collected by Edmond Dartevelle. It was a staggering apparition for the teenage Alexis, who ‘swore to one day own one.’ The books he devoured and his classes strengthened his Egyptian reverie. Of the Musée Balachoff, imagined by the young Alexis, there remains an illustrated notebook which, under the heading ‘Visitor’s Guide’, lists and describes the collection of a universal museum. Alexis was already drawing connections between natural history, Egypt, and Africa.
The interior museum of his childhood took shape whilst Alexis wove the fabric of his elective affinities. He exulted in the company of the antique dealers of the Sablon, who he visited with his father, Lodja (Vladimir) Bonew, who had emigrated from Russia in the 1920s. A student of philosophy and literature in the ancient history department at the Free University of Brussels, Alexis escaped from its amphitheatres as often as he could to take part in the adventures of his father, a talented lighting specialist who was solicited by the circle of Sablon dealers, as well as by institutions and collectors.
Over time, Alexis shaped his gaze and sharpened his taste for the sensuality of materials. He forged the requirements of his collection. It was Africa - and specifically the art of the Congo - which was to become the heart of his passion for objects. In his view ‘the primitive object is the the absolute epitome of material in a form.’
His collection was formed between the late 1960s and 1980, in parallel with the collection which, as advisor, he built for Count Jean-Jacques de Launoit. Through Alexis the de Launoit collection became one of the most remarkable collections of the time. At one stage it included a caryatid stool by the Buli Master, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Chokwe masterpiece from the René Rasmussen collection, the famous Hawaiian god image from the George Ortiz Collection, the Fang head and Luluwa figure from the Helena Rubinstein collection, and a remarkable group of ivories from the Congo.
At the same time as he was creating this stunning collection, Alexis worked patiently on a highly personal ensemble, where the acquisition of each object took the character of an epic story.
In those years the Sablon district was Alexis Bonew’s ‘theatre’. Amongst his circle were the likes of Willy Mestach, with whom he shared memorable hunts for objects; the gallery owner Luisa Muller-Vanisterbeek, who reserved for him the astonishing kifwebe mask and the spectacular and surreal Lega foot collected by Prigogine, with which Anne Bonew today questions contemporary visitors; and Annie and Jean-Pierre Jernander, Jeanne Walschot, and the American collector Clark Stillman.
Some ten years of a Homeric hunt culminated in the acquisition of the Kongo figure from the collection of the Antwerp taxidermist Jos Walscharts. This iconic nail fetish was revealed to the public during the revolutionary exhibition Kongo-Kunst, organised by Frans Olbrechts in Antwerp in 1937-1938. The exhibition included two other key pieces from Alexis’ collection: the Songye figure, still adorned with all its attributes of power, which had been collected by Lieutenant Willy-Eugène Claes before 1918 (part of a group of objects which Alexis carefully divided with Jean-Jacques de Launoit); and the surreal Luluwa cannabis mortar, formerly in the collection of Henri Lavachery. An engraving of this mortar by Jan Van Noten was published in Plastiek van Kongo. Its image had always haunted Alexis, until he discovered the mortar in 1971 in Walscharts’ den.
Following her return to Brussels in 1960 Tom Hombert’s collection of Lega objects excited the interest of several collectors and dealers. In the 1920s, the territorial administrator Raymond Hombert and Tom, his wife, formed a remarkable collection of Lega objects, including the muminia black mask, an unpublished masterpiece of Lega art. Having fallen in love with this ‘black jewel’, and attracted by the personality of Tom, in 1970 Alexis arranged a retrospective exhibition of her work as a painter and sculptor. A few weeks before the opening, Tom ceded the mask to Alexis. He always believed it to be the pinnacle of his collection.
As well as these remarkable works Alexis added to his collection pieces which captured his curiosity, such as the archaic Mangbetu ivory pounders, acquired from Walscharts, whose shapes suggested the outlines of Doric columns; and the Kuba ‘lyre-box’, collected by Governor Wenner, a unicum which shows Alexis’ great sensitivity for both the material and the musical.
Alexis Bonew lived in the secret of his collection. After appearing in the Sablon, adorned with the black mask he had just acquired, he was then the only person to gaze upon it for more than forty years. His dealings with the outside world were conducted through the intermediary of his wife, Nicole. It was under the term ‘unknown dealer’ that he appeared in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s record of the provenance for the caryatid stool by the Buli Master, which Alexis had acquired from Han Coray for Jean-Jacques de Launoit.
He wrote on the most varied subjects, from physics to structuralism to Etruria, and he published many articles, including a remarkable essay, ‘Patinas’ (Connaissances des Arts Benelux supplement, March 1974), in which ancient thought and classical art are considered alongside African art. In the catalogue preface and opening speech for the exhibition Duality of the Mask, which he organised in 1972 in Gembloux, Alexis talked of the mask as the ‘locus of human thought [...]. A replication of the face, capable of changing, it is a substitute which permits metamorphosis. It becomes that which makes one laugh, and the others’.
In his Elective Affinities (1809), Goethe writes that ‘the arts are the surest way to escape the world; they are also the surest way to be part of it.’ The art of the Congo made Alexis part of the world. Today we can appreciate these historic objects, these unpublished masterpieces, which were the subjects of his elective affinities.
See also: Boire la beauté du monde - La vie aventureuse et secrète d’Alexis Bonew collectionneur masqué, by François de Coninck and Nicole Bonew, published in October 2014 by éditions Anima Ludens.
1. From 1929 Jacques Lefrancq was assistant curator at the Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire and founder, with Emmanuel Mounier, of the journal Esprit; in 1930 Henri Lavachery arranged the exhibition Art Nègre at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. He was named chief curator of the Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in 1942.
2. The collection of Jean-Jacques de Launoit was largely sold at auction in London by Sotheby’s in 1979 and 1981.
3. Such as the artists and artisans Stefan Bohnenberger, Michel Boulanger, Charley Case, Damien De Lepeleire, Dany Delepière, Khalil El Ghrib, Anne-Catherine Kenis, Jeanine Lambin, Georges Meurant, Patrick Mudekereza, Benjamin Richard-Foy, Audrey Theunis, and Seymour Templar. See www.twistedfoot.wordpress.com