Karel Appel
Biography of Dutch Modernist Painter, Member of COBRA.

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Karel Appel (1921-2006)

Dutch abstract painter and muralist, Karel Appel worked in Paris most of his life. He was a founding member of the avant garde art group COBRA, which was active between 1949 and 1952, and a member of Art Informel. He is considered to be the most powerful of the post-war generation of Dutch abstract painters. Appel's work consists mainly of abstract paintings with bright colours, very active brushwork and heavy impastoed oil paint. He was inspired by Primitivism and Folk Art, as well as American Action Painting and Jackson Pollock (1912-56). One of Appel's most famous works is his 1951 mural which he painted for the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Stylewise, he is associated with the gestural painting of the Abstract Expressionist school, as his works are similar in style to his American counterpart William de Kooning (1904-97). He also explored book illustration, tapestry and stained glass. In addition, he also excelled at sculpture, ceramics, printmaking and design (eg. ballet sets). Although Appel was essentially a post-war modernist, he exerted a significant influence on contemporary art on the Continent, and its later derivative postmodernist art well into the 1980s.

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Early Art Career

Appel was born in Amsterdam in 1921. He studied art at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam between 1940 and 1943. In 1946 he had his first solo show in Groningen and a group exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum. His early influences at this time were the French painter and Assemblage pioneer Jean Dubuffet (1901-85), the Fauvist Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Many of Dubuffet's paintings are created with oil paint, impastoed and thickened with materials like sand, tar and straw. This gave his pictures an unusually thick and textured surface, which inspired Appel to take the same direction. In 1948 he joined the Netherlands Experiment Group, which metamorphosed the following year into the Cobra Group.


COBRA Art Movement

COBRA was one of the more international of modern art movements: the name derived from the initials of the members' home cities: Copenhagen (Co), Brussels (Br), Amsterdam (A). The other artists who established the group were: Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys (1920–2005), who would go onto become an important contributor towards Unitary Urbanism; Guillaume Cornelis van Beverloo (b.1922), better known by his pseudonym Corneille, who became one of the founding members of the REFLEX movement; Christian Dotremont (1922-79), who later became known for his painted poems which he called logograms; and Asger Jorn (1914–73), sculptor and ceramicist who was also a founding member of the Situationist International.

The Cobra movement was officially founded on the 8th November 1948 in the Cafe Notre-Dame, Paris. All six artists signed a manifesto declaring their belief in a complete freedom of colour, form, as well as an antipathy towards Surrealism. They wanted to break new ground in modernism, preferring to use more fantastic imagery. Although it was a short-lived movement, just less than three years, it rejuvenated modern art in the Netherlands. The COBRA artists painted directly and spontaneously. Like children they sought to apply paint to canvas without a pre-conceived plan, using fantastic colours and their imagination. They rebelled against traditional classical art and academies, and worked with all sorts of materials and mediums. They were inspired by artists like Joan Miro (1893-1983) and Paul Klee (1879-1940). Favourite subject matter included fantasy animals, birds, cats and dogs. They also drew inspiration from primitive art, Chinese calligraphy, mythology and folk art. As Corneille wrote 'We used everything and loved everything. We borrowed elements from children's drawings, folklore, Outsider art, negro masks, and Jackson Pollock's paintings...' The group held two major exhibitions, one in Amsterdam in 1949 and the other in Liege in 1951. The Amsterdam exhibition was held at the Stedelijk Museum, and Appel painted a few canvases for the show. After the Liege show, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, the group disbanded, although they remained friends and continued to collaborate on other projects.

Tachisme, Art Informel

Appel, along with other artists such as Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), Asger Jorn (1914-73), and Andre Lanskoy (1902-1976), were all part of the Tachisme movement. It was a French style of abstract painting, popular throughout the 1940s and 50s. It was seen as the European version of Abstract Expressionism. Tachisme, also known as Art Informel and Lyrical Abstraction, rejected geometric abstraction as lifeless and too passive. Instead, it favoured a more active and exuberant form of expression. Tachisme also rejected Cubism and was characterised by paint used straight from the tube, dripped and blobbed. Sometimes the artist would scribble in the manner of calligraphy. There was little structure or form to the method, hence the nickname 'Informal Art'.


Appel produced many paintings, including The Crying Crocodile Tries to Catch the Sun (1956, Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York). In this painting, his handling of paint is almost frenzied. Brushwork is completely uninhibited and there are drips, smears and stalactites of raw, brilliant colour. The impasto is so thick that it creates and reflects light and shadow on canvas. The artist wrote: "I never try to make a painting; it is a howl, it is naked, it is like a child, it is a caged tiger. . . . My tube is like a rocket writing its own space." Appel's use of thick black lines and paint is highly expressionistic, and is similar in its sculptural aspect to the thick impasto of Frank Auerbach (b.1931). As well as paintings, Appel also produced graphic works, sculptures, illustrations, tapestries, ceramics and stained glass. In 1949 he created a fresco for the Cafe of the City Hall in Amsterdam, which caused such a stir it was kept under wraps for a decade. After this he moved permanently to Paris.

International Fame

The 1950s was to be Appel's decade. During this period he exhibited widely, gained a number of prestigious prizes and firmly established a reputation as an international artist. Thus he received a solo exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1953; he was awarded the UNESCO Prize at the 1954 Venice Biennale; he gained the International Painting Prize at the Sao Paulo Bienal in 1959, and the Guggenheim International Award in 1960. He also enjoyed solo exhibitions at some of the best art museums in the world including the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He is now regarded as one of the great 20th century painters of the postwar period.

Karel Appel died in Zurich in 2006. A few years before his death he established the Karel Appel Foundation, with the purpose of preserving his artworks for the public.

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