‘I change and thus truth changes’

Hugo Claus Figure with rose, n.d. gouache 33 x 24 cm Ambassade Hotel Collection, Amsterdam
Hugo Claus
Figure with rose, n.d.
33 x 24 cm
Ambassade Hotel Collection,

Hugo Claus

Bruges 1929 – 2008 Antwerp

Poet – novelist – playwright – film director – painter

‘I change and thus truth changes.’ (Claus)

Cees Nooteboom said, ‘Hugo Claus belongs to Cobra, is family of Cobra, but is a solitary man as well. If Cobra and Claus cross each other’s path – then something special always happens − but Claus keeps his distance, like he always does. That’s why he’s probably also the first who can revisit Cobra as if the entire movement had become a country lying somewhere in time and where people can go to see how much it has changed. Except, of course, it hasn’t changed. Only looking at it has changed, because the individual has changed. A visit by Claus to Cobra is an account of his change.’

De blijde onvoorziene Week

Claus: ‘I choose, that timeless human themes and ditto words are dealt a blow.’

Constant ‘Yes, Hugo Claus was taken on board by Cobra.’

Simon Vinkenoog: ‘I thought the world of him, Hugo Claus, when I met him late in 1949. … If Hans Andreus was the bohemian, Hugo was the dandy. Sophisticated, the first impression, self-assured; not narcissistic and egocentric; more like, possessed of a savoir faire that was capable of expression under all circumstances

 Life history

Hugo Maurice Julien Claus was born in Sint-Jans hospital in Bruges on 5 April 1929. Claus: ‘Where the most beautiful Memlincs [Memling, author’s note] in the world are hanging.’ He was the first child of printer Jozef Claus and Germaine Vanderlinden. He ended up with four brothers.

It is not clear exactly what kind of childhood he had, because he mythologised it. Every time a new child was about to be born, he was allegedly temporarily removed from home, and therefore was largely brought up by nuns until the age of eleven. In 1941 he went to secondary school in Kortrijk.

He reputedly went to twelve schools in all, including Theatre School and the Academy for the Fine Arts. It goes without saying it was not a happy time. But Claus saw the advantage, ‘an unhappy childhood is always a gift from the gods for a writer.’ The Claus family collaborated with the German occupying forces during the Second World War. It is possible that Claus referred to this period in his collection of poems entitled Paal en Perk (written in 1951, published in 1955), which he made in cooperation with Corneille.

After the war, his father’s printing business was plundered by members of the resistance. Claus left his parents’ home in 1946, at the age of seventeen, and lived in abject poverty on a farm for two years.

Hugo Claus started drawing and writing from an early age on. It was prompted by his encounter with the artist Roger Raveel in 1944, and his first drawings were published in 1946 by a printing business owned by his father. His life and his development accelerated exponentially in 1950 or thereabouts, when he came into contact with Cobra artists in Brussels as well as Paris through Christian Dotremont.

Claus said the following about his encounters with Dotremont, ‘I saw Dotremont quite often. I was very impressed by his genius for words, as well as his unabashed begging for art (“because without your work my collection is totally incomplete, my dear friend”) and his charming tyranny. The genius for words was rather tiring, wordplay into the middle of the night, a Brussels habit. The artworks he received were sold the same week for a mere trifle.’

In Brussels, Claus showed work together with Cobra artists in the exhibition Apport 49 in gallery Apollo in February and, once again in Apollo, in April, to mark the launch of Cobra Magazine 6, to which he had contributed, in both word and image. In the same year, in June, his book Zonder vorm van proces (Without trial) was published. It was a ‘pantomime poem for one voice, piano, flute, guitar and drums, with ‘the noise of five voices.’ Pierre Alechinsky designed the cover and made two lithographs. Cobra took care of distribution.

The somewhat surrealistic text ‘Dialoog over een jonggestorven kunstenaar’ (Dialogue about an artist who died young) was published in Cobra Magazine 7. Claus said, ‘I can’t remember being inspired by an artist who died young, dead or alive.’

Claus’ Dutch girlfriend, Elly Overzier, left in 1950 to go to Paris to pursue her career as a model and an actrice. Claus followed her; he was 21 at the time. In Paris, his contact with both Karel Appel and Corneille became very intense. He frequently visited the artists in Rue Santeuil.

