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KAREL APPEL (1921-2006) The vibrant and rather forceful works of the internationally known Dutch artist, Karel Appel, have been displayed and well-received in major cities throughout the world. Born in Amsterdam in 1921, Appel had his first one-man show in 1949 when he exhibited with the “CoBrA” group (from the initials of the members’ home cities: Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam) at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. Since that time he has had one-man shows (including three major retrospectives) in New York, Amsterdam, Boston, London, Milan, Paris, San Francisco and Tokyo, and has participated in over 150 group shows throughout the world, including the Sao Paulo Biennale (Honorable Mention, 1953; Prize for painting, 1959), the Venice Biennale (UNESCO prize, 1954), Kassel’s Documenta III, the Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim Museum (Guggenheim International Award, 1960) in New York. Appel is also well known for his murals in Amsterdam, Paris, and particularly Brussels where he executed a mural for the Dutch Pavilion at the Worlds Fair in 1957.
Karel Appel helped to pioneer an unrestrained, physical style of painting in Europe in the period following World War II (after 1945). Appel’s work is distinguished by thick application of paint, violent colors, and vehement brush stroke combined with a sense of childlike naïveté. Appel studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam from 1940 to 1943. After the isolation and oppressive atmosphere of the war years (World War II, 1939-1945) in the Netherlands, Appel was drawn to the raw, expressive work of French artist Jean Dubuffet, whose primitive imagery and energetic style contrasted with the more formal, geometric work that was dominant in Europe at that time. Appel first aroused public interest in 1946, when he was included in an exhibition entitled Young Artists at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum.
In 1948, together with Dutch artist Corneille, Danish artist Asger Jorn, and Belgian artist Pierre Alechinsky, Appel helped form an experimental group called CoBrA. Finding inspiration in folk art, children’s drawings, and prehistoric art, CoBrA glorified instinct and opposed rigorously intellectual approaches to art, aims it held in common with a similar movement in the United States, abstract expressionism. In 1949 Appel was commissioned to paint a mural for the cafeteria of the Amsterdam City Hall. His response, a wildly colored painting of bitterly smiling children, so disturbed the employees who took their meals there that the City Council was pressured into ordering it covered over, despite protest by the artistic community. In 1950 Appel moved to Paris, France, where he became well known for his humorous, crude imagery and stormy painting style, seen in works such as Amorous Dance (1955, Tate Gallery, London, England).
Appel was awarded the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) prize at the Venice Biennale exhibition in 1954 and in 1960 was given first prize at the Guggenheim International exhibition. In the late 1960s, he began working with three-dimensional forms, producing, first, a series of large relief sculptures in painted wood and, later, brightly colored plastic reliefs and large-scale aluminum sculptures. In 1972 he began to live and work part of each year in New York City. His celebrated work Appel Circus (1976-1978) combines thirty color etchings with fifteen painted wooden sculptures. In 1982 he collaborated with American poet Allen Ginsberg on a colorful series of paintings and visual poems.
The CoBrA group, of which Appel was a member, rejected the academic tenets of the School of Paris in favor of a more destructive, primal aesthetic that was informed by the art of children and the art of the insane, as well as the “action painters” of Abstract Expressionism. In particular, Appel’s works are characterized by a restless vitality and what he called “kinetic thought” — the spontaneity of movement and creativity. As a member of CoBrA, Appel reacted against the austerity of earlier Dutch abstraction. Characterized by informal brush work, bright, bold color, and a slashing line, Appel’s paintings often possess a childlike quality. Examples of his work are in the Boymans-Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam. The leading figures were: Appel, Comeille (from Belgium) and Asger Jorn, the Dane. Pierre Alechinsky was of considerable importance in the group. The members were united by their desire for direct expression unguided by intellect. Appel puts on a series of fantastic masks, reminding us of the constantly shifting borderline between the hilarious and serious. The world of play is inseparable from the world of affairs, and Appel’s world of play erases the border between child and adult.