Amsterdam 1921, Zürich 2006
Karel Appel was born Christiaan Karel Appel in Amsterdam on 25 April 1921. He was a versatile artist – a painter, sculptor, engraver, printmaker, ceramicist, lithographer and poet. At the age of fifteen, he learned how to paint impressionist landscapes from his uncle. He studied at the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam from 1942 to 1944, which is where he met the Dutch artist Corneille (1922-2010). Just like Corneille, Karel Appel would grow to become one of the key members of the Cobra movement. Appel quickly distanced himself from the traditional artistic concepts of the art school and threw himself into experimentation with new forms. This is reflected in his early work, which was heavily influenced by the cubist visual language of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Appel and Corneille decided to travel to Liege in 1946 and their work was exhibited there a year later. The two also visited Paris, where Appel was impressed by the work of Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), in which children and the mentally ill played important roles. Upon returning to the Netherlands, Appel came into contact, through Corneille, with the artist Constant (1920-2005). This trio exhibited in Amsterdam in 1948. Appel was constantly working on developing his own visual language, for which he drew a lot of inspiration from children’s drawings and primitive folk art. On 16 July 1948, Appel, Corneille and Constant founded the Experimentele Groep in Holland together with Anton Rooskens (1906-1976), Theo Wolvecamp (1925-1992), Jan Nieuwenhuijs (1922-1986) and Eugène Brands (1913-2002). The experimental poets Jan G. Elburg (1919-1992), Lucebert (1924-1994) and Gerrit Kouwenaar (1923-2014) joined later. The members of the Experimentele Groep in Holland made contact with similar groups from Denmark and Belgium. On 8 November of the same year, following a congress of surrealists in Paris, the Cobra art movement (1948-1951) was founded: an international movement of experimental working artists. Appel, Corneille and Constant were the co-founders together with Danish and Belgian artists. Appel was already distancing himself from the traditional concepts of art before his Cobra period and experimented with scrap materials, for example. He continued this urge for innovation during his Cobra period. This resulted in a direct and expressive way of working in which mythical animal and children’s creatures, bright, saturated colours, simple shapes and heavy, thick lines prevailed. He took part in the Cobra exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1949. He painted the bar here (now better known as the ‘Appel-bar’) in 1951 in an expressive and experimental way. In the meantime, he moved his studio to Paris, where he was influenced by the modern art movements of Art Brut (1948-1951), Art-Informel (1945-1960) and surrealism (peak between 1925-1940). This was echoed in his method; he painted more spontaneously and worked more freely inspired by the raw materials. Appel continued to experiment even after the dissolution of Cobra in 1951. He applied the paint increasingly thicker on the canvas and created powerful, thick overlapping lines and shapes. In addition to creating paintings, he also made sculptures, mostly consisting of painted, figurative reliefs out of scrap wood. Appel, clearly influenced by primitive folk art, was looking for an intrinsically spontaneous, experimental artistic expression in these assemblages. He decided to move to New York in the United States in 1957, which is where he came into contact with various jazz musicians. Their experimental approach to music appealed to him; in it, he saw he saw similarities with the Cobra ideology. Appel applied increasingly thick layers of paint – sometimes directly from the tube – to the canvas and sometimes modelled it with his hands. Appel’s work was exhibited at the São Paulo Biennial (1953) and from 1954 on he had major solo exhibitions in Paris and New York (Martha Jackson Gallery). To this day, Appel’s work is distributed internationally across many major museum and private collections.