Claus 2

He forged an enduring friendship with Corneille in particular, which was to last all their lives. It was during that time they jointly painted Wellustige figuren (Voluptuous figures, 1951). Corneille gave this painting to the collector Van Stuijvenberg later on. Hugo Claus published the following books in the selfsame year: Over het werk van Corneille, gevolgd door een gedicht (About Corneille’s work, followed by a poem) and Het Wandelend Vuur (The wandering fire), with drawings by Corneille and published by Éditions Cobra, 1950-51. They also jointly made April in Paris in 1951. Only one edition appeared, because the money had run out.

A collaboration between Claus and Appel resulted in De Blijde en Onvoorziene Week (The happy and accidental week) in 1950. The handwritten ‘verses’ describing a week in his life were by Claus and the drawings were by Appel. They personally copied and coloured in the booklet. 200 copies were made. After making an appeal, it turned out there were only three subscribers.

de blije onverziene week 2

Claus’ work was exhibited in Paris in 1951 at the Cobra exhibition in Librairie 73 curated by Michel Ragon. In the hope of making money, his girlfriend and wife-to-be Elly (who had changed her surname to Norden) placed her signature on his paintings. She sold them to the people she knew in the film business and also in cafés. After first living in Rome, Claus returned to Belgium in the mid 1950s, where he lived in Ghent as well as in the Ardennes. He married Elly and their only son Thomas was born a few years later.

In the 1970s, Claus stayed in Amsterdam for quite a long time. In those days he had relationships with Dutch actrices Kitty Courbois and Sylvia Kristel. He and Kristel and had a son, Arthur. Claus continued to visit Amsterdam for the rest of his life, where he then stayed in the Ambassade Hotel. Claus died in 2008, after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He did not wait around for his health to decline.


The most striking thing about Hugo Claus was his tremendous versatility. He and Lucebert are regarded as the most important experimental poets of the ‘Fifties generation. As a novelist, he left a large oeuvre; he wrote many theatre plays and film scenarios and he was a visual artist. The various art forms were interwoven in his case. In this respect, he was the very epitomy of a Cobra man.

Unlike Lucebert, he found it relaxing to work visually, it didn’t feel like work. He did say that he painted and drew every day. Whether he really did is unclear; he told a lot of lies in interviews. Claus: ‘I love telling lies. I lie practically all the time. It keeps me alive.’ The actor Josse de Pauw explained it as follows: ‘Because he was a player and because interviews are a lot less boring if you make things up. He never hid the fact.’ Claus took part in exhibitions with his visual work throughout his entire life. He was also given many one-man shows.

The Ambassade Hotel has two undated ‘paintings’ by Hugo Claus. Claus rarely dated his work. They seem to directly refer to his Cobra period. Cobra revisited, as other Cobra artists did later on. Both pieces seem to have been created through experimentation with the material. Claus started somewhere with a splotch and an angry creature appeared. A little monster.

Perhaps it is himself?

Hugo Claus

Untitled, n.d.
33 x 24 cm
Ambassade Hotel
Collection, Amsterdam

Esther Schreuder in Cobra on the Canal (2013)

Text from the book : Cobra on the canal (2013) about the Cobra collection in the Ambassade Hotel in Amsterdam.  copyrights are paid by the publisher Samsara.

Translation: Vivien Cook

About me

In 2008 I was guest curator of the exhibition Black is beautiful. Rubens to Dumas. Important advisors: Elizabeth McGrath (Rubens and colleagues, Warburg institute Image of the Black in Western Art collection), Carl Haarnack (slavery in books), Elmer Kolfin (slavery in prints and paintings) en Adi Martis (contemporary art). Gary Schwartz made his research for The Image of the Black in Western Art available to me.

Black beautiful Rubens to Dumas cover
Black beautiful Rubens to Dumas cover

In 2013 my book Cobra aan de grachtCobra on the Canal, ( CoBrA artists in a private collection) was published by Samsara publications.

Cover Cobra on the canal

In 2014 my essay ‘Painted Blacks and Radical Imagery in the Netherlands (1900-1940)’ was published in The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume V (I). (ed. David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates jr.)

In 2017 I published a book about the black servants at the Court of the Royal Van Oranje family. More than a thousand documents have been found about their lives. (only in Dutch)

Cupido en Sideron Cover 30-8-2017

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