Karel Appel

Artist who was a co-founder of the CoBrA movement


Karel Christiaan Appel, artist: born Amsterdam 25 April 1921; married; died Zurich, Switzerland 3 May 2006.

If there are people who can be fated by their names, then the artist Karel Appel may well have been among them. Appel - whose surname means "apple" in Dutch - pioneered a style of painting based on the drawings of children: a suggestion of rosy-cheeked innocence backed up by pictures with titles like Hiep, hiep, hoera! (1949).

A quick look at this work - it is in Tate Modern - shows something rather less Blyton-ish than its name (and that of its maker) suggests, however. A group of monstrous figures scrawled on a black background, Appel's canvas has more to do with serpents than with apples: a sense less of paradise than of paradise lost. This, too, seems to have been written in the stars. Hiep, hiep, hoera! was a defining work in the movement Appel helped create in Paris in the late 1940s, and which went by the name of CoBrA.

CoBrA - the acronym derived from the first letters of its founders' home towns of Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam - came into being in the ruins of post-war Europe. According to legend, it was born in the Café de l'Hôtel Notre Dame on the night of 8 November 1948, Appel co-ordinating the birth. Studying at the Royal Fine Arts Academy in Amsterdam under German occupation, he had found himself repelled by the rigidity of a previous generation of Dutch abstractionists that included Piet Mondrian. In 1946, Appel travelled to Denmark to meet Asger Jorn, a free-wheeling young follower of Kandinsky and Klee. The Dane joined the Dutchman in Paris two years later, thus providing CoBrA with both the first and last letters of its name and a taste for Jungian self-expression.

From a distance of 60 years, it is clear that Appel and Jorn's supranational baby was a response to the nationalism which had laid their countries waste; CoBrA was, as it were, an artistic European Free Trade Area. Like Efta, it was also intently anti-American. By the late 1940s, New York School abstraction, peddled by Clement Greenberg, had become the dominant movement in contemporary art worldwide. Appel was unimpressed by what he saw as the shallow spontaneity of Pollock's action painting, and set about beefing it up with a Surrealist infusion of insanity and illogic.

It was this that led to his interest in children's drawings, and to Hiep, hiep, hoera! Appel, ominously, called children "people of the night": "the child in man is all that's strongest, most receptive, most open and unpredictable," he said, referring to his own working method - paint squeezed straight onto canvas from the tube or rubbed on by hand - as "play". (Animals, folklore and the art of the mad also featured heavily in CoBrA iconography.) Anticipating Arte Povera by 20 years, Appel began to make artworks from junk - assemblages he called poubelles ("dustbins") and which showed a deeply un-American interest in social issues and Marxist theory.

While this played well enough in Paris, it was less of a hit back home. Wearied by war and suspicious of Communism, Appel's countrymen did not take him to their hearts. In 1949, he was commissioned to paint a mural for the cafeteria of Amsterdam's city hall. Given the title Vragende Kinderen - the term can mean either "questioning children" or "begging children" - Appel's work caused an uproar. Where the artist saw openness and unpredictability, Dutch civil servants saw violence and rickets; things they had known all too well in the war, and of which they had no wish to be reminded. The mural was quickly whitewashed over, and remained so for 20 years. Appel, furious, moved to France, eventually settling in a ruined château near Auxerres.

By 1952, CoBrA's members had gone their seperate ways, although Appel took the demise of his brain- child philosophically. Artists, he said, weren't born to be in groups, and he set about reinventing his own career with extraordinary passion.

In 1950, he had visited the great International Exhibition of Psychopathological Art at the Sainte-Anne asylum in Paris: the ink and gouache drawings he doodled on his copy of the catalogue have made it, in reproduction, one of the most sought-after artists' books of our time. In 1961, he composed the music to a film about himself by the Dutch cinematographer Jan Vrijman: his Musique Barbare is as uncompromising as its name suggests. Later, Appel would record more conventional compositions with the jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, and paint portraits of Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Miles Davis.

Turning his back on France, he took to spending six months a year in a house near Florence and the other six in New York. There, he branched out into sculpture, making large-scale reliefs first in painted wood - his "Appel Circus" works are the best known - and then in brightly coloured polyester and, later, aluminium. In the early 1980s, he collaborated with Allen Ginsberg on a series of visual poems, the men sharing a dual enthusiasm for insanity and jazz. A second series followed in the early 1990s, during which period Appel also took up painting opera sets and Tuscan landscapes. By this time he had become a jovial grand old man of art, having won everything from the Venice Biennale's Unesco Prize to the Nîmes Film Festival's Crocodile d'Or and looking more and more like the older Rembrandt.

To his great pleasure, he was also finally recognised as a prophet in his own land. In 2001, on Appel's 80th birthday, he unveiled a large bronze sculpture called Frog with Umbrella in The Hague; Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, a fan, awarded him the Order of the Lion, the equivalent of a knighthood.

Hearing of the artist's death, the Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, called Appel "an icon of our visual art". "He may not always have been understood by everyone, but he drew vast numbers of admirers," noted the tactful premier. That is certainly true. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Appel single-handedly shook Dutch painting from its post-war stupor, and that his spirit informs the work of Dutch artists a quarter of his age.

Charles Darwent

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