May 21st 2017

Karel Appel in Context

by David Galenson

David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009).

Karel Appel was born in Amsterdam in 1921, the son of a barber in a poor neighborhood. As a child, he painted with his uncle, an amateur artist. In 1942, he entered Amsterdam’s Royal Academy of Visual Art. In 1947, he and a classmate, the painter Corneille, traveled together to Paris, where they discovered modern art.

In 1948, Appel and Corneille were among the founders of CoBrA. In 1949, Appel was commissioned to paint a mural for Amsterdam’s City Hall, but his effort was rejected, and covered over. In 1950, Appel went back to Paris, where he lived for most of the next three decades. He knew he had found his true home. Now, on the occasion of a donation of 21 of Appel’s works to the Musee Moderne de la Ville de Paris, his adopted home honors him with a retrospective exhibition.


Image courtesy Musee de l’Art Moderne de Ville de Paris

Karel Appel in 1961; image from the Jan Vrijman film “La réalité de Karel Appel.”

CoBrA’s brief life extended just three years. The movement is encapsulated in one of the first works in this exhibition, a small painting about two feet long. Asger Jorn began it by painting over a work by Richard Mortenson, then Appel, Constant, and Corneille added their own contributions. The painting has a shining yellow sun, a bright red moon, a small person with large hands and feet, and a variety of flying fish and buildings. The colors are exuberant and joyful, though patches of black show through from an underlying base.


Image courtesy Musee de l’Art Moderne de Ville de Paris

Karel Appel, “Petit Hip Hip Hourra” (1949).

Appel’s early works consistently exhibit this pattern, with the optimism of primitive forms reminiscent of children’s art, expressed in a rainbow of bright colors, overcoming a black background. We can imagine that this was an aesthetic self-portrait of a talented and free-spirited young artist who had come of age in northern Europe amidst the carnage of World War II. By the late ‘40s Hitler had been defeated, and in Paris Appel and his Dutch friends had discovered the innovations of modern art: yet even as they celebrated, the realities of a devastated Europe, and the continuing dour conservatism of their native Holland, remained ever present in their minds. In context, all Appel and Corneille wanted from CoBrA was the excitement of artistic discovery: they had initially founded it to escape from the dogmas of Surrealism, and they disbanded it to escape from the political agendas of other, more doctrinaire poets and painters. The title of this show – L’Art est une fete – is appropriate: Appel wanted art to be a party. Like many parties, however, Appel’s art was not mere revelry, but celebrated great victories, and revealed a deep personal symbolism he created as he worked, and lived.


Image courtesy Musee de l’Art Moderne de Ville de Paris

Karel Appel, “Danseurs de désert” (1954).

In the 1950s, Appel’s art approached abstraction. The French critic Michel Tapié recognized his kinship to Abstract Expressionism and Tachisme, and included him in an important 1957 exhibition titled Un art autre – Art of Another Kind – with his American and French relatives. Appel was seeking expression, like Pollock in New York and de Stael in Paris, and he found it in his own distinctive version of gestural painting, with heavy impasto created by squeezing oils straight from their tubes onto the canvas, as he worked to the bebop music of another brilliant young rebel, Dizzy Gillespie. A 1961 film shows Appel at work, attacking a huge canvas violently, large brushes in both hands. The process appears chaotic, but – like Pollock’s – the result is not. The finished work hangs nearby, visually resolved not only with the bright primary colors, but now with a white background pushing through gaps in the nascent forms.

Just as Europe had emerged from the aftermath of war, it seems that Appel had exorcised the demons of his own early life. His art can be seen as a lifelong festival, celebrating both society’s victories over the political evils of the mid-20th century, and his personal victory over the severe constraints that had surrounded an aspiring artist in the Holland of his youth. Like van Gogh and Mondrian before him, Karel Appel had found inspiration in Paris, and today in the vast rooms of the city’s modern art museum we can celebrate the beauty of his discoveries.



David Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA in Buenos Aires. He studies the life cycles of human creativity.

To contact Professor David Galenson: galenson@uchicago.edu.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "A blockchain company has bought a piece of Banksy artwork and burnt it. But instead of destroying the value of the art, they claim to have made it more valuable, because it was sold as a piece of blockchain art. The company behind the stunt, called Injective Protocol, bought the screen print from a New York gallery. They then live-streamed its burning on the Twitter account BurntBanksy. But why would anyone buy a piece of art just to burn it? Understanding the answer requires us to delve into the tricky world of blockchain or “NFT” art."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Exercise is good for your health at every age – and you can reap the benefits no matter how late in life you start. But our latest research has shown another benefit of being physically active throughout life. We found that in the US, people who were more physically active as teenagers and throughout adulthood had lower healthcare costs."
Mar 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although around one in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s still no cure, and no way to prevent the disease from progressing. But a recent study may bring us one step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s. The trial, which was conducted on animals, has found a specific molecule can prevent the buildup of a toxic protein known to cause Alzheimer’s in the brain."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "
Feb 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "In 2010 Carlos Rodriguez, the president of Buenos Aires' Universidad del CEMA, created the world's first - and only - Center for Creativity Economics.  During the next ten years, the CCE presented a number of short courses and seminars.  But the most important of its events was an annual lecture by an Argentine artist, who was given a Creative Career Award."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "It’s not hard to see why. Although AI systems outperform humans in tasks that are often associated with a “high level of intelligence” (playing chess, Go, or Jeopardy), they are nowhere close to excelling at tasks that humans can master with little to no training (such as understanding jokes). What we call “common sense” is actually a massive base of tacit knowledge – the cumulative effect of experiencing the world and learning about it since childhood. Coding common-sense knowledge and feeding it into AI systems is an unresolved challenge. Although AI will continue to solve some difficult problems, it is a long way from performing many tasks that children undertake as a matter of course."
Feb 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to being fit and healthy, we’re often reminded to aim to walk 10,000 steps per day. This can be a frustrating target to achieve, especially when we’re busy with work and other commitments. Most of us know by now that 10,000 steps is recommended everywhere as a target to achieve – and yet where did this number actually come from?"