Appel (Amsterdam 1921- Zurich 2006) was born in the Dapperstraat, Amsterdam. From an early age, Appel knew that he wanted to become a painter, encouraged by his uncle. From 1942 to 1944 he studied at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. Out of dissatisfaction with this career choice, his parents put him out on the street.
Afterwards, Appel was accused that he went to study during the German occupation and was friends with social socialist Ed Gerdes who also provided him with money through municipal funds. However, Appel did not feel connected to the Germans either. Art was a matter of the heart and political preferences were of little interest to him, as he later said. During that period Appel met Corneille. A little later he met Constant. An intense friendship developed that would last for many years. After the war, Appel traveled to Liège and Paris with Constant. The two also exhibited together.
The first to be positive about Appel's work were art critic H. Klinkenberg and the wealthy Liège collector Ernest van Zuylen, who purchased Appel's art every year. In 1946 Appel had his first solo exhibition at Het Beerenhuis in Groningen. A little later he took part in the exhibition Young Painters in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In the early days his work was inspired by work by George Breitner. During the Second World War, Appel began to paint more expressively, influenced by Van Gogh and the German Expressionists.
Since his visit to Paris with Corneille, Appel has been making benign and grotesque human and animal figures with large heads, constructed from monumental color areas in bright colors inspired by Picasso, Matisse and especially by the Art Brut of Jean Dubuffet. Contour lines and smaller shapes provide accents. Appel's early exuberant, playful and humorous Cobra work expresses the unbridled energy with which the artist painted. He worked quickly and directly, without thinking in advance what the artwork should ultimately look like.
Appel started 'sculpting' in 1947, after many conversations and visits to Carel Kneulman. On July 16, 1948, he founded the Experimental Group in Holland with Corneille and Constant, together with Anton Rooskens, Theo Wolvecamp and Jan Nieuwenhuys, Constant's brother. Tjeerd Hansma also joined the group for a while. The Belgian writer Hugo Claus joined later. The group's first publication contained a strongly left-oriented manifesto by Constant. Appel did not feel part of this, it was only about the art; "l'art for l'art". With some members they visit an international conference on avant-garde art in Paris, organized by surrealist colleagues. Some Danish, Dutch and Belgian artists found it too sectarian and founded the group Cobra themselves. 'CoBrA' is an abbreviation of Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam. Members of Cobra included Eugene Brands, Lucebert, Noiret, Corneille, Asger Jorn, Jacques Doucet. The joy of total spiritual and artistic freedom and spontaneity was to counterbalance the nightmare of war. The founders differed considerably in their ideas about the meaning of Cobra. “The point was that we wanted to understand each other in order to agree with each other,” says Asger Jorn. Cobra is now mainly associated with colorful, expressive-spontaneous painting that has had an influence for a long time.
In Denmark, Cobra's work was received favorably by the press, unlike here in the Netherlands. Newspapers talked about tampering, scrambling and cheating. De Bijenkorf did exhibit their work. To the surprise of the members, Cobra was given an exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1949, which turned into a scandal. Disappointed about this, Appel settled in Paris in 1950, where the same exhibition was much better received. Via Hugo Claus, with whom he had also created an illustrated collection of poems, Appel received a solo exhibition in the Palace of Fine Arts in Brussels in 1953, organized by Michel Tapié. As a painter, Appel was ultimately only involved with CoBrA for two years.
After the collapse of Cobra in 1951, Karel Appel started painting with increasingly thicker paint, impasto. His work became increasingly wild and apparently less controlled. Appel's international breakthrough began around 1953, when his work was shown at the São Paulo Biennale. In 1954 Appel had solo exhibitions in Paris and New York.In that time a made several wall paintings as well.
In addition to oil paintings, he makes ceramics, designs church windows and makes three-dimensional objects and reliefs from wood, aluminum and polyester. Solo exhibitions will follow in New York and Paris. The artist has achieved many successes and is recognized by museums, international art presentations and events. In 1955 he created an eighty-meter-long mural for the National Energy Manifestation
From 1957 onwards, Appel traveled regularly to New York where he was visited by a number of major dealers, museum directors and his new friends (including Sam Francis, Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning and Franz Kline) who were all impressed by the emotional charge of his paintings. He developed his own style, independently of others and was inspired, among other things, by Jazz. During this period he increasingly moved towards abstract expressionist art, although he continued to deny this.
The simplified form and the fact that Appel painted from gesture, heart and emotion make him an expressionist and related to the action painting of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Karel appel, however, never worked completely abstractly. There was always something recognizable and figurative in his work. The naivety of his formal language and the brutal manner in which he works show the influence of Jean Dubuffet throughout his career. Appel experimented with materials, shapes and techniques throughout his life and was exceptionally productive. You therefore do him a disservice with the label expressionist. Like many great painters, he is difficult to place. Appel, like other former members of the Cobra movement, has been wrongly associated with Cobra throughout his career, while his techniques and subjects have changed.
Around 1990, Appel had four studios, in New York, Connecticut, Monaco and Tuscany. He developed the experiments from New York in his other studios and the different light created work with the same themes with a unique character. He gave the impression of working like a man possessed, although he did take a lot of time to mix the paint in the right color. When the canvas was almost finished, he worked more slowly, eventually pressing only a single key or even omitting the final improvements. Appel always worked on one painting at a time. One of his statements was: 'I just mess around a bit. Nowadays I lay it on quite thickly, I throw the paint at it with brushes and putty knives and my bare hands, sometimes I throw whole pots on it at the same time.
The work with child creatures and fantasy animals gave rise to comments such as "I can do that too". Appel complemented the style of children's drawings with the style of African masks, but was daring and very innovative for that time. Later, Appel let go of the coherence of form and color. He worked with mostly black contour lines to indicate figures. Where contemporary Mondriaan worked with utmost control, his work is characterized by bursting spontaneity.
Without title, 1967, painted Styrofoam
© foto: Cobra Museum
There is a special museum dedicated to Cobra and Appel in Amstelveen. Painters such as Herman Brood, Fred Bervoets, Menno Baars and Jan Cremer were influenced by Appel and their work can also be seen there. Work by Appel himself also hangs in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Tate Gallery in London, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Appel was fiercely anti-elitist avant-garde and published his work in larger editions through lithographs.