Karel Appel (1921-2006) was co-founder and one of the main figures of the post-war CoBrA movement. His work is seen as representative of the ideals of this group of painters, who expressed in their work their opposition to traditional painting with its rules and taboos. They were inspired by the art of natural peoples and the naivety of children's drawings and made frequent use of human and animal motifs. It was revolutionary for the time that Appel allowed himself to be influenced by the way in which people with intellectual disabilities draw and paint. In his CoBrA time, Appel painted mythical creatures and fantasy creatures in bright colours, simple shapes and firm lines. After 1951 his style of painting became increasingly intense, until line and color surface merged into one turbulent, expressive mass of paint.
Appel is considered a prominent representative of abstract expressionism from the second half of the twentieth century. Although his work approaches abstraction, there are always recognizable figures to be discovered, whether these are people, animals or suns. Appel's way of working consisted of looking long and building tension. The moment the paint tubes opened, all the pent-up energy exploded. Appel experimented throughout his life, always pushing the boundaries and continuing to innovate into old age. In addition to paintings, he made gouaches, lithographs, sculptures and, in the 1960s, he also made large, multicolored reliefs and figures in wood and polyester. He was also a poet. It is also typical of Appel that he collaborated early on with artists from other disciplines, such as poets, musicians and choreographers.
Appel, born in Amsterdam in 1921, wanted to become a painter from an early age, but was put to work in his father's barbershop. At the age of fourteen he receives a painting box from his uncle. Together they go into nature to create landscapes in the style of Monet. When he does register at the Rijksacademie in 1942, he is evicted from the house. During his time at the academy, Corneille and Constant developed an intense friendship that would last for many years. In July 1948, the trio founded the Experimental Group in Holland, together with Anton Rooskens, Theo Wolvecamp, Jan Nieuwenhuijs and Eugène Brands, which at the end of that year would become the CoBrA movement (1948-1951). Writers, poets and visual artists unite in this group to work together from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam.
Appel's and CoBrA's work encounters great resistance from the Dutch public: Appel is verbally abused in the street and his work is considered an insult to Dutch citizens. It gives rise to comments like 'I can do that too'. In the years after the Second World War, there was little appreciation in the Netherlands for an artist who made things that everyone's son could also make if you put some tubes of paint and a brush in their hand. Yet, to their great surprise, CoBrA was given an exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1949. The exhibition, however, caused a scandal and CoBrA's work was splattered in the newspapers with words such as 'contempt for the art of the ages' and 'bumblers, slanderers'. While CoBrA's naive work was poorly received in Amsterdam, people elsewhere in Europe thought differently. In Denmark Appel received a very friendly welcome and later in that year the exhibition was repeated in Paris and received a very positive evaluation. In 1950 Appel decides to leave the narrow Dutch art climate behind and settles in Paris where he joins the avant-garde. Appel would never return to the Netherlands. Once he was in the Netherlands, he could never resist telling the Dutch how badly they had treated him at the start of his career, and he has maintained a complicated relationship with the Netherlands throughout his life.
Success begins to smile on Appel from 1952. In the years that follow, he has his own exhibition at the Palace of Fine Arts in Brussels, his work can be seen at the Biennale of Sao Paulo and Venice, at two Documentas in Kassel and in museums in Basel, New York, Brussels and Paris. In 1954 he had solo exhibitions in Paris and New York, the start of his international career. Traveling from studio to studio, Appel can develop without material worries. Since the 1960s, many exhibitions of his work have been organized in the United States. Eventually his fame also reached the Netherlands and in 1968 he got a solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
Around 1963 the warm colors and the expressionistic way of painting make way for a cooler working method. Colors are applied almost luminous and thinly and evenly in areas. Then, in the 1970s, the painterly character of his work becomes more important again. Appel then applies the paint thicker, with the different subjects in his depictions in a single colour. Appel continues to work and develop into old age. The older I get, the faster I renew. I live with élan and enthusiasm.'
According to art historian Willemijn Stokvis, Appel has 'plunged into the paint with total abandon, in order to generate a primal cry.' This approach is completely opposite to the method of Appel's world-famous Dutch contemporary Piet Mondriaan. Both represent two poles of the history of modern art, relating as the utmost mastery to the erupting spontaneity. Both searched for the primal source of creation, a quest that may form the basis for an important part of modern art. Mondriaan sought the primordial formula on which the construction of the cosmos is based; van Appel, one can say that he tried to awaken the creative impulse in himself with which that universe was supposed to have been made', says Willemijn Stokvis.
Appel worked until the very end. 'He who does not paint is dead,' he said. Even when he had serious heart problems, he kept going, painting while sitting if he had to. When even that became impossible, a piece of chalk and a sheet of paper was enough. Appel died in Zurich, where he lived. About the transience of earthly life he said: 'We are chained to this planet. Above that is the eternal space. The life and the color remain, the rest is mortal. That is the incomprehensible. And that's why I keep painting. To learn to understand that.”